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Tuesday, 15 February 2011 21:04

4G vs NBN: the best way to connect to the net


Over coffee not long ago, a friend chided me over my NBN skepticism with a leading question 'what's the best way to connect to the net?' I conceded that a fibre connection would be fastest. 'That's it, do it once, do it right!' he exclaimed with a grin, as he continued checking his email on his iPhone over 3G.

Now that Telstra has announced it will upgrade its already fast HSPA 3G wireless network to next generation LTE 4G technology this year, extra fuel has been added to the fire of the wireless versus fibre to the home debate.

If this were a debate purely about download and upload speeds then there would be no contest. A FttH NBN would be a hands down winner over even the most advanced wireless network, HSPA+, LTE, whatever.

However, as many of us know, the debate is bit more complex than that. There are other factors to consider besides speed. There's convenience; there's portability; there's flexibility; there's geography and there's cost.

Earlier this year, I took a 10-day break with my family and stayed in a very nice apartment on the Gold Coast in Queensland. For me, this was a working holiday so I needed a net connection for my MacBook.

For $17 a day, the apartment complex offered a modem router and a relatively fast DSL service. However, as I had my iPhone 4 on a Vodafone capped plan which included 2.5G of data, I decided to give tethering a try before shelling out extra for fast internet.

For my purposes, which was checking email, producing and mailing out the daily newsletter, editing and posting the occasional story and communicating with the other iTWire team members via Skype and email, my tethered connection was adequate if not great. It was sort of like the early DSL connections but definitely much better than dial-up.

The point is that I preferred the freedom and flexibility of being able to stay connected using my own portable device than being forced to pay extra to use a fixed line service.


Now I admit that an iPhone tethered to a MacBook on a Vodafone 3G network is definitely no long-term solution. I was glad to get back to my fast Big Pond cable service when I returned home.

However, while I was on holiday I tried to imagine what it would be like using Telstra's best HSPA wireless service.

I have younger single colleagues who do use it and have never had a fixed line connection. I have made many successful video Skype calls to these colleagues. They download movies; they do work; they communicate; they surf the web every day and because they're renters and they move home and they like to stay connected with a minimum of fuss, they swear by wireless.

Telstra's HSPA 3G network, claimed to be one of the most advanced in the world, is rated at a peak downstream speed of 42Mbps and is soon to be upgraded to 84Mbps. When the network is upgraded again to LTE, those peak speeds will increase again.

We all know of course that wireless peak speeds are just theoretical maximums and users will never experience anything like them. More likely, the actual downstream speeds for most users on the best wireless networks will be something like 1 or 2 Mbps. However, this sort of speed coupled with the convenience and flexibility that wireless provides is a very attractive alternative for the mobile young net user of today.

What does that mean for the NBN? Well, if the Government carries through with its plan to spend the money to decommission Telstra's copper and the hybrid fibre-coax networks and replace them with fibre to homes, there will be plenty of takers. But there will also be plenty who just leave their fibre connections sitting idle and do not connect to the NBN.

In case it has escaped anyone's notice, cheap mobile phone services are crushing Telstra's fixed line business out of existence. Foxtel is popular but free to air TV still reigns supreme in most households and is offering ever more choice. It appears most households want flexibility and still don't want to pay for something they don't need.

But just think of the plethora of entertainment options and applications that will be available over fast fibre! Well there are already options galore over cable, ADSL2+ and still a large core of heartland of Australian suburbia is happy with an inexpensive basic internet connection, free to air TV and their mobile phones.

As the kids leave home and go out renting, they keep their mobile phones, get wireless data packages for their laptop and watch free to air TV. Most don't get Foxtel or high-end super fast net connections.

Of course there are the reasonably well off and the lounge lizards who will get the best of everything - Foxtel Platinum in every room, super fast internet and whatever entertainment option is on offer. But they are and always will be the minority.

And therein lies the problem for the NBN. In order for the thing to be economically viable, it not only has to be as ubiquitous as Telstra's POTS was, it also has to have similar market penetration.  This is where the real threat of wireless raises its ugly head.

When it comes to the high-end of the net connections market, fixed line fibre will be the ultimate and the only choice. Corporations, hospitals, educational institutions and high net worth families have always been high speed net users and will certainly be NBN customers.

However, if advanced wireless connections continue to capture the low and mid range of the market in increasing numbers - not to mention the bush of course - then the NBN will end up being an expensive white elephant that very few want and even fewer need.



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Stan Beer


Stan Beer co-founded iTWire in 2005. With 30 plus years of experience working in IT and Australian technology media, Beer has published articles in most of the IT publications that have mattered, including the AFR, The Australian, SMH, The Age, as well as a multitude of trade publications.



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