Telstra's second-gen BigPond Wireless Broadband Mobile Card (yes, we know it's a mouthful) piggybacks onto the fresh-baked Next G network. Next G uses the same 850MHz slice of spectrum as Telstra's EVDO/CDMA system, which will be closed in early 2008, and sits adjacent to the long-standing 900MHz GSM band.
While the frequency allocation puts Next G at odds with the 2100MHz 3G services run by all four local mobile carriers, Next G uses 3G technologies such as HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) to deliver turbo-charged speeds for data and downloads. Telstra claims "average speeds of 550Kbps to 1.5Mbps" - you can check the results of our real-world tests later in this review.
The card itself is a rebadged version of the GlobeTrotter GT Max produced by the Belgium-based Option, one of the leading OEMs for wireless data cards (Option also produces 3G cards for Optus and, overseas, Vodafone).
It's a standard PC Card format which runs under Windows (2000 and XP) and Mac OS X (10.3.9 or higher). However, users of late-model laptops which are equipped with only an ExpressCard slot - and that includes all of Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks - will need to wait until Next G versions of the BigPond ExpressCard and USB mini-modem arrives early next year.
The design is slightly cleaner than the original EVDO/CDMA card which had a stubby vertically-mounted antenna that, if you were using a small to mid-sized notebook, easily got in the way of your hands unless they stayed dead centre on the keyboard.
The new card is a huge improvement. It sports a unique "Butterfly" antenna which springs out of the card to reveal two small plastic-encased elements (each is around two-thirds the size of an SD memory card) which sit at 45 degree angle to one another for optimum signal capture. When you're done, the wafers snap securely back into the card for safety.
There's also a socket for fitting an external antenna, which Telstra sells for AU$29.95.
While the BigPond Wireless Broadband Mobile Card obviously works best in its native Next G environment, should you find yourself in a low-signal or no-signal area the card will fall back to GSM.
That's not a very appealing thought when you consider GSM's data rate nudges barely 70Kbps on its best days, but as Telstra is co-siting Next G transmitters with its existing GSM and CDMA stations you should expect the Next G footprint to rapidly grow.
The card can also be used overseas, where it roams onto the 850MHz 3G networks of Telstra partners in 33 countries, but the surcharge of AU$15 per MB makes for a significant ouch factor.
Telstra's Next G data card sports a unique pop-up "butterfly" antenna which retracts into the card's shell when not in use. Click to enlarge.
Telstra's BigPond Connection Manager 2 software provides a user friendly front-end with a good degree of control over both card and connection settings, and is a welcome step forward in features and stability compared to the first version of the client.
We were impressed that the post-install routine offered to set up email through Outlook or Outlook Express, but were less enamoured with its background attempt to change our browser's home page to bigpond.com. This was detected and subsequently blocked only because we were running anti-spyware utility, as home page hijacks are a common trait of spyware.