The free Wi-Fi offered by Queensland Rail to Brisbane commuters is one of the more generous options available in Australia, but how well does it perform in practice? Road Worrier decided to find out.
The Queensland Rail offer isn't the only free public transport Wi-Fi deal in Australia. Sydney Ferries has free coverage, and there have been smaller scale trials in Adelaide, Queensland and Sydney. However, for system-wide scope, the Brisbane deal takes some beating.
The service has been running since mid-2011, though it had been promised as far back as 2009. I've been tracking the service closely, and even once did tests to work out if leeching free Wi-Fi in the CBD would be more effective (answer: no). However, the tail end of my recent Queensland trip represented my first chance to actually test the service.
Planning to do that is slightly challenging. There's no promise that any given train will include Wi-Fi; you can't be sure until you're actually on the train and see a sticker indicating the service is availble. I got lucky and had a Wi-Fi equipped carriage for a trip from Nerang (on the Gold Coast) to central Brisbane, which is one of the longer journeys on the line. (Gold Coast trains continue to the airport, but that's no guarantee that you'll have Wi-Fi; my train to the airport later that weekend was Wi-Fi free.)
The other major restriction is that you only have a 20MB download limit. That's easy to burn through quickly (especially if you're running speed tests). Once you've reached the limit, you can't connect from the same device for another four hours. The restriction is device-specific, however, so there would be nothing to stop you switching between your phone, your tablet and your computer in the course of a journey.
Like most public Wi-Fi services, there are content restrictions in place and you can't use FTP or peer-to-peer connections. You also can't connect via a VPN, which might be a problem if your workplace demands them. The most interesting aspect of the content rules is that it also cuts quite a lot of advertising. For instance, some ads popping up on Flickr were blocked:
That might be seen as due to content, but the restrictions even extend to the ads in the Starter edition of Microsoft Office, which in my experience never feature anything other than the product itself:
With all that said, the biggest factor in usability turns out to be speed. As you'd expect, this varies widely depending on your location. The fastest download speed I saw was 5.35Mbps, which is very acceptable; the lowest was 0.77Mbps, which is grimmer but still usable. Upload speeds tended to hover around 0.5Mbps. (I didn't calculate averages because that's effectively meaningless in a fast-moving train.)
With 3G and 4G smartphones and hotspots more common, fewer people need to rely on free on-train Wi-Fi, and part of me wouldn't be surprised to see the service axed in Queensland's austere economic climate. However, it's a welcome bonus if you do get to use it.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman was sadly not altogether surprised when two very drunk women boarded a 5:30pm train at Helensvale. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.