Next G Wireless Broadband

Introduction

Having used an EV-DO mobile wireless broadband modem from BigPond for some time, the author watched the launch of Telstra’s Next G network with interest.

In late January, Pulse+IT was provided with various BigPond Next G modems for the purpose of evaluation. Among these were the USB Desktop and USB Mobile modems. On its release in April, Pulse+IT was also sent a Next G ExpressCard modem.

As Mac compatible drivers were not available at the time, most of our initial testing was performed on a Windows XP computer. Thankfully, Mac (and Vista) drivers are now available.

Next G

Built in just 10 months and launched with much fanfare in October 2006, Telstra are promoting their new mobile network as one of the most advanced and widely cast in the world. The network, dubbed “Next G”, cost in excess of $1 billion and promises to deliver significantly improved services to both mobile phone and wireless Internet users.

Mobile phone users connected to the network are able to make video calls, view FOXTEL and other selected TV programming, whilst mobile Internet users can enjoy significantly better performance than was possible with previous BigPond wireless broadband offerings.

The network operates in the 850MHz spectrum, which Telstra claims provides better range and “in-building” performance than rival third generation networks that use the 2100MHz frequency.

The introduction of Next G signals the beginning of the end for the CDMA network. Popular amongst users in regional and remote areas because of its large footprint, the CDMA network is scheduled for closure in 2008. By this time, Telstra claim that Next G will provide the same or better coverage and quality of service than the CDMA network.

Coverage

On launch, Telstra declared that the Next G network was capable of providing coverage to 98% of the population. This figure increased slightly to 98.8% in February this year, primarily due to the selective deployment of cutting edge hardware with an impressive range of up to 200kms (up from the previous limit of 50km).

Despite the impressive footprint, the sporadic nature of wireless networks means that some customers may not receive adequate reception or performance. Acknowledging this as a potential issue (even in capital cities), BigPond offer a 10-day money back guarantee to allow customers to trial the service before committing financially.

Hardware

BigPond customers can select from a range of Next G mobile broadband modems:

PCMCIA Card

Manufactured by Option and released alongside the Next G network, this modem is suitable for laptops with a PCMCIA slot.

The only visibly interesting feature this device possesses is a retractable “butterfly” antenna, which is less intrusive than the antenna on the authors EV-DO PCMCIA card.

USB Mobile Card

Manufactured by Maxon and appearing outwardly like an oversized flash drive, this modem is the most versatile in the range and can be paired with any computer with an available USB port.

The male USB plug on the modem is designed to rotate and allows the device to be positioned on various angles to optimise the connection’s reception.

ExpressCard Modem

ExpressCard is a relatively new expansion slot for laptops, touting a higher performance interface than the ubiquitous PCMCIA slot found on most laptops. The ExpressCard standard defines two slot widths, namely 54mm and 34mm.

BigPond have settled on a 34mm ExpressCard modem developed by Option. Because all ExpressCard devices sport the same sized connector, clever engineering means this card is also suitable for use in laptops with 54mm ExpressCard slots.

USB Desktop Modem

Like the USB Mobile Card, BigPond have sourced this device from Maxon. Requiring an external power supply, this device is primarily aimed at customers who don’t require a mobile solution and are unable to access cabled broadband solutions like ADSL.

Antennas

As the benchmarks on the following page show, reception quality has a dramatic effect on the speed of the connection. Maxon retail a range of optional antennas suitable for their BigPond branded modems. Using a compatible cable adaptor, these antennas are also suitable for use with the other BigPond modems.

Ethernet Docking Station

Maxon have plans to release an Ethernet docking station, which will allow a USB modem to be shared by an entire network of computers.

This device is scheduled to begin shipping in July and will be available individually, or in a package containing a USB mobile modem.

Software

BigPond supplies all the software required to configure the Next G modems on a CD. The installation process is very intuitive and should be able to be completed without assistance from the included hard-copy manual.

Supported operating systems include:

  • Windows 2000

  • Windows XP
  • Windows Vista
  • MacOS X 10.3.9 or later

Linux is not supported by BigPond, however 3rd party tutorials exist on the Web, which suggests Linux users need not miss out.

