Even with the weather beginning to improve in Melbourne, the days are still regularly threatening rain which means, for iBrothers at least, when we find a nice day arrive with some time up our sleeve, it’s all about motorbikes and the Victorian country side. With our recent purchase of Telstra’s new wifi hotspot and the delivery of Vodafone’s Pocket WiFi 2 which accesses Vodafone’s new 850Mhz network, it seemed like a great opportunity to pack the DSLR, grab a notebook and head off for some fun. Bikes fueled, broadband & camera packed and ready to go, we decided to conduct a rural broadband speedtest using Telstra, Vodafone and Optus’ mobile wifi hotspots because, you know, it was a working day after all.

The Equipment

Telstra Bigpond Ultimate Broadband Wi-Fi

As previously reviewed, the Telstra Bigpond Ultimate Broadband Wi-Fi is Telstra’s latest offering for mobile broadband. It works with their new Dual Carrier network offering current speeds up to 20Mbps. Of course we weren’t expecting to see “DC” coverage outside of Metro Melbourne however but as the device falls back to the existing 3G network we shouldn’t have a problem getting network access.

Vodafone Pocket WiFi 2

The newest mobile hotspot from Vodafone is the Pocket WiFi 2. Vodafone has been rolling out their new 850Mhz network (the same frequency that Telstra operates their nextG network on) and have been repeatedly crowing about it (well our inbox receives frequent updates) so it would be interesting to see if we experienced any differences on our trip. Vodafone recently (along with Optus) rolled out updates rurally to their network on the 900Mhz frequency and checking Vodafone’s coverage map we didn’t see any changes to the 850Mhz network on our planned journey. Still, while the Pocket WiFi 2 looks like the previous Pocket WiFi, it would be fun to test out the new hardware which also supports the 900Mhz frequency.

Optus Mini WiFi Modem

While iBrothers uses Telstra as their mobile phone provider, in our line of business it’s nice to have another carrier as backup for mobile broadband. We already had a Vodafone sim on a broadband plan so it was with some excitement (and trepidation) that we splurged on the current offer of $99 for a Mini WiFi Modem Starter Kit + 8GB data (with 6 months to use) prepaid. With Optus’ current offering in hand we were pretty much set for our speedtests.

MacBook

Our tried and trusty MacBook. Sure, we have since replaced the hard drive with a OCZ SSD, increased the RAM and are running both OSX Lion and Windows 7 on it so even with it’s age and meagre (by today’s standards) CPU it delivers astounding boot times and a small enough footprint to slide into the bike’s rear bag.

Tests

The tests used speedtest.net consistently connecting to the same server (micron21 Melbourne). We noted if the connection was 3G or in Telstra’s case, DC (dual carrier).

We also left the units running for the entire trip to see what battery life to expect from them. Telstra’s Ultimate WiFi does have some pretty good power saving features. The hotspots from Vodafone and Optus have the option to set the wifi to go to sleep with the default set to 30 mins. All three units were using their default settings.

Preliminary speedtest

We decided that our first step should involve a quick coffee fix and speedtest around our local area. This would provide a benchmark to compare urban to rural speeds. McDonald’s Tullamarine was the choice for convenience, not for their unremarkable coffee. Here is what we saw.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra DC 17.51 3.35 56
Vodafone 3G 2.22 1.10 99
Optus 3G 5.32 1.67 50

As noted in our previous review of the Telstra Ultimate WiFi, it blasted along in the DC area. Optus’ showing was respectable while Vodafone comes in last.

Melton

http://g.co/maps/cv4u4

Our first destination isn’t really “rural” but it does serve as one of the larger towns on Melbourne’s outer western fringe. We decided to stop at Melton considering it’s size and population density thinking that there should be some fairly decent mobile coverage here. Pulling up in a carpark in the middle of the shopping district we did run into some initial complications with Vodafone’s Pocket WiFi 2, having to reset the unit several times before we would complete a speedtest.

The results were interesting.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra DC 1.56 1.06 95
Vodafone 3G 1.86 0.19 108
Optus 3G 0.65 0.07 71

First up, we were surprised to see Telstra accessing DC coverage. Even so, the speeds were pretty ordinary. The showing from Vodafone (when we finally got it working) wasn’t too bad. Optus’ showing was clearly the worst.

We should mention that all the hotspots were showing full bars in terms of reception. We were situated in the middle of town so we would have expected that this position should have proven to have adequate coverage.

Having a look at tower locations in the area, we decided to take a quick trip to the eastern entrance to Melton. The results of the the tests interesting.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra DC 6.27 1.11 49
Vodafone 3G 2.06 0.57 118
Optus 3G 1.65 0.19 68

A noticeable increase from Telstra, a moderate increase from Vodafone and a barely acceptable increase from Optus.

Gisborne

http://g.co/maps/aa5wr

Gisborne is a picturesque town located near Mt Macedon. It’s a great place to grab some food and coffee and we settled in for our next set of tests.

With the initial issues we had with our Pocket WiFi 2, we elected to do a little bit of tweaking to the wifi settings on each unit, placing them on channels which ensured they were separated. At first, we parked ourselves at a local bakery indoors but our Pocket WiFi 2 couldn’t get any reception. Instead, we made our way out onto the sidewalk.

After a brief discussion with a local about DSLR photography, we took note of our signal strength – Telstra showed full signal strength and Vodafone and Optus both hovered between 3-4 bars.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra 3G 9.53 2.3 70
Vodafone 3G 1.09 0.26 102
Optus 3G 4.83 0.52 51

Back on 3G, Telstra still put in a remarkable result. Optus also did much better than we expected and we were most surprised to see the speed it achieved. Vodafone produced an underwhelming result.

