In our opinion, Telstra could have made more of a fuss when it announced it network upgrade recently, taking the theoretical maximum line speed for the Next G network from 14.4Mbps to 21Mbps in Australia's major cities. This is quite a feat for an over-the-air mobile broadband service. While the Guinness Book of Record's notes this one down, we play the waiting game as mobile devices manufacturers play catch up with this latest advancement.
Telstra has again employed OEM Sierra to deliver its Next G broadband hardware. The Telstra Turbo 21 USB modem is the first device capable of delivering on Telstra's new speed promises. It's probably worth pointing out before we go further that this particular promise is a very loose one. Theoretically the network is capable of delivering 21Mbps but only if you parked yourself immediately next to a base station, and accessed an uncongested network. Telstra pastes the caveat "customers will experience typical user download speeds of 550Kbps – 8Mbps" over all its promotional materials. The difference between 550Kbps and 8Mbps is like the difference between a car in first gear and a car in fourth.
The software needed to use the Turbo 21 comes on the bundled CD and installation, and set up are all but automatic processes. The software is compatible with Microsoft operating systems including XP and Vista but, unlike previous BigPond modems, it's not available to Mac users. Once installed you have access to a mini-window interface with a single "connect" button. The interface gives a visual indication of signal strength and of the amount of data sent and received, but doesn't include the detailed traffic info you get with the competition's broadband services, like 3 Mobile and Vodafone. From this window you can send SMS messages using the SIM in the modem.
We tested the Turbo 21 at a private residence in Sydney city. Our experience of the network's performance varied a great deal, but landed on the right side of excellent. At its best the network was capable of emulating the performance of an ADSL2+ connection to the same laptop, line speeds of up to nearly 6Mbps and download speeds of about 720Kbps. At these speeds we could download streaming video and comfortably played online game Left 4 Dead using the Turbo 21. But even a day later we saw this performance halved, the line speed at 2.9Mbps. This is still a very respectable data speed and more than adequate for web surfing.
In the information released by Telstra with this announcement we understand it won't increase the price of its plans for customers using the Turbo 21, but customers will have to fork out AU$499 for the new modem (or for AU$299 when bundled with a data pack). At the time of writing, Telstra wireless broadband plans comes in four price categories: 200Mb for AU$29.95, 1GB for AU$59.95, 5GB for AU$89.95 and 10GB for AU$129.95. The 200MB and 1GB packages are charged AU$0.25 for every MB over this limit, while the 5GB and 10GB plans are throttled to 64Kbps speeds once the allowance is met. All plans are over 12 months.
All in all, it's a case of getting what you pay for. Vodafone and Optus both offer 5GB per month for AU$39.95 and throw in the modem for free over a 24-month contract, but there's no doubt you will get faster data and better coverage across Australia on Telstra's network if you're willing to (or have no option but to) pay double for the privilege.
At these prices this is definitely one for business expense accounts and while we used the example of online gaming to test the modem we can't imagine penniless students ponying up for this pricey net access. This is nothing new, Telstra has been the most expensive wireless broadband provider from day one. If you're currently a Telstra wireless broadband customer and you're happy to upgrade your modem then you're in for quite a decent speed bump.