The software, “BigPond Wireless Broadband”, stores the user account information, displays reception quality and tracks connection statistics. It also includes a software update mechanism that makes it easy to download updated versions of the utility as they become available.

To avoid potential network conflicts, the utility tries to prevent the computer having two active connections (e.g. an Ethernet or local Wi-Fi connection). This may cause issues for users who need to be connected to the Internet and local network services such as network printers. Fortunately, simple workarounds are available that allow multiple network connections to be used simultaneously.

Speed

Telstra launched the Next G network with a peak download speed of 3.6Mbit/s in October 2006. This capacity was upgraded to an impressive 14.4Mbit/s in February this year, a figure that is slated to climb to 40Mbit/s as early as 2009 if company estimates are on track.

Currently shipping Next G modems cannot take full advantage of the networks capacity however, most topping out at 3.6Mbit/s for downloads. All BigPond branded Next G modems will be able to be upgraded to higher speeds (potentially as high as 7.2Mbit/s) via firmware updates later in 2007. More significantly, this upgrade will improve the networks upload capacity to 1.9Mbit/s, up from the current speed of 384Kbit/s.

To test the real world performance of the technology, I transferred a 5MB file to and from the Pulse+IT web server via FTP, using a variety of Internet connections, antenna configurations and locations.

Next G Performance
Table 1 - Next G Performance Comparison: In each test, a 5MB file was transfered to and from the Pulse+IT web server using the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). Data transfer rates are shown in KiloBytes per second. The reception score refers to the number of reception bars shown in BigPond connection software. All tests were run using a PowerBook G4 running MacOS X 10.4.9. Small antenna = Maxon Unity Gain Spike Antenna (8cm); Large antenna = Maxon Unity Gain Base Station Antenna (40cm); *Superseded and no longer shipping, included for comparison only.

The performance of the Next G modems was very impressive, exceeding my expectations by a wide margin. The upload performance of the solution was particularly impressive, soundly trumping the upload speed of ADSL in all but one configuration. Also of significance was the amount by which the larger antenna improved performance, particularly in the rural setting of Gundagai.

While our testing only demonstrates the network’s performance with moderately large file transfers, our observations of other Internet activities were in line with these results. We found web browsing and Terminal Services remote access to be only slightly more “jerky” than the ADSL connection, and significantly better than when using an EV-DO card.

Clinical Applications

Portable Next G solutions can be used by clinicians to great effect in settings where a suitable Internet connection is not available. These localities may include aged care facilities, patient’s residencies and hospitals, and indeed, non-work related environments. Coupled with a secure remote access solution, clinicians can now have access to their base practice’s clinical software database, anytime, anywhere, without the potential problems associated with taking practice data offsite.

Clinicians should note however, that like all devices that draw their power from the computer, Next G devices adversely effect laptop battery performance. As such, if a mobile solution needs to be used for extended periods, additional laptop batteries or frequent recharging may be required.

Security

Unlike typical modem/router combinations used for ADSL and Cable connections, BigPond wireless modems do not contain a built in firewall. As such, the user needs to ensure that a software firewall is activated and strong passwords are used for both the operating system account and any clinical software installed on the computer. File sharing services should be disabled, and Windows users should ensure that they have also have suitable anti virus and spyware protection installed and configured correctly.

Cost

All of BigPond’s mobile modems have a recommended retail price of $299, however the desktop modem is slightly cheaper, retailing at $249.

BigPond’s usage plan options are outlined at their website. As is to be expected, the solution is significantly more expensive than ADSL or Cable Internet services, especially for users with large download requirements. As such, wireless broadband is not recommended for use as a primary Internet service if a suitable alternative is available.

In what should be of interest to jet setters, BigPond has partnered with several international carriers to allow their customers to access Internet services while abroad. International roaming at broadband speeds is available in over 30 countries, albeit at the exorbitant rate of $15+GST per MB.

Conclusion

Next G represents a quantum leap in wireless network technology, and provides Australian’s with a fast, high quality broadband service.

With their near universal coverage, BigPond has set themselves up as a formidable force in the emerging mobile broadband sector. Despite the company’s early dominance, traditional rivals are lining up for a piece of the action. Three, Optus, Vodafone and Unwired all offer wireless broadband solutions, however none yet compete with the Telstra Next G network’s superior coverage footprint and performance.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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