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.

A key advantages of wireless broadband is that it allows you to have an Internet connection without being physically connected to your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Wireless broadband is one of four main ways to connect to the Internet, and it joins the ranks of copper (dial-up, ADSL, ADSL2+, VDSL), coaxial (cable) and fibre (fibre-to-the-home services used in the planned National Broadband Network). Wireless broadband isn't necessarily a portable Internet solution — you can have wireless broadband and still use a traditional modem/router — but it does provide a variety of options for accessing Internet services and sharing them. Mobile broadband is one type of wireless broadband that many of us are familiar with, and it is generally delivered in the form of a small USB modem or notebook expansion card (for example, an ExpressCard or PCMCIA) from telcos including Telstra, Vodafone, Optus or 3 Mobile. These services are obviously more portable than fixed wireless broadband services and they can even be added as a supplementary service to your existing mobile phone contract. Fixed wireless broadband is generally offered by non-telco companies, for example Unwired. Fixed wireless broadband services use technologies that are slightly different to mobile broadband and require a dedicated modem; often an external modem which can be connected to your computer through a Wi-Fi, Ethernet or USB connection. The key advantage of a fixed wireless broadband service is that you can share it between multiple computers simultaneously. (Some mobile broadband operators like Telstra and 3 Mobile offer similar functionality by using additional modems and routers.) Fixed wireless broadband remains portable in a limited sense, as you can retain the same service no matter where you are, provided you are within your service provider's coverage area and have an available power point. If you are constantly on the move, it would be better to go with a mobile broadband plan, but be sure to check out the various service providers and their plans to find the one best suited to your needs.

Wi-Fi hotspots

Though Wi-Fi hotspots are not the same as wireless broadband, they are still a great way to access the Internet outside of your home. These hotspots are public wireless networks set up by an Internet Service Provider or a venue operator that allow you to access the Internet using your Wi-Fi compatible computer or device. Some of these hotspots provide Internet services for free, but most are restricted in some way, often requiring you to pay a small fee or have a prior account with the service provider. Wi-Fi hotspots generally use 802.11b/g technology and have limited range; they are best suited to use within the immediate vicinity of the network such as at a cafe, in a hotel or even on a train in Queensland. Hotspots certainly don't offer the same mobility as wireless broadband — and definitely aren't as widespread as mobile transmission towers — but if you need to get on the Internet in one particular location, then Wi-Fi hotspots can be a good option. One advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots is that they can deliver faster Internet speeds than standard wireless broadband. Since hotspots are linked to a fixed broadband service like ADSL2+ they can theoretically provide speeds of up to 24 megabits per second (Mbps) to the user, as compared to the maximum of 21Mbps currently offered by the fastest wireless broadband services. Realistically, the maximum speed won't be reached, particularly if the Wi-Fi hotspot is being used by several dozen people simultaneously, but it can be more reliable in some instances than wireless broadband.

The technology

Mobile broadband is essentially a mobile phone for your PC — it uses the same GSM and 3G technologies that provide voice and data to your mobile. Like mobiles, wireless broadband devices require SIM cards with a linked mobile number in order to determine your unique identity and charge your account. As a result, wireless broadband doesn’t require all-new technology to run: it employs the same transmission towers already used to service your mobile. GSM technology isn't tailored to deliver data and, as a result, only provides speeds comparable to a dial-up connection. However, this technology is still available as a fallback for your wireless broadband service should you lose the 3G connection or if you aren't in a 3G coverage area. The majority of data is delivered over 3G and more recently 3.5G (a.k.a. HSPA) which can deliver data at speeds of between 3.6Mbps and a theoretical 42Mbps. Most current wireless broadband modems work at 3.6Mbps or 7.2Mbps, though Telstra offers a theoretical maximum speed of 21Mbps over its Next G network provided you have a compatible modem. Whereas mobile broadband typically uses the 850-2100MHz range of the radio spectrum to deliver Internet services, fixed broadband services use an outside spectrum that doesn't interfere with established mobile technologies. For example, Unwired uses the reserved 3500MHz spectrum. Because this is separate from existing mobile-based technologies, coverage is inferior to mobile broadband (Unwired is currently only available in selected parts of Sydney and Melbourne) and speeds are much slower (an average of 1Mbps). Both technologies allow you to take your Internet with you, but the speed and coverage benefits of mobile broadband make it a better choice for most consumers. In many cases, you can also share the same bill between your mobile phone and Internet account.

