I’ve never had much luck with Internet speeds. That’s probably because unlike most of my geek brethren I always seemingly forget to check the distance to the nearest exchange from the place I was looking to rent or purchase, something which is now top of my list. Heck even my parents who live in a rural area outside Canberra manage to get better speeds than me thanks to their short distance to their exchange, even though my line of sight distance is almost equal to theirs. It’s still a worlds away from the dial up that I used to make do with but I know there’s a whole other world of faster speeds out there that are just tantalizingly out of reach for me.
At the top of the list is the the holy grail of Internet connections in Australia: the National Broadband Network. Whilst it might be in the realms of fairy tales and unicorns for most people in Australia I know a couple people who’ve managed to get themselves on the service thanks to being in the right place at the right time. From what they tell me its everything that its marketed to be with extremely fast speeds that aren’t dependent on distance from exchange, the modem your using or how much your hardware likes you on a particular day. Unfortunately short of moving into a location that has it already (there are quite a few now, but they’re still the minority) the wait for it is going to be quite long.
There is one technology that is available today that can deliver some pretty impressive speeds so long as your’re within range of a city CBD. The tech I am referring to is, of course, 4G wireless.
Now if you’ve been here for a while I’d forgive you for thinking that I wasn’t a big fan of the whole 4G idea especially when its mentioned in the same breath as the NBN. It is true that I believe they’re solutions to different problems but just as the underlying technology alludes to (Long Term Evolution, or LTE, if you were wondering) I do believe that it is the future of wireless communications. Unfortunately I don’t believe that the wireless network would be capable of supporting all the Internet requirements of Australians even if the specification is theoretically capable of it. It certainly has its place though, however.
As part of my new position with Dell I was given a laptop for accessing the corporate network but the site I’m currently attending doesn’t have an unfettered connection for me to use in order to do so. Initially I was just tethering to my phone as I have a pretty decent data plan (1.5GB/month) that barely ever gets close to being used and for the most part it worked well. However should I pick up my phone to go somewhere or if my S2 was having a particularly bad day I’d lose the connection, dropping anything that required to be always on (like the VPN). Frustrated I decided to grab myself a wireless broadband dongle and for a cool $130 I got myself a 4G one that had 3GB for the first month.
It’s a rather tiny device resembling an overgrown USB stick (and it in fact has a USB stick in it as well for driver installation, pretty neat) so you can imagine I was slightly sceptical about its capabilities to deliver true 4G speeds with such a small antenna. The signal in the area where I’ve used it the most isn’t particularly fantastic either and I was relegated to the NextG network, which is still not bad by mobile broadband standards. However over the weekend I was up in the middle of Sydney on the 11th floor of a hotel in Darling Harbor and I was privy to full bars of signal strength on the 4G network. So like any self respecting geek I gave it what for.
And boy did it ever deliver.
For regular web browsing the difference wasn’t particularly noticeable but I did see something when I opened up Steam on my laptop to try and get a game configured. The download speed I saw was about 2 MB/second and I figured it was just updating from the cache. It in fact wasn’t and was downloading at those blazing speeds right over the wireless broadband. To put that in perspective that kind of speed is about 4 times what I get regularly at home and I wasn’t even trying to stress the connection fully. In hindsight I should’ve done a speed test just to show you what it was theoretically capable of but just simple Steam download test seemed sufficient enough to prove its value.
Unfortunately I feel that the ludicrous speeds I saw are a product of the lack of usage at the moment. Currently there are only a handful of 4G handsets capable of being used in Telstra’s network and the $130 dongle looks quite expensive next to the $30 3G dongle that’d do the job for pretty much everyone. Whether the 4G network is capable scaling up to the same level of demand that the 3G networks currently have is a question that won’t be answered until 4G reaches a similar level of penetration that 3G has today. With the rapid pace of handset development that could come much sooner than you think and 4G services might become much more commonplace sooner rather than later.
So I’m sold on the tablet idea. After resisting it since Apple started popularizing it with the iPad I’ve finally started to find myself thinking about numerous use cases where a tablet would be far more appropriate than my current solutions. Most recently it was after turning off my main PC and sitting down to watch some TV shows, realizing that I had forgotten to set up some required downloads before doing so. Sure I could do them using the diNovo Mini keyboard but it’s not really designed for more than logging in and typing in the occasional web address. Thinking that I’d either now have to power my PC or laptop on I lamented that I didn’t have a tablet that I could RDP into the box with and set up the downloads whilst lazing on the couch. Thankfully it looks like my tablet of choice, a wifi only Xoom, can be shipped to Australia via Amazon so I’ll be ordering one of them very soon.
Initially I thought I’d go for one of the top of the line models with all the bells and whistles, most notably a 3G/4G connection. That was mostly just for geek cred since whenever I’m buying gadgets I like to get the best that’s on offer at the time (as long as the price isn’t completely ludicrous). After a while though I started to have a think about my particular use patterns and I struggled to find a time where I’d want to use a tablet and be bereft of a WiFi connection, either through an access point or tethered to my phone. There’s also the consideration of price with all non-cellular tablets is usually quite a bit cheaper, on the order of $200 with the Xoom. It then got me thinking, what exactly is the use case for a tablet with a cellular connection?
