Telstra 4G USB: A week in review

4G. It’s like 3G..but plus one, right? Well actually, closer to “times ten” but we’ll get to that. Telstra have, to somewhat less fanfare than I’d expected, released their new 4G (Long Term Evolution, or LTE) network to anyone lucky enough to live in or around a capital CBD, capital airport or “selected regional” areas.

What’s it do?

Telstra introduced their 3G network under the name of “NextG” in October 2006 to replace the aging CDMA network. It uses HSPA+ to provide a (theoretical) downstream speed of a respectable 21Mbps. The network was received to mixed attitudes by users Australia-wide, but has seen significant improvements since its inception. The new 4G network is being implemented alongside the 3G network to expand the speed and connectivity capabilities of Telstra’s NextG networks.

What’s in the box?

The Sierra AirCard 320U (sold as the “Telstra USB 4G”) arrives wrapped in fancy Telstra livery with the new branding and colour scheme. Inside the box, the first thing you’ll find is the 320U itself. A sleek device not much larger than a matchbox, the 4G USB is very easy on the eyes. With its chrome and piano black finish, it’s sure to fit in with even the flashiest of modern gadgets. It’s is a magnet for fingerprints, but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed with a cursory wipe on your sleeve. At $300 a pop, the 4G is the kind of device you’ll likely want to take care of. It feels somewhat solid in the hands, but is made of plastic and has a couple of moving parts. Between the apparent fragility and the fingerprint-loving finish, I’m surprised by the lack of pouch, case, cleaning cloth or anything protective whatsoever. Perhaps Telstra/Sierra know something I don’t. The USB connector swivels 180 degrees both vertically and horizontally, ensuring you’ll be able to fit it into all but the most unusually placed USB ports.

Underneath the 4G USB in the box, you’ll find two accessories; a USB extension cable and a handy belt clip. I’m lead to believe that the belt clip also doubles as a method of attaching the device to your laptop’s display for better coverage, but I haven’t needed to do this. There’s also the obligatory manuals, security warnings, and other such stuff that generally goes ignored.

Getting the thing going

The installation couldn’t have been any easier. Plug the 4G USB in, wait for Windows to pick it up, then click through the TRU-Install wizard. It didn’t take much more than 5 clicks on my Windows 7 computer (and, interestingly enough, my Windows 8 Developer Preview machine). I didn’t have a Windows XP Service Pack 3 machine handy to test on, but the documentation insists it is compatible. After the installer completed I was greeted with a swish new “Telstra Mobile Broadband” application, brandishing Telstra’s new colour scheme. Upon pressing “Connect Now” it took all of a second to establish a solid connection to Telstra’s network.

So, How’s it go?

Initially, I was concerned. I connected faster than I could have imagined, then noticed I had been given an IP address of 10.230.13.1. The network-savvy will know that this is a private IP address, meaning that Telstra are utilising Carrier Grade NAT (CGN) to provide me my service. This, while surprising, is not unexpected given that the internet is running (or to some, has run) out of IP addresses. This means, put simply, that I’ll be limited somewhat in connections back to my computer from the internet, and may notice some speed issues if the network is particularly busy. I don’t think this will become an issue for most users, though. I certainly didn’t notice any problem.

The connection itself is very zippy and seems to do what I need effectively. For example, right now, I have the Nokia World keynote streaming to my notebook while I sit in a shopping center in Melbourne. I also have my DropBox synchronising new data I created today (downloading at roughly 800Kbps), and my Twitter client chirping at me in the background. There is no lag or delay to be found, and the information is all there when I need it. Skype and video calling work well over the 4G connection; in fact, I used it this Monday night to get my fix of Q & A on ABCNews24.

The speed is OVER NINE THOUSAND!

Not quite, but this thing is damn fast. I said earlier that it’s more like “3G times ten” . I’ve even got some figures to back that up. These tests were configured using my tethered iPhone 4 (on Telstra) for the 3G connection, and the 4G USB for the 4G connection. I won’t illustrate too much, the numbers speak for themselves: (all speeds in Megabits per second)

Location 3G Down 3G Up 4G Down 4G Up
Swanston Street 3.26 2.40 20.49 18.67
South Melbourne 1.23 0.5 26.69 17.84
Melbourne Central 5.47 1.56 33.59 18.90

As can be seen, the 4G speed differs between 5 and 20 times as fast as 3G, with upstream being the real improvement. The Telstra USB 4G will fall back to a 3G connection when it can’t get to the LTE network, but I didn’t have this happen to me during my attempts. Even as far out as Caulfield I was able to get a solid 4G signal, which is impressive. I’ve tried hard to find fault with this thing, but apart from the CGN, and general lack of availability of the 4G network, I really can’t suggest anything that should be different. I doubt CGN will present a serious issue to most users, and the network will expand as Telstra get to it. 3G is quick, no doubt, but 4G just goes that extra mile and provides a service that is really fast.

Alright, how do I get one?

The Telstra USB 4G is already in abundance in and around CBDs, and you should be able to pick one up from your local Telstra Shop, or failing that, from Telstra.com. Be sure to check the coverage maps to ensure you can actually get a 4G service before you spend your hard earned pennies. With the feature that the 4G USB will fall back on 3G at 3G speeds, and the plans for 4G and 3G being the exact same thing, I’d recommend grabbing one of these if you’re in the market for a new device anyway. All round, it’s a great device, and I will certainly not be looking for a replacement any time soon. Even though I’ve had the Telstra USB 4G little more than a fortnight, I’d struggle without it already.

- Posted from Melbourne Central shopping centre via my Telstra 4G USB.

Written on November 3, 2011