Melbourne 4G Shootout: The 3G Reality

Optus officially launched 4G services in Melbourne last Saturday, providing a rival to Telstra’s existing service just ahead of an expected flooding of those networks with 4G-equipped iPhone 5s. Comparing the performance of those services generates some interesting numbers, but just what should you compare?

Picture by Adam Sellwood

Last week, I wrote a brief post comparing the mobile broadband performance at Sydney Airport Terminal T2. As it happened, on the day I did the testing, my Telstra 4G hotspot couldn’t find any 4G services (even though the airport was one of the first locations covered in Australia when Telstra launched), and so “failed over” to the 3G network. Optus’ device could find the Optus 4G network, so I reported the numbers from each.

That led to several readers saying my comparison was misleading and wasn’t a real-world test. Similar objections were raised when I compared the recently updated 4G networks in Sydney train tunnels, where my Telstra device found 4G on a northbound trip but not on a southbound one.

Asking for an “apples to apples” comparison might be accurate in a purely technical sense, but to my mind it doesn’t reflect a much more important point: service availability and how these products are actually used. No-one buys a 4G hotspot to use purely with a 4G network, because we aren’t even close to having universal availability of 4G. Telstra has much broader coverage than Optus right now, but even it only claims to cover 40 per cent of the population. Anyone using a 4G device will end up on 3G a lot of the time, even when they’re in the same locations. Part of the reason telcos have deployed 4G is to reduce 3G network saturation, but that doesn’t guarantee 4G all the time.

Equally, if you have invested in 4G, you want higher speeds whenever possible. So it’s worth knowing exactly what speeds you’ll get, as well as running real-world checks on whether coverage maps reflect reality.

Nonetheless, for the sake of argument, I ran 4G-only tests in the one location I encountered on a trip yesterday across Melbourne that actually offered 4G from both providers: Southern Cross Station. I checked when I landed at Melbourne Airport, but (as expected) Optus isn’t offering 4G there. I checked in the south-eastern suburbs where I’m staying, which is on the very edge of Optus’ 4G coverage map, but got 3G for both Optus and Telstra.

Even Southern Cross, right in the heart of the CBD, was a challenge. At the northern end of the station, I could only scare up 3G on the Telstra hotspot. Further south, both had 4G, so that’s what I tested. The result was a convincing victory for Optus in terms of download speeds. (For download and upload speeds, higher is better; for ping scores, lower is better.)

Provider Ping (ms) Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps)
Telstra 58 1.09 1.46
Optus 73 11.33 1.16

It’s worth pointing out that those 4G download speeds from Telstra are slower than the DC-HSPA+ speeds I saw from it in Sydney the week before. A weak connection to 4G won’t work as well as a solid connection to 3G.

To forestall another argument: yes, Optus’ network is much newer and has fewer customers, so logically you might assume there be less demand and hence higher speeds. But that won’t always be the case either. When I ran tests on Optus’ trial network in the Hunter Valley earlier this year, Telstra still came out with faster speeds even though it was a full commercial network, while Optus’ was only being used by a small group of testers. That underscores a key reason to do testing: to see if the assumptions made about network performance are actually valid in specific contexts.

I’m in Melbourne for some time, so I will do some more testing to satisfy my own curiosity. But the big lesson of all the 4G testing I’ve been doing recently, the first tests in Melbourne included, is already clear: 4G networks can offer a significant speed increase, but it’s not guaranteed. As with any mobile network, you’ll see variable performance based on location, time of day, weather, the number of people around and other factors. Remember you pay extra for 4G hardware, but not for the actual connection. That’s not surprising: if payments were based purely on having 4G available, it would be a very tough sell.

Under the circumstances, having a 4G-capable device remains preferable to having one that’s 3G only. You’re already competing with hundreds of thousands of people for 4G, but with millions for 3G. Just don’t buy one on the assumption that you’ll always see 4G. You won’t.

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