We've been using Telstra's 4G for some time now, so when the opportunity to test Optus' 4G came up, we grabbed it and set out on a road trip up to the test area to find out whether Optus had serious broadband to offer.
One of these things looks like the other. That's not coincidental; both Optus and Telstra are using the same Sierra Wireless Aircard 320U modems, although whether that'll be the case long term isn't clear. Telstra sells the 4G Sierra modem outright, whereas Optus has provided them to 1,000 residents of Newcastle and the surrounding Hunter Valley region as part of its trial. Both Telstra and Optus are offering 4G services on the 1800Mhz band, but the 320U also supports 3G -- but in the review models, only on the 850Mhz band, which is what Telstra uses, but not Optus. The practical upshot? Optus' trial 4G modem works -- but only within its 4G areas. Outside of it, it won't do anything. Optus tells us that the "final" hardware will be dual 900Mhz (that's Optus 3G) and 1800Mhz compatible. Optus expects its 4G network to be rolled out across Sydney, Melbourne and Perth by "the middle of the year", and recently finalised acquisition of Vividwireless; that'll give it access to even more spectrum and may accelerate its 4G plans, which otherwise call for future rollout in capital cities in 2013.
As a side note, trying to get two hardware-identical modems to run on the same laptop without conflicts? Total pain in the backside, just in case you're likely to need to run both.
4G can be quite variable stuff, but we were keen to see whether the 4G coverage offered by Optus would match up to Telstra's existing 4G coverage. Optus has the technical lead here in the Newcastle region; its coverage maps suggest a wide blanket coverage, where Telstra has 4G "spots" of coverage. We chose four; two in Newcastle, one slightly further north in Maitland and one south in Wyong, where both carriers indicated they'd have 4G coverage.
When you think of high-tech testing, you probably don't picture this:
But then, that's the beauty of mobile broadband; it can be anywhere that coverage extends to. As to the results? We'll have the full results and analysis in an upcoming issue of TechLife, but the basics look very good, especially considering Optus is still in "trial" phase. Telstra's still got the 4G crown, with one of its test areas providing a much greater speed than Optus', but then 4G, like any wireless data technology, is highly variable. If Optus can bring the quality data that saw it neck and neck with Telstra in most of our tests at the kinds of price points we've seen Optus go to market with, there might be some very cheap, very fast mobile data heading your way sometime soon.