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Recently, popular wisdom – and some independent testing – has shown Telecom’s XT holding a performance edge over Vodafone’s 3G.
But Apple’s latest tablet shows Vodafone has regained the initiative – at least with the right hardware, in the right place.
As you’ve probably heard, the new iPad supports 4G – great news for people in the US, where compatible 4G networks are being rolled out. But not so much for New Zealand, where there won’t be any 4G during the lifetime of the iPad 3 (yes, we’re going to call it that for the sake of convenience), or at least until the iPad 4 or iPad 5 rolls around.
Less known is that the iPad 3 also supports something called dual carrier HSPA+.
Dual what? Here’s a quick backgrounder:
A 3G mobile network can be boosted to support theoretical data download speeds of up to 14Mbit/s with HSPA (high speed packed access) technology and a compatible mobile device, such as the iPhone 4S.
Telecom, Vodafone (and now 2degrees, in places) have taken things a further, turbocharging their 3G networks to support mobile data download speeds of up to 21Mbit/s with HSPA+.
That is, faster than the speed most get from a landline broadband connection.
That’s great news if you’ve got a data dongle, or a HSPA+ compatible smartphone like Samsung’s Android-based Galaxy S2.
Now, there’s dual carrier HSPA+, which allows for a theoretical data download speed of up to 43Mbit/s.
After a limited roll-out last year, Vodafone has expanded dual carrier HSPA+ around a number of main centers (see a coverage map here).
For now, it gives Vodafone an edge over Telecom and 2degrees.
New iPad supports dual carrier HSPA+
Late last year, Vodafone released a USB data dongle, the house-brand Vodem K4605, that supports dual carrier HSPA+. NBR was impressed during a hands-on trial, hitting speeds of up to 15Mbit/s, and in one brief thrilling moment a burst above 20Mbit/s.
Now, due to brilliant foresight or dumb luck, Vodafone can claim a second dual carrier-compatible device: the new iPad.
After using the iPad 3 with first an Apple-supplied Telecom XT Micro-SIM, then 2degrees and Vodafone Micro-SIMs, NBR can report that Vodafone offers the fastest mobile data performance, at most times, with the new tablet.
(Like its predecessors, the Micro-SIM packing models of the iPad 3 can be used on Telecom, Vodafone or 2degrees. Vodafone is the official carrier to the degree it’s the only company with dedicated iPad data plans, and that if you buy an iPad 3 4G or iPad 2 3G direct from Apple’s website, it will arrive with a Vodafone Micro-SIM.)
Yesterday in Auckland’s Albert Park – scene of both Telecom’s infamous head-to-head ad, and Vodafone’s response - NBR hit a top-speed of 9.53Mbit/s (using SpeedTest.net), with multiple results over the 9Mbit/s mark (and some around the 3Mbit/s mark). Upload speeds (typically sub-1MB for mobile) were often above 3Mbit/s – handy given people often upload photos and video to online services from mobiles these days.
It's so quick that it was several hours before I realised I'd forgotten to switch wi-fi back on.
By contrast, XT downloads topped out at 8.4Mbt/s in earlier NBR tests, averaging around the 6Mbit/s mark.
2degrees consistently clocked between 4Mbit/s and 5Mbit/s. That's solid performance and at a good price. The carrier's drawback remains its best mobile pricing is only available in its Broadband Zones (that is, centres where it's built its own network), but that area is expanding all the time.
As ever, mobile broadband testing is something of a dark art. Variables include how many other devices are connected the closest cellsite, your proximity to and line of site to that cellsite, how much data is being transmitted on the carrier’s network and more random events like passing trucks that deflect a signal.
I see on Geekzone one iPad 3 owner has hit 23Mbit/s on Vodafone.
And Vodafone staff tell me they've clocked speeds in the high 20s - as have Geekzoners who've tethered to a laptop for a sustained FTP download of a multi-gigabit file. I don't doubt it. Dual Carrier supports that kind of speed under those circumstance (even if it would be financial suicide for most to try it). But it's peformance is good enough to shine around the 10Mbit/s mark with everyday mobile surfing, too.
That doesn’t surprise me, given I’ve been in the mid-teens and over 20Mbit/s with the dual carrier-compatible version of the Vodem.
But neither should you expect that sort of speed every day.
A rep for Vodafone told NBR that iPad users could expect real-life speeds of “anywhere up to 20Mbit/s”, sensibly dialing down expectations.
So: mobile history is again being re-written.
After its bungled XT launch, Telecom gold-plated its new network, arguable over-investing (with the help of $40 million in compo from Alcatel Lucent). On tech sites, it’s become lore that XT is indeed faster in more places for most devices, including iPhone and iPad. Even in its own testing, commissioned from Epitiro, Vodafone trailed XT in the key area of download tests.
With dual carrier, Vodafone’s turned the tables on Telecom, and clearly regained the performance lead – albeit only for iPad 3 and K4605 owners at this point.
If the next iPhone - or future Androids - join the dual carrier HSPA+ party then life will get really interesting.
Telecom will have to upgrade its network to support dual carrier - or hustle along its upgrade to 4G (Vodafone and 2degrees also have 4G plans. Like Telecom, neither carrier will give a specific time table).
That's the good news.
The bad news is that if, say, I decided to don't load an HD movie on my iPad 3 - and it could easily be streamed, at the speeds I've achieved - then I could blow through a monthly mobile data allowance in 90 minutes (Vodafone offers 2GB for $49.95 and half a gig for $20, or $10 on account).
Your immediate reaction would probably be, You fool, why didn't you download the flick via wi-fi. After all, for many of us it's "free" around the office or home, or at least disappears into the monthly mix.
And you'd be right. It's a pity that, increasingly, all the mobile bandwidth we need is on tap - but people are becoming increasingly acclimatised to wi-fi substitution (and, indeed, a majority are buying wi-fi-only iPads, according to Telecom).
Mobile data caps have been increasing with all carriers. Let's hope that trend accelerates.