The Argument for Mobile Broadband
- Only option in some areas
- More 'mobile' than 'broadband'
- Can work out better for very light users
Our role at CompareBroadband is to analyze the market for broadband internet connections, both in terms of what customers want and what ISPs are offering, and to make a recommendation to best suit each individual. We’re notorious bargain hunters, but we calculate a ‘bargain’ by a number of factors apart from price.
We consider customer service and technical support (going off results from the Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman and customer service surveys from the likes of Whirlpool and Roy Morgan research). We consider flexibility (length of contracts, fees for breaking contract, etc). And importantly, we speak directly to consumers looking for a deal and try to read between the lines of what they’re saying to find out what they really want.
After all is said and done, we almost always recommend a fixed-line connection where available, and usually ADSL. This is despite the fact that ADSL seems to have a bunch of baggage that most people say they don’t want – namely a landline phone service (for which Telstra gets some of your money whether you want them to or not) and a 2 week turnaround for most connections. But even with these caveats, ADSL is still cheaper, more stable, more widely available and better value than other methods – especially Mobile Broadband. So in what cases would we, or could we, recommend a mobile broadband connection?
What is Mobile Broadband?
The first thing most people overlook is that Mobile Broadband is essentially the same regardless of what form factor you use. Whether you use your mobile phone, a Virgin ‘Broadband at Home’ system, a USB ‘dongle’, a Telstra Turbocard or a BigPond Elite Wireless Wi-Fi 4G LTE Turbomax Extra Large modem – it’s all radio. All of it. It can be called 3G, 3G HSDPA+, 4G, LTE - It’s all as potentially hit-and-miss as using rabbit ears for your TV, or the FM radio in your car, or even your mobile phone that you have to wave around for a signal.
It means that somewhere in your area, a mobile phone tower (or transmitter mounted to a building) is blanketing the area with microwave radiation, up to roughly 5 kilometres. Some of that radiation is getting absorbed into trees, building, rain and people’s bodies. Some of it is getting picked up by tiny antennas, embedded into iPhone, dongles and all those other devices. That signal is getting unscrambled and turned into YouTube videos. That’s the fundamentals of it. Newer standards use more powerful transmitters, and wider frequencies that carry more data per second (though usually over shorter distances, requiring even more towers). Because the amount of data that the entire radio band can carry is still just a fraction of what a single strand of fibre optic glass can carry, and because so much of it is lost in transmission, network providers have to severely limit the amount of data a single user can use.
Actually, the problem is even more complex than that. All that ‘data’ is encoded as a series of commands to switch ‘on’ and ‘off’. A fibre optic strand has a laser at one end turning on and off several billion times per second. A radio transmitter has to encode each transmission by switching channels several millions of times per second. The difference is vast – and advances in one is the result of advances in the other. Even if technology improved wireless to a point where several billion transactions can happen per second, fibre optic would be in the hundreds of billions.
So why have it at all?
Simply put, people do not like cords. The obvious reason for this is that it’s messy, and it makes whatever you’re doing hard to set up.
The trade off for this, when it comes to power, is that we use up millions of tons of batteries every year, filled with dangerous acid. The trade off when it, comes to communications, is that we need to use a huge amount of energy to power radio towers that transmit a fraction of what a cord could transmit.
Is it worth it? Actually, it probably is. The beauty of being mobile is…mobility. You can move around. You don’t feel ‘tethered’. You can have the convenience and general fun of modern technology, anywhere you go.
The cut and thrust of mobile broadband is the ‘mobile’ part. It’s exactly the same issue that we, as a society, went through when mobile phones became popular. As ‘mobile’ devices, there was no competition: a home phone service simply was not mobile. But as a ‘phone’ service, landlines offered better audio fidelity, better value and much better reliability. It wasn’t until plans reached a certain value tipping point that mobile phones started replacing landlines en masse. The audio fidelity of mobiles is still miserable compared to landlines, but the convenience factor of mobiles heavily outweighs that of landlines, and the value factor is about even.
Just what is the difference in value?
There are three networks in Australia for mobile communications: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
Telstra’s network is the best. This means a few things:
- They have the most towers
- More of those towers have been updated with the best transmitters available
- More of the radiation bubbles ‘overlap’, so there are fewer blackspots
- Their network of towers is more regularly maintained
Telstra’s last-generation network really is stronger in more places, and their next-gen network (4G, LTE) of stronger, faster connections is wider than that of Optus, their biggest competition.
In any metro area, Optus (1300 137 897) is likely to be ‘good enough’. In Central Business Districts, you might find Optus’ and even Vodafone’s network works better than Telstra’s, as more people working right in the city might go with Telstra for their reputation, overloading their network. Optus and Vodafone’s youth-heavy marketing might capture plenty of schoolkids and uni students in the suburbs, overloading those networks. In other words, good luck trying to lock down the best performing network, all the time, for every area.
But in most cases, Telstra’s will work more reliably in more places. This attracts a price premium. A BigPond Elite 4G connection is $60 for 8GB of data. That’s without any other services bundled in.
By contrast, Vodafone will do 12GB for $40 a month. Optus falls somewhere in between, but resellers who use the Optus network, like Dodo, can come in at similar price points to Vodafone.
What about Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is radio too – but designed to connect over a short distance, from a router to one (or a few) computers and other devices. It's a feature of the modem you buy, not of the connection itself. The oft-used refrain we go to around here is:
'Wi-Fi is not a way to connect to the internet. It's a way to connect to your modem".
Compared to ADSL…
The most basic ADSL connection, in a metro area, is $40 a month (including basic line rental). That will come with 10GB of data (plus 10 ‘off peak’). That’s available through TPG (1300 106 571), Dodo (1300 136 793) and MyNetFone (1300 421 046). But for $10 more, you get 100GB…and for $60 you can get Unlimited data. Meanwhile, the biggest data plan available on Mobile Broadband is 18GB, for $70 from Dodo.
Combine that with the fact that an ADSL connection will generally be faster and more stable, and ADSL is the clear value winner. BUT…ADSL is tethered to your telephone line socket. You can use Wi-Fi to make it portable within your home, but it is not mobile. You can’t take it with you.
So who needs Mobile Broadband?
Simply put: if you need the mobility, you need mobile broadband. And by mobility, we mean you need a connection wherever you go, both inside and outside the house.
If you use very, very little data, then you can get a Mobile Broadband service and take advantage of its simle set up, portability and ease-of-use. But the trade off is that you may lose signal, or may find your connection slowing down during times of peak usage, when all your neighbours are also online.
If you need a connection at home for the whole family, then Mobile Broadband should only be an option if an ADSL connection is unavailable. The Catch 22 here is that ADSL is easily available in the same places that mobile broadband works well.
Mobile Broadband should only really be an option when it’s necessary – that is, when a fixed line connection is unavailable, or when you need the mobility it offers. Or, of course, if you don’t mind the occasional connection issues and small data allowances, then Mobile Broadband offers a potentially cheap and easy way to get a connection with minimum fuss. Just remember to consider what you’re really paying for.