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NBN alternatives

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There’s been a lot of recent press surrounding the first folks to be connected to the National Broadband Network. I’m not entirely sure that it can be called “National” when there’s only a few connected users to date, but that’s splitting hairs. Unless you happen to be in just a few spots in Tasmania (or shortly a few more in mainland Australia), the chances are you’re more than a year or two away from being able to access NBN services.

So what do you do in the meantime?

For a (thankfully) decreasing number of users, dialup still remains the only method of internet access. They’re the communities that will benefit most from the NBN. The problem with dialup used to be speed, and it still is, but in a different way than a decade ago. Ten years ago, Dialup was common and web pages and Internet services were formatted with dialup users in mind. Today’s web pages and applications pretty much all presume you’re on some kind of broadband, and dialup won’t cut it for much more than very simple email checking.

What then of broadband? Here you split into several choices of broadband, dictated largely by where you actually are. Satellite broadband services (and associated technologies such as WiMAX) do cover some small (and mostly remote) pockets of Australia. Cable-based Internet speeds have increased in recent years on some services, but they’re still highly limited based on whether or not your home or business was a beneficiary of the cable rollouts of the mid 1990s, and the lack of price competition

For most people, broadband equals ADSL or ADSL2+ if you’re near enough to an ADSL2+ exchange. There’s been little to no movement in value in the ADSL space for years, as most of the hardware is Telstra-owned, even if it’s resold by other vendors. In the ADSL2+ space, there’s more competition, and as such a lot better value on offer — again if you’re near enough to an ADSL2+ exchange.

ADSL/ADSL2+ might be a bit stagnant in terms of the deals getting better, but where there’s a lot of movement in the consumer broadband space currently is mobile broadband. Traditionally, using mobile broadband was a lot like playing Russian Roulette with the contents of your wallet. Unless you were exceptionally careful about how, when and where you connected, your mobile broadband bill could quickly inflate to catastrophic bill shock dimensions.

That’s changed very rapidly in recent months, with a lot of pre-paid options giving you 1GB of data for as little as $15 per month. That kind of data rate makes some low-speed ADSL options a little obsolete, especially when you consider that your mobile broadband is indeed mobile. Coverage can still be an issue depending on where you are, but it’s improving. On a recent road trip between Sydney and Adelaide, I tested a Telstra microSIM in an iPad on the road between Hay and Balranald. For those who haven’t done that particular run, describing it as the middle of nowhere is pretty apt. At the time I was in the car — I should note that I wasn’t driving and web browsing at the same time — there were few other users on that stretch of track. The mobile broadband speeds I got were better than my home ADSL2+ connection.

That’s mildly annoying, and admittedly I’m not going to move to the middle of the Hay plain just in order to get faster broadband. Still, it does point to a genuine improvement in mobile broadband access that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.


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