The scenarios I picture go something along these lines. You’re out and about, somewhere that has mobile phone reception, but you don’t have your phone on you (or one not capable of tethering) and you’re no where near a WiFi access point. Now the possibility of having mobile phone reception but no WiFi is a pretty common event, especially here in Australia, but the other side to that potential situation is you either can’t tether to your mobile phone because its not capable or you don’t have it on you. Couple that with the fact that you’re going to have to pay for yet another data plan just for your new tablet then you’ve really lost me as to why you’d bother with a tablet that has cellular connectivity.
If your reason for getting cellular connectivity is that you want to use it when you don’t have access to a WiFi hard point then I could only recommend it if you have a phone that can’t tether to other devices (although I’d struggle to find one today, heck even my RAZR was able to do it). However, if I may make a sweeping statement, I’d assume that since you’ve bought a tablet you already have a smart phone which is quite capable of tethering, even if the carrier charges you a little more for it (which is uncommon and usually cheaper than a separate data plan). The only real reason to have it is for when you have your tablet but not your phone, a situation I’d be hard pressed to find myself in and not be within range of an access point.
In fact most of the uses I can come up with for a tablet device actually require them to be on some kind of wireless network as they make a fitting interface device to my larger PCs with all the functions that could be done on cellular networks aptly covered off by a smartphone. Sure they might be more usable for quite a lot of activities but they’re quite a lot more cumbersome than something that can fit into my pocket and rarely do I find myself needing functionality above that of the phone but below that of a fully fledged PC. This is why I was initially skeptical of the tablet movement as the use cases were already aptly covered by current generation devices. It seems there’s quite a market for transitional devices however.
Still since nearly every manufacturer is making both cellular and wireless only tablets there’s got to be something to it, even if I can’t figure it out. There’s a lot to be said about the convenience factor and I’m sure a lot of people are willing to pay the extra just to make sure they can always use their device wherever they are but I, for one, can’t seem to get a grip on it. So I’ll put it out to the wisdom of the crowd: what are your use cases for a cellular enabled tablet?
Telstra was a brilliant example of why natural monopolies should never be put in the hands of private share holders. Whilst the situation has improved quite dramatically over the past decade thanks to strict regulation and enhanced competition we’re still suffering a few headaches of not jumping on the broadband bus earlier than we should have. Still though the Australian government is being no slouch when it comes to charging forward into the future with the National Broadband Network which, if fully implemented, will see Australia able to count themselves amongst the top tier of Internet enabled nations. Still with the high cost and long implementation timeline many are looking at alternatives that can provide similar benefits, and the first place they turn to is wireless.
Today the issue was brought into the spotlight again as Telstra announced their plans to do a nation wide rollout of 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless broadband services. The comparisons to the NBN flowed thick and fast, with many questioning the benefits of having both:
Telstra will significantly upgrade its mobile network to take advantage of fast 4G technology that will allow users to obtain speeds similar to home broadband connections while on the go.
The announcement comes on the back of a government-commissioned report warning uptake to its $36 billion network could be stifled by wireless technologies.
Long time readers will know I’ve touched on this issue briefly in the past after having a few long conversations with fellow IT workers over the NBN. On a pure theoretical level 4G wins out simply because you get similar speeds without having to invest in a large scale fiber network and you get the speeds wherever you have coverage. The problem is whilst the 4G specification does make provisions for such high speeds there’s a lot of caveats around being able to deliver it at that level, and they’re not all just about signal strength.
Upgrading the current 3G network to support 4G is no small task in itself, requiring all towers to be upgraded with additional transceivers, antennas and supporting infrastructure. Whilst upgrading the towers themselves won’t be too difficult the real problem comes in when people start wanting to use this new connection to its fullest potential, attempting to get NBN speeds from their wireless broadband. This at the very least requires an infrastructure upgrade on the scale of Fiber to the Node (FTTN) as the bandwidth requirements will outstrip the current infrastructure if they are used as a replacement for the NBN. Most critics looking to replace the NBN with wireless neglect this fact and in the end not upgrading the backhauls from the towers means that whilst NBN speeds would be possible they’d never be realised in practice.
Wireless is also no replacement for fixed line as it is much harder to provide a guaranteed level of service, something businesses and government entities rely on. Sure many of the limitations can be worked around with good engineering but it will still lack the scalability of a fixed fiber solution that already has implementations in the multi-gigabit range. Wireless might make sense for some low use consumer products (I’d love to get my mobile videos faster) but the fact is that if you’re relying on your Internet connection for critical business functions you’re not going to be doing them over wireless. Heck I don’t think anyone in the 4G enabled parts of the USA is even attempting to do that.
In reality the NBN and Telstra’s 4G network shouldn’t really be seen as being in competition with each other, they’re really 2 completely different products. The NBN is providing the ground level infrastructure for an Internet revolution in Australia, something that will bring extremely high speed Internet access to the masses. 4G should be seen as an evolutionary step in the mobile sector, enabling much more rich Internet services to be delivered to our handsets whilst offering some of the capability of a fixed line when you’re on the go. The sooner everyone realizes this the better as playing them off each other is just a waste of time and won’t lead to anything positive for Australia as a nation.