4G: Full of promise, full of traps
When 2012 started, there was a single 4G network in Australia, run by Telstra across a number of metropolitan and regional areas, but the only way you could access it was via USB or Wi-Fi dongle.
As 2012 draws to a close, there are two competing networks, with Optus’ cheaper alternative having fewer available sites but generally better performance in those areas it’s available; whether that’s Optus intelligence or the sheer weight of Telstra 4G customers is hard to say. Equally, though, we’re awash in “4G” capable — 4G is just a marketing term; what we’re talking about here is LTE 1800MHz — phones and devices. From two simple connection options at the start of the year, there’s now a dizzying array of tablets, from Telstra’s ultra-cheap 4G Tablet to Apple’s fancy LTE-enabled iPad Mini, and more smartphones than any sane person could conceivably need, whether your operating system tastes run to iOS, Android or Windows Phone 8. Sorry Blackberry users — no good LTE news for you as yet, but with the release of Blackberry OS 10 now set for January 30th 2013, perhaps that will change. Speaking of next year, that’s also when Vodafone’s finally tipped to unveil its 4G solution; while as a network it’s certainly had its ups and downs over recent years, a little extra competition is no bad thing.
So there’s plenty of choice, which is nice, and 4G LTE can be dizzyingly fast for a mobile network. I’ve clocked speeds up to 60Mbps down in the past, which is excellent, although (just to cap this one off quickly) it’s not a fixed line alternative, and this brings in focus the issues to consider with any switch to LTE for your personal or business use.
Firstly, the speed can be dizzying, but mobile data isn’t free by any stretch of the imagination. If you’re on a “capped” plan (a misnomer in itself), it’s even easier to shoot over your cap with 4G data, simply because you can burn through so much more of it so much more quickly. Pre-paid plans can take that bill shock sting out, but the flip side is that when you burn through your pre-paid funds, the service simply stops working.
The service ceasing to work — or just simply slowing to a crawl — is also a possibility. The amount of overall spectrum available for LTE is limited and shared across everyone on the network segment you’re sitting on, the same as any other wireless broadband option. If you’re the only one using 4G (as was the case early on when I first tested both Telstra and Optus’ networks, where the load was minimal) you’ll naturally get better speeds, but as time goes on and more users join the network, you can expect speeds to go down.
That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t consider an LTE device for your mobile internet needs; 2013 should see even more 1800MHz devices and possibly as that year winds down some 700Mhz LTE units as well, depending on how quickly the auction for that spectrum, currently being used for analogue TV broadcasts concludes. But it’s worth bearing in mind that fast is nice — but it isn’t the whole story.