We’ve all heard plenty about the ways that wireless broadband is going to change the way we work and play online – and in fact, most of us have had a taste of it via the mobile internet on our mobile phones. But is wireless broadband the answer for your needs on your home PC or your laptop as well? We’re going to take a look at what going wireless means for you, both on the move and at home– and whether it’s a worthy investment.
3G, 4G And Beyond
When 3G mobile internet first arrived, it was going to be the best thing ever – fast mobile internet access that was light years ahead of what was previously available. Finally, you could view web sites on your phone without waiting minutes for a page to load. But with the internet being the ever-evolving thing that it is, the demands of web sites fast outgrew 3G. With more and more graphics on pages, interactivity, animations, videos; it soon felt like we were back at square one again.
Then along came “4G”, the catchy name for a technology known as LTE. This vastly increased the download speed available to mobile devices, potentially up to the speed of a fibre NBN connection. And technology didn’t stop there.
Further advances continue to be made with 4G, with the latest version supporting a remarkable 300Mbit/sec on devices like the iPhone 6s – three times the speed of the fastest fibre connection you can get in Australia. This constantly evolving technology is expected to double that speed again in the future.
What this means is blazingly fast downloads for those using the latest devices on 4G. Web pages that load in an instant, the ability to stream high definition video is enchanced… it’s potentially faster than any fixed-line internet connection available in Australia.
Wireless At Home
When you move into a new place and get an estimate (in weeks) of how long it’ll take before your ADSL internet connection is up and running, the solution many use is to plug their mobile phone into the PC (a process called “tethering”) to get some form of internet access up and running. And it works well, especially so on 4G. But what about all those other devices in your home that want internet access – the tablets, laptop, smart TV? Sure, you can use a Band-Aid solution such as turning your phone into a miniature Wi-Fi hotspot, but that means you lose easy access to your phone for the duration. The solution lies in the various devices you can buy to give you instant and easy home Wi-Fi on a wireless connection.
One such device is Telstra’s “Wi-Fi 4G Advanced III” box, which is a clever and compact little device that you can obtain for an extra monthly fee when on one of Telstra’s mobile broadband plans. It’s portable, rechargeable, and lets up to 15 Wi-Fi devices connect to the 4G network through it with ease. It even has an informative colour LCD screen on board to let you keep track of your data usage in real time, and it’s clever enough to send your phone a text message when you’re getting close to your monthly data limit. The latest wireless technologies are supported, too, so you can take full advantage of the amazing speeds that 4G offers. That’s one of several such devices that are available in the market, with Telstra leading the charge towards true high-speed access; comparable devices from other providers that have appeared so far provide generally slower maximum speeds.
It’s worth mentioning, by the way, that as with all broadband based on the mobile phone network, the actual speed you get depends hugely on exactly where you’re using it. If you’re in just the right spot with the above device you can hit NBN-like speeds of 100Mbit/sec. But very few people are going to be sitting right in the sweet spot for that level of coverage; 4G automatically adjusts its speed accordingly, and outside the prime areas it’ll drop back to vanilla 4G or even 3G if needed.
The Limitations of Wireless
It all sounds so simple and hassle-free, doesn’t it? Which it is, thanks to there being no need to wait for physical wires to be connected, or have phone sockets installed, or a giant NBN box stapled to the outside of your home. But it comes at a price.
As anyone who’s spent a length of time on the internet on their mobile already knows, those pesky data limits always seem a bit too low, and as we start streaming music, watching YouTube clips or sending videos to Facebook, the limit seems to get chewed up faster every day. The same problem is going to be there with a wireless hotspot device – it is, of course, really just a mobile phone that’s been custom-designed to be a Wi-Fi hotspot and do it well. The general wisdom is that the faster your internet connection is, the more likely you are to use more of it. So you need to stop and think about what you use the internet for, and just how much data that’s going to eat up.
This is where the trade-off comes in. Do you want blazing speed? Or would you prefer a nice large data allowance that doesn’t cost a fortune? You can’t necessarily have both. For example, Telstra’s largest data plan for their 4G devices gives you a 15GB/month allowance – and costs $120/month. Optus, meanwhile, has the slower device (maxing out at 12Mbit/sec, or the speed of a decent ADSL connection) but gives you 50GB/month for only $70. The Optus Data offering is clearly the better choice if you’re going to be setting your home up with 4G as the primary internet source, while the Telstra one would suit those who want the 4G connection as a backup, or easy wi-fi access they can take with them when travelling. Both providers charge a flat fee of $10/GB once you go over your limit, and that can add up very fast.
The other thing to remember is that there’s a finite amount of 4G bandwidth on every cell tower, and it’s potentially being shared by a lot of people, especially around peak times.
You’ll want to talk to providers to find out what coverage is like where you plan to use the service, and if possible, get some friends around with mobiles connected to the different providers to compare what both coverage and speed is like.
Last audited 14 September 2020
Is Wireless For You?
As broadband speeds increase rapidly, so do the demands on your data cap from all kinds of sources, so before heading out to grab yourself a Wi-Fi hotspot and signing up for a plan, think about what you’ll be using the internet for.
If you’re fond of sitting down for a night of binge-watching Netflix, you’re potentially chewing up 3GB per hour of HD programming right there, and that adds up fast – that 50GB Optus deal may sound like a lot, but it’s no fun hitting the limit inside a week and being forced to back off for the rest of the month. If you’re a fan of console or PC gaming, then you won’t want to be using wireless either – most major games delivered via download now take tens of gigabytes just to get onto your console or computer, with regular patches and updates that add to the data load.
If you’re a data-heavy user, you’d be far better served by one of the many unlimited-data plans available via ADSL or Cable, and using mobile broadband as a backup while you wait for the connection. It’s a situation that’s unlikely to change any time soon – mobile data is inherently more expensive because it’s in much more limited supply.
But if you’re a regular user who just surfs the web of an evening, browses Facebook and Twitter, reads the news, shares photos with friends or sends documents back and forth for work, 4G wireless broadband could be an ideal solution. It travels with you, too, so you never lose internet access if you have to move house or even if you go on holidays. It’s a flexible, versatile solution for a lot of people – and it just keeps getting faster and faster.