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Pricing and quota

Wireless broadband pricing changes quite rapidly so we can't provide a definitive guide as to which company provides the best pricing, but there are a few things you can keep an eye out for when choosing a plan. Fixed wireless broadband providers like Unwired provide good value services that generally have a cheaper monthly cost-per-gigabyte than mobile broadband providers. However, while you can download more for less, the speeds offered are much slower than mobile broadband equivalents. Mobile broadband pricing has dropped dramatically in recent years, with prices often on par if not cheaper than comparable ADSL or ADSL2+ plans. Speed, coverage and equipment costs should all be taken into account when tossing up between wireless broadband and fixed-line services, but if you want mobile Internet, the pricing is certainly attractive. All the main telcos — Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and 3 Mobile — offer prepaid wireless broadband, which provides extra flexibility. Some wireless broadband providers charge a premium for better speed and coverage. Speeds of between 3.6Mbps and 7.2Mbps will suffice for regular Web browsing and e-mail, along with some video streaming if required. Check the speed being offered by the provider and the maximum speed of the modem itself; not every USB modem available can handle 21Mbps speeds. Download quotas aren't as important for wireless broadband plans as they are with fixed-line services. Though you might need 30 or 40GB at home to download movies from iTunes, you are unlikely to do the same while you are out, so 5 or 6GB might be all that you need to watch trailers, download the occasional song and ensure you get all your e-mail. For most people, however, even 1GB of data is enough for light Web browsing and e-mail. It is best to consider how much download quota is necessary for your needs and choose a plan accordingly. Like fixed broadband services, many mobile broadband services either charge supplementary costs or shape download speeds if you exceed your quota. Though painful, choosing a plan which shapes your speed is the ideal way to avoid a nasty shock when your bill arrives.

Availability

The availability of wireless broadband works in a similar fashion to mobile phones. If you're in range of a wireless receiver (equivalent, in this sense, to a mobile cell tower), then you have an Internet connection. If not, then you have nothing. In some cases, you may be just in range but have poor or intermittent reception, which might result in slower than normal speeds. You do not need line-of-sight to get reception. Mobile towers still service a much greater area than fixed wireless broadband services, and 3G is continually expanding to overlap the majority of GSM coverage. Fixed broadband services require their own infrastructure, coverage still isn't comprehensive — Unwired has some coverage of Sydney and Melbourne's metropolitan areas and the company even provides different coverage maps depending on whether you are using a modem or a notebook expansion card. Mobile broadband services are still prone to black spots, even in metropolitan areas but, on the whole, provide more extensive coverage than fixed wireless broadband. Reception and reliability is entirely dependent on the carrier, with Telstra's Next G service providing the best coverage by far. The most important thing to look at when choosing a wireless broadband provider is whether it has coverage in all the areas you might want to use your connection. You need to check with the provider very carefully. If you're in a marginal reception area, such as the outlying areas of major cities, you may find the connection drops out occasionally, as weather patterns and other interference wreak havoc with your wireless connection. You don't want to be caught with an Internet connection that only works half the time.

Wireless broadband providers

There are numerous wireless broadband providers, ranging from mobile telcos to providers like Unwired and service resellers like Internode. Though we recommend you to look at each carrier and their equipment in detail before making a final decision, you can see a brief overview of which wireless broadband providers suit your needs by visiting the broadband site Whirlpool. By going to the "Broadband Choice" page available in the navigation bar and filling out some criteria, you can find a basic list of wireless broadband providers that cater to your needs. Once this is done, choose three or four that are closer to what you want, and have a look at their equipment, speeds, coverage and any possible hidden costs. It can be confusing, but research is the key to ensuring that you don't screw up your purchase and get stuck in an expensive contract.

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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.