From here we would be skirting around Mt Macedon through Woodend and past Hanging Rock towards Lancefield. This part of Victoria has to be one of iBrother’s favourites being both beautiful and inspiring. You can be sure we will be back around here for the Harvest Festival.

Lancefield

http://g.co/maps/qqgfh

Located between Woodend and Kilmore, Lancefield was selected for a speedtest primarily because it is a small town. We parked in the middle of the main shopping area and setup in the central strip. Quite honestly we weren’t expecting great thing here so what we discovered was quite astounding.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra DC 10.07 2.24 59
Vodafone
Optus 3G 5.65 0.09 100

While Vodafone managed to achieve no network coverage, Optus was able to pull through the same download speeds we were seeing in Tullamarine even if upload speeds were somewhat appalling. Most importantly though was the discovery of Telstra’s DC network all the way out here. Finding it present in a small town such as Lancefield is most unexpected and as you can see, once again pulled ahead as the fastest provider.

Broadford

http://g.co/maps/2rqdh

Broadford is a popular stop for many and we noticed at least two groups of motorcyclists here putting the good weather to good use. We selected another outdoor area to do a quick test.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra DC 11.46 .28 84
Vodafone 3G 0.74 1.09 104
Optus 3G 1.19 0.37 95

Again we see another country town on Telstra’s DC network. Optus was present here but not showing anything particularly special and Vodafone, well, despite some unusual spike at the end of the tests (we ran it few times) with upload was generally putting in a fairly poor show.

From here we made a right turn over the highway and towards Flowerdale into another one of our favourite riding areas. Another right brought us to an old favourite stop of ours, Hazeldene.

Hazeldene

http://g.co/maps/tkkcd

Nestled in a gully next to a creek, Hazeldene is one of those places you would rarely stop. It has one general store which also sells fuel, a creek, an outside toilet and that is pretty much it. We remember coming past here years ago (pre 3G) and not having any Optus network for mobile calls. We also remember the first time we had access to Telstra’s nextG network and finding coverage here. While the bridge across the creek has been upgraded since the Black Saturday fires, we weren’t really expecting much from any of the carriers. You can image how stunned we were when we got the following results.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra 3G 12.72 3.52 73
Vodafone
Optus 3G 6.18 0.59 62

Once again, Vodafone had no coverage. The speeds being achieved by both Telstra and Optus though were astounding. It may have been due to improvements to the area since the fire damage and new equipment supplied to the area, but even still, our Telstra hotspot was not showing a DC connection yet here we were seeing DC like speeds.

We ran the test several times not really believing what we were seeing and ended up doing some general internet surfing while enjoying what was quite a nice coffee and yes, it was fast under Telstra.

Moving along from Hazeldene, through Kinglake West we came down into Whittlesea.

Whittlesea

http://g.co/maps/y98zz

Back in another large town we were expecting a good show from all providers. We stopped just short of the main shopping area at the local Lion’s Park. With line of sight to mobile towers, we ran our tests.

Carrier Connection Type Download (Mbps) Upload (Mbps) Ping (ms)
Telstra 3G 5.71 1.17 72
Vodafone 3G 1.18 0.96 97
Optus 3G 1.52 0.03 132

It’s amazing how a small town like Hazeldene can see speeds of 6Mbps from Optus yet here in a larger town, we see a dismal 1.52Mbps.

Remaining Battery

We turned on our mobile hotspots at 10:20am that morning and finished our tests around 4pm. The remaining battery in each unit was as follows:

Telstra Bigpond Ultimate Broadband Wi-Fi: 60% remaining

Vodafone Pocket WiFi 2: 40% remaining (approx)

Optus Mini WiFi Modem: 40% remaining (approx)

While Telstra’s modem provides a percentage in it’s web panel, both Optus and Vodafone’s modems only provide a battery icon which appeared to be sitting at around 40% for each.

It should be mentioned that before using the Telstra Ultimate WiFi each time, the top button needed to be pressed to “wake” the unit.

Conclusion

If mobile internet is important to you for work or play and you find yourself occasionally travelling, holidaying or living in the country, it would appear that Telstra pretty much is the leader in terms of what is available. While Optus was generally available and at times, proved very capable, when using it near any town that would provide congestion, it appeared to take a major performance hit.

There is of course a price point to consider both in terms of the cost of the mobile hotspot as well as data (Telstra is definitely pricier than Vodafone and Optus) however, if you are paying for something you can’t use there is little point in having it in the first place.

As indicated in our Melton tests, distance to tower location is quite important in getting the best results however, we would argue that it is not good enough to have to travel outside of the main shopping area of a town to achieve a usable connection. iBrothers remembers around 15 years ago when it was common with 2G reception to be visiting towns and having to take a drive to the highest point to make a call. While reception appears strong enough to make a call most anywhere in a populated town, in the modern day of internet connectivity where Australians are one of the fastest adopters of smartphones, we can’t help wondering why Vodafone and Optus are falling so far behind.

Vodafone has been talking much about it’s 850Mhz network, and we will be doing a follow up to our urban speedtest soon, it’s interesting to note that Telstra just announced their 4G network capable of speeds up to 40Mbps, a big difference from both Optus and Vodafone’s 7Mbps theoretical maximum.

As a last aside, it’s also worth noting that distance to towers and network speeds mean little if your network is congested. While Telstra do come out on top in the tests we have run for this article, it’s worth considering places such as around Docklands in Melbourne where we know of friends and clients who experience frequent problems during the working day accessing Telstra’s mobile broadband network.

While we like our broadband fast, we also like it usable. Let’s hope that each of the carriers continues to improve not only speed but throughput and accessibility too.