opinion Over the past week, I’ve been conducting a little experiment with respect to my household broadband situation.
As you may recall, I am currently in the process of dumping our Voice over IP-based home telephone in favour of getting a traditional fixed-line PSTN connection switched on. This has meant that iiNet has had to ‘downgrade’ our home broadband connection from naked DSL to a normal ADSL2+ connection, so our broadband has been down for a week.
Because of our lack of a fixed connection, over the past week I have been testing the hypothesis that it’s possible to replace a fixed broadband connection with a wireless one for residential use. Astute observers amongst you will note that this topic has been the theme of a thousand angry discussions between National Broadband Network supporters and opponents over the past few years, fuelled by constant commentary by the Opposition that wireless technologies might eventually make the NBN obsolete.
After hundreds of candid photographs of Malcolm Turnbull carrying his treasured iPad around the well-heeled streets of Wentworth, we’ve got the point. The Coalition – and many other people – think wireless may be the future of Australian broadband.
Now, I haven’t just used any wireless network to test this theory. I currently have in my hot little hands one of Telstra’s flash new Elite Mobile Wi-Fi devices, which has already been garnering stellar reviews. On paper this little beastie supports speeds up to 21Mbps. Coupled with Telstra’s stellar Next G network, this should deliver one of the fastest commercial 3G mobile connections in the world (look out for our longer review later this week).
In addition, my household is not just any household when it comes to broadband usage.
In our house we have no less than four computers between two people – I have a Windows 7 gaming machine, there is an Ubuntu media centre box in the loungeroom, and my wife and I have a MacBook each as well as iPhones connected to Wi-Fi. We are both what might be classed as high-octane users – not only do we use the internet constantly for browsing, email and social media, but we also watch online HD video constantly through places like YouTube and the ABC’s iView, as well as pulling down sizable downloads (I just grabbed the latest version of Ubuntu, for example, and my Steam addiction is well documented).
I also play video games nightly – normally StarCraft II is my passion, and I play Terran. Death to the Swarm!
The result over that period has been mixed.
Firstly, it is a simple and obvious fact that a modern Australian household with moderate internet usage needs such as web browsing, email, social networking and some multimedia usage will easily be able to satisfy all of those needs through a 3G mobile connection. On a day to day basis (and note that I’m discussing the user experience here, not the ‘speeds and feeds’ situation), I noticed very little difference between using my normal iiNet ADSL2+ fixed broadband connection, and Telstra’s Next G network through the Elite Mobile Wi-Fi modem.
For several days last week, I conducted most of my daily business of researching, writing and uploading stories, communicating with people online and entertaining myself through browsing Reddit, all through Telstra’s Next G connection. And most of the time I completely forgot I was on wireless and not on fixed broadband. Er … Telstra … this test account may have racked up quite some quota. Sorry
Now, as you would expect, there were several important exceptions to this rule.
The first one relates to video. I regularly watch HD-quality video of StarCraft II matches broadcast online from GomTV in Korea or via YouTube (or anime on CrunchyRoll), and quite frankly, the Telstra wireless connection was really not up to this task. Sure, you can do standard definition video OK, but when you’re attempting to watch streaming video on a large flatscreen TV or even a 24” monitor, you need at least 720p HD quality — I normally go for 1080p — and Next G was not always up to this.
The connection would stutter, I would spend several minutes buffering the video before playing it for a minute and then buffering again; and streaming HD video also slowed down everything else happening over the broadband connection. This didn’t always happen — sometimes, especially with iView, the experience was fine — but overall it was inconsistent and the experience was unsatisfactory.
The second problem relates to online gaming.
On Next G I experienced problems even trying to get Blizzard’s login system to connect reliably to its Battle.Net server in the US or Singapore – let alone trying to play StarCraft II. Dropped connections, loading screens that took forever … it was a nightmare. It was a similar situation several times when I tried to log in to the Steam platform to play Portal 2. I wasn’t even trying to play multiplayer, but Steam hung several times when it tried to authenticate me online … in the end I gave up and went in to the office to use the fixed broadband connection there to hang with the lovely GLaDOS.
Sure, Steam isn’t supposed to need you to login online to play single player games … but in this case it seemed to have got suck midway between online and offline, packets stranded somewhere between my PC and Telstra’s mobile phone tower, when it didn’t need to. You can use it offline, but Steam is clearly designed for PCs with fixed broadband.
So what am I trying to say here?
The truth is, that if you’re a moderate to light internet user, 3G mobile broadband is a pretty good option. You won’t notice the difference between Next G (we’re not sure about the networks of Optus or Vodafone; your mileage may vary) and a fixed ADSL or HFC cable connection if all you’re doing is browsing the web, using email, chatting online and so on.
But the minute – and we mean this, the minute – that you start to enter into heavy internet use; video, video gaming and so on, 3G becomes second class and you will enter what we like to call “the World Wide Wait”.
Right now, I actually have three Telstra Next G connections; the one with the Elite Mobile Wi-Fi unit I am reviewing, my normal Next G USB modem, and my iPhone 4’s tethering feature. All three helped me get through the past week.
However, this afternoon I spoke with a nice gentleman at iiNet, who informed me my ADSL2+ would be back online some time tomorrow morning. For this HD video happy online gamer, stuck in a wireless wasteland for the past week … the return to fixed broadband couldn’t come soon enough.