Hands on: Telstra LTE

Apr 4, 2012

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G which runs on Telstra's LTE network.

Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G which runs on Telstra's LTE network.

Hit and miss best describes our first taste of Telstra's next-gen mobile broadband network.

Right now Telstra offers the only commercially available LTE network in Australia, running at 1800 MHz. That's bad news for iPad 3 owners, as the new wundertablet only supports LTE at 700 and 2100 MHz. All is not lost, as Optus has run 700, 1800 and 2100 MHz LTE trials, while Vodafone has run 1800 MHz trials. Both telcos are preparing to launch commercial LTE services.

For the moment Telstra is the only telco delivering LTE goodness, with theoretical download speeds of 100 megabits per second. We all know theoretical speeds are a joke, but Telstra promises "typical download speeds ranging from 2 Mbps to 40 Mbps", which sounds more realistic. 

Apart from Telstra's dual-mode 4G/3G USB dongle, the only gadgets on sale in Australia which support Telstra's LTE network are three Android devices -- HTC's Velocity 4G smartphone, Samsung's Galaxy S II 4G smartphone and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G tablet. This week I've taken the Velocity 4G and Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G for a spin to see what Telstra's new LTE network has to offer.

The first thing you notice about LTE speeds is that the Telstra coverage maps are rather generous. Telstra initially said the LTE footprint would extend around 5 km from the centre of the major cities, but it's closer to 10 km in Melbourne and Sydney according to the coverage maps. Yet the maps can be deceptive. In some places I was at least a kilometre within the LTE coverage zone but the indicators on the devices kept flicking from 4G back to H and 3G.

The second thing you notice is that LTE speeds are far from consistent. I saw a lot of variation between the Samsung tablet and the HTC phone, with the tablet generally coming out a long way ahead (this was using the same SIM card to reduce the variables at play). I also saw extreme variations when only moving a few kilometres, even when well within the LTE coverage area.

Of course the same fluctuations occur with HSDPA as well, which offers typical speeds up to 20 Mbps with the introduction of Dual-Cell HSDPA. Anyone who thinks these wireless technologies can seriously take the place of the NBN needs to speed a little more time roaming the suburbs with a smartphone.

To cut to the chase, using the speedtest.net Android app the best result I got from the Samsung tablet was a scorching 55 Mbps down and 14 Mbps up with a ping time of 47ms. That's phenomenal, the kind of speed that most people would kill for on their home fixed line connection. Such low latency is also impressive.

But performance not consistent. That was in the late evening when few people would have been using the network. It's not inconceivable mine was the only active LTE device in the area. Earlier in the day, only a few streets away, I could only get 15 Mbps down and up. The speed drop also saw the latency go up and it was often over 100ms.

In most places I could only squeeze two-thirds of the speed out of the HTC phone. It could only muster 20 Mbps down and 16 up (with 130ms ping times) when the Samsung tablet was hitting 55 Mbps. It's best result was an impressive 42 Mbps down, 28 Mbps up. In the same spot the Samsung tablet could only muster 27 down and 5 up. Like I said, a lot of variation.

What's interesting is that outside the LTE footprint, the tablet and phone pulled down 13 and 12 Mbps respectively using DC-HSDPA. These speeds are nothing to sneeze at. I didn't have an iPad 3 on hand, but there are reports of it pulling down 19 Mbps via Telstra DC-HSDPA. My poor HSDPA-compatible iPhone 4 struggled to hit 1 Mbps, even though I was squeezing a lot out of Telstra when I first bought it. It seems the refugees fleeing other telcos are stating to clog up Telstra's Next G network. In the same spot a friend's HSPA+ iPhone 4S was getting a disappointing 3 Mbps from Telstra. 

While results varied greatly, both the phone and the tablet consistently performed better on LTE than on DC-HSDPA. Of course a key variable here is that hardly anyone is using the LTE network at the moment. Once more LTE devices hit the market you can expect to see some of the congestion which currently plagues the HSDPA networks. So painting LTE as the solution to all our problems would seem short-sighted.

The other big question is, what difference does that extra speed make? If you're getting decent DC-HSDPA speeds then the jump to LTE isn't going to be striking during day-to-day use. The Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G didn't load complicated webpages any faster when it was sucking down 55 Mbps, because the bottleneck is not the data link but the speed at which the tablet can render pages. Nor did it play iView clips faster or upload large video files to Dropbox faster, because the bottleneck is how fast these services can send and receive data.

If you're regularly shifting hefty files you'll come across some mobile-friendly services which can take advantage of the LTE speed boost, and more will come with time. You're also more likely to enjoy the speed boost if you're tethering your LTE device to your notebook. Yet if you're just browsing the web, checking your email, uploading photos, streaming music/video and doing other ordinary things on a handheld gadget, then LTE's performance boost over DC-HSDPA isn't striking. I'm not saying LTE is a dud, just that -- apart from impressive speedtest.net results -- it's not as breathtaking as the hype would suggest if you're already enjoying DC-HSDPA.

LTE might be the latest and greatest, but if you're getting 10 Mbps or more out of a non-LTE device then I wouldn't be too envious of the LTE early adopters. It's the way of the future, but there's no need to rush in. I don't think iPad 3 owners should be that upset. But if you're only managing to squeeze a few precious Mbps out of an older device, you'll certainly want to look for LTE and/or DC-HSDPA when it's time to upgrade.

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