Wireless Broadband Buying Guide

No more getting tangled up just trying to check your e-mail. The wireless age is here, and it offers lightning fast broadband with nothing to tie you down.

Performance

So do wireless broadband services perform as well as landline services? The answer is yes and no.

In a sense, wireless broadband is a shared medium — there's only so much radio spectrum to go around, and you're sharing it with everybody else who's in the same area as you, accessing the same cell. As the number of wireless subscribers increase, there's going to be less bandwidth available per person, especially at peak times. This is true, of course, of all Internet services, but for wireless broadband it's a difficult problem to solve. With landlines, a service provider can simply increase the bandwidth capacity of the cables that make up the network core; with wireless it can increase the number of receiving stations or purchase more radio spectrum, but a question mark still remains over the ability of the long-range wireless services to scale to hundreds of thousands of users running at high speeds.

The other key issue, from a performance perspective, is the latency of wireless services. Latency, sometimes called "ping times", is a measure of the responsiveness of the network — usually measured in milliseconds. Where bandwidth measures how much traffic a link can handle, latency is a measure of how long it takes a single message to get to its destination.

For the most common Internet applications — Web surfing, downloading, e-mail — latency is not a big issue. However, it's a huge issue with real-time applications such as online gaming, video conferencing and Voice over IP (VoIP). With real time applications, delays in transmission are unacceptable. When it comes to VoIP, latencies in excess of 250ms will start to make a phone call very painful.

Early testing has showed that existing wide-area wireless broadband services do not perform well in terms of latency. Practical tests have shown that you can expect latencies of around 70ms-200ms for Australian sites, and 250ms+ to US and other international sites. By contrast, with ADSL those numbers are more likely to be closer to 20-50ms in Australia, and 200ms+ for the US. We recommend sticking with fixed line broadband services if you are a heavy online gamer or plan on using VoIP services.

The future: WiMAX or LTE?

For the past few years, it has been an accepted truth that the next step in wireless broadband evolution would be WiMAX, otherwise known by its international ratification number IEEE 802.16e. However, more recently, broadband providers and wireless equipment manufacturers have contemplated implementing a competing wireless technology referred to as LTE or Long Term Evolution.

LTE works as an evolution of existing 3G networks, providing faster bandwidth speeds (beyond 100Mbps) with a greater emphasis on transporting data and increased support for existing Internet technologies. WiMAX, on the other hand, uses local aerials as wireless access points covering a very large area. Each access point, or cell, can cover an area of 3 to 10km in radius, so relatively small numbers of them could blanket an entire city, but provides much slower speeds.

Both technologies have a future in Australia, but WiMAX is a little closer to reality locally than LTE. After a successful test by Energy Australia earlier this year, South Australian ISP Adam Internet has begun plans to roll out a WiMAX network across Adelaide over a 15-month period.

There are no known current trials or plans for implementing LTE in Australia. While WiMAX may seem to be the future, LTE isn't completely ruled out as the fourth generation of wireless broadband, and it is likely that both technologies may continue to compete for supporters and even customers in the near future.

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