SUPERGUIDE: what you must know before choosing a mobile network broadband plan

Online Editor’s note: APC reader Paul Wright lives in Portland VIC where there’s no ADSL2+. Until recently Telstra-based ADSL was his only broadband option and had a maximum speed of 1.5Mbit/s. As a result he has been “forced to investigate every possible option for mobile broadband”.

He is a self-confessed mobile internet junkie and has bought an “embarrassing number” of different cards tried out all the providers and put devices through every imaginable usage scenario in the quest to find the perfect combination of price speed coverage and compatibility.

He has been in touch with APC many times over the years with useful tips about wireless broadband so we thought there would be no better person to write our superguide on the state of play in the wireless broadband industry.

– Dan Warne


There are four mobile networks offering wireless broadband in Australia: Three Vodafone Optus and Telstra.

All four run mobile networks on either the 2100MHz or 850MHz radio frequencies using the same High Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) wireless broadband standard and have similar modems and devices on offer — typically a PCMCIA card an ExpressCard and a mini-sized USB modem of some sort.

But choosing between them is difficult. Each provider has numerous plans and even numerous virtual services within their network.

For example Telstra offers mobile broadband under the Telstra Mobile brand as well as through BigPond — with different prices and terms.

Three offers sweet-priced wireless broadband deals through its X-Series mobile handsets but also offers a separate wireless broadband service for laptop users with different pricing.

And the Optus-owned Virgin Mobile offers a very good value plan while Optus’ own service (on the exact same network) is substantially more expensive.

So how do you choose between them?

Coverage

Telstra’s NextG network might be expensive but it has more than double the population coverage of the other three networks and on a square kilometre scale is tens of times larger. Geographically it’s actually the largest HSDPA network in the world.

When you’re connected to Three for wireless broadband you’re really using Three and Telstra’s shared 3G network (separate to the NextG network) and Telstra’s 2G network for the other 50% of Australia’s coverage.

Because there is a cost to Three (and to you) each time you roam to Telstra’s 2G network Three does not (officially) accept customer signups if the person trying to connect does not both live and work in Three’s own 3G coverage zones.

Optus and Vodafone also share a 3G network though the nature of their sharing is interesting: they transmit from the same tower locations and antennae but they have the ability to transmit different signals. As a result while the Optus and Vodafone services have similar coverage their services are subtly different. Additionally the HSDPA coverage of both networks is separate — they are not cooperating with each other on that and in fact Optus is currently building a separate HSDPA network that will compete on a coverage basis with Telstra Next G (but won’t be switched on for a couple of years.)

Speed

Telstra’s NextG network is 100% HSDPA — not a mix of 2G/3G/HSDPA like Optus/Vodafone’s networks. This is important because HSDPA is several times faster then any other mobile wireless broadband system on a mobile phone network and has a web browsing feel and download speed comparable to a 1500/256k ADSL connection with slightly higher latency.

HSDPA is possibly the first time that mobile networks have been able to offer a data service that really feels like broadband: web surfing at broadband speeds fast receiving of large email attachments and downloads of service packs and other files at speeds rivalling a home ADSL connection.

So the message here is that you really want to get connected to a network with the broadest HSDPA coverage possible which at this point is certainly Telstra NextG. The question is just whether you can justify the expense; the big T knows it has the best network by far and is charging accordingly.

There are still places you won’t get NextG reception simply because it’s a young network and Telstra is still actively fine-tuning it. Many CBD buildings have mini mobile base stations in the celiings for example but most are still only connected to Telstra’s 2G network so even if you’re in a NextG coverage area there’s a chance you’ll stlil connect to Telstra 2G.

Why do I mention this? Because Telstra also has the fastest national 2G network which runs both EDGE and GPRS while Optus and Vodafone only do the slower GPRS standard (sub-dialup speed) on their 2G cells.

 

Network Actual speed* EDGE GPRS
Telstra NextG (Telstra Mobile & Bigpond) 3.6Mbit/s (Network Capable of 14.4Mbit/b; 7.2Mbit/s on clients by firmware upgrade planned later this year) Yes Yes
Vodafone 3G 384Kbit/s 3G; 3.6Mbit/s HSDPA in limited areas No Yes
Three 3G 3.6Mbit/s HSDPA across own network coverage areas Yes (Roaming Charges apply) Yes (Roaming Charges apply)
Optus 3G 384Kbit/s 3.6Mbit/s soon in limited areas initially No Yes

Do the many acronyms used in wireless broadband make your head spin? Here they are broken down:

Network Typical download speed Typical upload speed Typical latency
HSDPA (3.5G) 500 – 1500 Kbit/s 300 Kbit/s 80 – 120ms
UMTS (3G) 150 – 300 Kbit/s 64 Kbit/s (384Kbit/s on Optus) 120 – 1500ms
EDGE (2.5G) 100 – 150 Kbit/s 80 Kbit/s 200 – 1500ms
GPRS (2G) 20 – 50 Kbit/s 20 Kbit/s 800 – 2500ms

Navigate the superguide

Mobile networks compared

Mobile broadband plans compared

Other tips