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Blog, Telecommunications - Written by Renai LeMay on Monday, May 7, 2012 12:06 - 154 Comments
4G faster than the NBN? I don’t think so
blog Today’s dose of National Broadband Network-related FUD comes from the West Australian newspaper, which has done some testing of Telstra’s 4G mobile broadband network in Perth and come to the conclusion that “Wireless 4G leaves NBN in its wake”. Riiiiight.
The newspaper reports (we encourage you to click through and read the whole ridiculous article):
“A new wave of 4G wireless broadband networks will eclipse the speed of some fibre plans before the National Broadband Network even rolls through Perth streets. Testing of Telstra’s 4G long-term evolution network in Perth, which is limited to areas close to the CBD, clocked average download speeds exceeding most ADSL2+ connections – and treble the speed of the cheapest NBN plan in one location.”
Now on paper, there might appear to be some truth to the idea that Telstra’s 4G network might be faster than some NBN plans. Delimiter’s been testing Telstra’s 4G network as well (in Sydney), and speeds higher than the NBN’s entry-level 12Mbps plans are not unusual. As the West Australian notes, it’s possibly to get anywhere up to 20Mbps or so on the fledgling wireless network, and peak speeds can even range higher than the next NBN speed tier, 25Mbps.
But what the article fails to mention (and you can’t blame them really, it’s not as if they had time to research the matter … wait, yes they did) is that these are not the sorts of speeds which you can consistently expect from Telstra’s network on a day in, day out basis. Our testing of the network showed wild variability between locations. If you travel from Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs through to the North Shore and then out to North Ryde, you will get high speeds in several locations, but in other locations the network will be much more highly congested, and you’ll count yourself very lucky to get speeds anywhere near as fast as an ADSL connection (most people on ADSL get lower than 16Mbps or so).
As new smartphones launch on Telstra’s 4G network and the company sells more mobile broadband connections (there are currently only a little over 100,000 connections on the 4G network, compared to 13.2 million on its 3G network), it will get harder and harder to achieve even ADSL-like speeds through the company’s wireless infrastructure, even as it keeps on upgrading the theoretical speeds available through its cell towers.
We’re already seeing this impact on Telstra’s 3G network, which is still suffering congestion problems in CBD areas. In fact, the rollout of Telstra’s 4G network, which sits side by side with its 3G network, is partially designed to alleviate these sorts of problems in the long-term, by shifting heavy 3G users onto the new 4G infrastructure.
In addition, the speeds which you can achieve on Telstra’s Next G network are also not consistent. Even during the one usage session, you’ll see wildly variable speeds through 4G. If you’re trying to download a large file in the middle of the night, you’ll probably get OK speeds from wireless infrastructure. During rush hour, or if a few extra people start streaming YouTube simultaneously for some reason, your experience won’t be the same. Hence the nebulous term “up to”, when talking about wireless broadband speeds.
In comparison, the NBN will not suffer these kinds of congestion issues or variability issues, as it uses a fundamentally different kind of technology — fibre-optic cable — which, practically speaking, has very few bandwidth limitations, at least for the foreseeable future. When Telstra says download speeds on its 4G network range “from 2Mbps to 40Mbps”, it means real-world speeds will be anywhere in that area. When NBN Co says 25Mbps, it means … actually 25Mbps, all the time, no matter how many other people are using the network.
In addition, although some service providers will offer 12Mbps speeds under the NBN’s fibre, I expect most customers will actually take up faster-speed plans — 25Mbps or 50Mbps — as these will be the plans that will allow them to more fully take advantage of the NBN’s fibre-optic cables. What this means in practice is that most people will see minimum speeds on the NBN which are at least equal to or better than the current maximum speeds available on Telstra’s 4G network.
But wait, just how wrong can the West Australian be? If you look at the slightly longer term, it can be very wrong indeed.
Sure, Telstra’s 4G network will eventually achieve faster and faster speeds, as the network infrastructure is upgraded and wireless technology becomes better. However, the long-term future for the NBN is even better than that of Telstra’s 4G network. Long-term, the NBN can be upgraded to support gigabit speeds. That is, 1000Mbps or similar. Will Telstra’s 4G network ever offer gigabit per second speeds? Not in the foreseeable future. Right now, it will be a very hard ask even to get it to do something a tenth that speed over the next decade or so — 100Mbps. And that’s still a theoretical peak speed, not the consistent throughput which the NBN will offer.
In this context, I feel the only appropriate headline for the West Australian’s article might be something rather the opposite of what it wrote. Maybe something like NBN leaves wireless 4G in its wake? But then, that would be factually accurate; an attribute which most Australian media outlets don’t seem capable of applying to their coverage of the NBN.
Image credit: Telstra
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