Spend time around town with a few LTE gadgets and you get an exciting taste of the raw speed on offer.
Long Term Evolution (LTE) is the next phase of Australia's mobile broadband arms race, offering real world download speeds of 40 Mbps and beyond. Late last year Telstra was the first local telco to launch a commercial LTE service, starting in the centre of the major cities and slowly working outward. Meanwhile Optus' LTE network is live in Newcastle, while Vodafone has conducted LTE trials but won't be drawn on launch dates.
Of course all that speed isn't worth much if you don't have gadgets to enjoy it with. Initially Telstra offered a 4G/3G USB dongle for notebooks, as LTE devices can fall back on HSDPA when beyond the LTE footprint. LTE devices tend to support the new Dual-Cell HSDPA which can hit 20 Mbps in the suburbs. While new iPad owners were disappointed to miss out on LTE, the inclusion of Dual-Cell HSDPA isn't a bad consolation prize.
Over time we saw the launch of Telstra's first LTE-capable devices, HTC's Velocity 4G smartphone and Samsung's Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G tablet. Other devices have gradually appeared but these initial Android gadgets offer a tantalising first taste of LTE goodness, as long as you don't stray too far from the centre of town.
Telstra says LTE offers theoretical download speeds of 100 Mbps, but we all know to ignore "theoretical" speeds when it comes to wireless technologies. Even Telstra conceded the point, after some encouragement from the consumer watchdog, and has taken to citing more realistic "real world" wireless speeds. Yet from our testing Telstra's "real world" LTE figure of 40 Mbps is a little conservative. Depending on where you're standing. And when you're standing there.
At its best we clocked Telstra's LTE network at a blistering 55 Mbps on the Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G tablet using the speedtest.net app. Perhaps more impressive was the 14 Mbps upload speed, with a low ping time of 47ms. Many people would kill for these kinds of broadband speeds at home let alone on the road.
Roaming the inner suburbs we generally could only squeeze two-thirds of the speed out of the HTC's Velocity 4G compared to the Samsung tablet. But at its best the Velocity 4G clocked a very respectable 42 Mbps down and a phenomenal 28 Mbps up. Once again, speeds that put most fixed-line broadband connections to shame.
It's interesting to note that the smartphone and tablet posted their best results in different locations during our tour of Melbourne's inner suburbs. In fact results varied significantly. The Galaxy Tab's peak of 55 Mbps was in the inner suburb of Parkville, standing alongside the vast expanse of Royal Park late at night when few people would have been using the network. It's not inconceivable it was the only active LTE device in the area. Yet earlier in the afternoon, only a few streets away, the tablet could only muster 15 Mbps down and up. The speed drop also saw the latency go up and it was often over 100ms.
Such fluctuating results are in the nature of wireless technologies, but it's a fact perhaps lost on those who feel that LTE and other high-speed mobile networks could replace than than complement a national fibre rollout.
Of course the other big question regarding LTE is what can you do with all that extra speed? It was interesting to note that the Galaxy Tab didn't load complicated webpages any faster when it was sucking down 55 Mbps. iView video clips didn't start playing faster, nor did files upload to Dropbox any faster.
This isn't to say that LTE is worthless. It just means current bottlenecks are not mobile network speeds but rather how fast a browser can render pages or how fast mobile services can send and receive data. Handheld gadgets and mobile-friendly services will improve with time and thankfully LTE seems well-placed to support them. Yet for now you're most likely to appreciate the speed boost of LTE when using it to supply internet access to your notebook while you're out and about.