Mobile broadband's false promise

Mobile broadband's false promise

Summary: If wireless broadband is supposed to liberate us from fixed-line data tethers, it's a dream that won't become a reality any time soon.


It's one of the most persistent images of the future that we already have today. Wireless broadband has liberated us from the tyranny of the office or the chaos of a kid-riddled home. We can work from wherever we like — although, for some reason, it's almost always by a swimming pool or white-sand beach. We can run the household from wherever we like, too — although, for some other reason, it's almost always at a coffee shop in a suburban shopping mall.

The wording of Telstra's promotional material is typical of the genre. "Whether you're on a train, in a cafe, or on your beach holiday, you can connect to the world around you, download and stream your favourite content, and access your emails without any hassles when you're out and about in Telstra coverage areas," says the website, and the plans have names like "Freedom" and "Liberty".

But if you actually try to live this life of liberty, as I've done recently, you'll soon find that the freedom is illusory — at least here in Australia, and at least if your online life is anything other than peasant-grade.

It's the same kind of freedom you can expect on prison day-release. You can wander a little bit, but you'll have to be back on your fixed-broadband leash by nightfall.

The key problem is the minuscule data transfer allowances. There's simply not enough to sustain a reasonable day's online activity.

Until a few months ago, the most data that Telstra would provision onto a mobile broadband service was 15GB per month, and both uploads and downloads counting towards that quota. Optus offers a 20GB plan. Vodafone tops out at 5GB per month, although there's the option to add extra data at $20 per gigabyte.

Using 15GB per month as an example, if for no other reason than that's the plan I'm on, it gives you half a gigabyte per day. A mere 500MB. For everything you need to do in an entire 24-hour day.

It doesn't go far.

Watching just one hour of streaming video, such as ZDNet's Hangout with Turnbull and Conroy from Monday this week, will blow at least half of it. YouTube videos can vary wildly in bandwidth requirements, but ABC TV says the streaming version of their News24 channel is 300MB/hour in high resolution, or 200MB/hour in medium resolution.

An audio-only conference call on Skype burns around 50MB/hour each way, so that's 100MB/hour off your quota. Add video and ... well, forget it. There are reports of Skype video calls burning 500MB of data in just 45 minutes.

But even without the supposed luxury of video — and I contend that in 2013, video isn't really a luxury, or shouldn't be — what I've learned this month is that when you "connect to the world around you" with your laptop and mobile broadband link, all the little pieces add up fast.

Want to stay in touch with the news? ZDNet's home page weighs in at 1.8MB. The Sydney Morning Herald's is 2.2MB.'s is 2MB. Check the top 10 stories at each of five sites, and there goes 100MB.

And then there's the cloud.

Every single one of those services we expect to be connected to 24/7 contributes its own steady trickle of data. "If you are signed in to Skype, but not making any calls, Skype will use, on average, 0-4kbps," warns a Skype support page. Add in constant anti-virus updates (or check-with-the-cloud traffic); Evernote notebook synchronisation; cloud storage synchronisation, such as Google Drive or Dropbox; checking email, even if there's no new email to download...

My estimate is that even in my relatively sparse configuration, this background chatter alone constitutes almost 100MB per day.

Then on top of all that, there's the updates to your operating system and all your application software. How big was that last Patch Tuesday download? The last OS X update that also updated iTunes and iPhoto, and all the rest? That probably blew two days' allowance without you accomplishing anything.

Don't even think about BitTorrent.

Now in the telcos' defence, I don't think anyone's claiming that mobile broadband can serve as your sole internet connection — at least, not in any way that'd get them into trouble under consumer law. And like any sensible business, their prices are whatever they reckon they can get away with.

Bigger plans are becoming available. Since 25 November 2012, Telstra has offered a 25GB plan for $160 a month — although, it's not heavily promoted and it's still less than 1GB per day. If you know where to look, they have a business mobile plan with 120GB of included data for (gulp!) $600 a month.

But unless you have that kind of money, a mobile-only existence is certainly not "without any hassles". It is, in fact, one constant hassle. Of monitoring data usage. Of guessing how much data you've used since Telstra's data usage meter updated six hours ago. Of hitting your quota unexpected, and either having to pay those eye-watering data over-run charges or being throttled back to impossible-to-use dial-up speeds.

No, the mobile broadband liberation won't have arrived until we can spend an entire month online using nothing but mobile broadband, at an affordable price, and without having to ration out our data usage. It sounds to me like that's still years away.

Topics: Broadband, Mobility, Australia


Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust.

He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit trap, clear a jam in an IBM model 026 card punch and mix a mean whiskey sour.

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  • You've got it good!

    Only having to worry about download limits. Should come out to the sticks, a lot of people aren't able to get ADSL but can get wireless, JUST or it drops in and our. In some case it's like dial up speeds, but hey, the Coalition will fix it for us! NOT
  • well i do...

    I work in IT stream video on my smart tv, program systems online, check email, stream spotify, web surf and everything else. Haven't hit my limit... I think everyone of your assumptions of data usage a floored.. my parents are also on the same Telstra set up.... As long as you're not doing massive blueray downloads there isn't really an issue... It's very responsive, I watch abc 24 hour news without buffering even! In hd!
  • Wireless is always has hurdles

    In my experience the US is not a lot better. I remember arguing with a Verizon rep who claimed their 4G was way faster then Comcast broadband in my house? I seriously thought he had been drinking the Koolaid too long. I have no doubt that its improving but I also have my doubts at how much it can improve. Wireless cellular has always been something of a challenge to get coverage but also to handle the amount of users. As more and more users start using smartphones. So will the demand increase for bandwidth.
  • There are simple ways to reduce data usage..

    I've been doing it for the last year+. I normally use less than 5GB/mo..

    First thing, stop using IE, you don't have any real control over IE, so don't use it.
    I use Firefox, with "no script", "flash block", and "ad block plus" add on's..

    Next set your browser cache up to something reasonable, 256 MB, thus you won't be reloading commonly referenced stuff.

    Same goes for lookout(outlook).. use some 3rd party email reader to fetch and read your email. (make sure it deletes the email after you've downloaded it.)

    Ditto for Adobe.. avoid them.. too risky.. install "fox it"..

    Since you're not really using M$ malware to face the internet(browse/email), disable automatic updates, let some else be M$ guinea pig.

    With some discipline, limiting your self to no more than 2 hours a vids each month, it can be done.
    • Real gem article !

      Stilgherrian the entire article is a gem we need share with others.

      You are part way there, did you try the short-cut ?

      When switched to Linux - openSUSE, was amazed at resulting savings...
      Paul Parker-df504
      • Linux...

        If you compile it yourself, and just download diffs from the source repository, you would have *amazing* savings!
    • Good for You

      Tim, great that you're reducing data usage BUT I'd suggest that you're treating the symptom and not the cause. The cause for our angst here, and I think you'll agree, is that the Telcos charge waaaaaaay over the odds for data. When living in Viet Nam for 2 years I could do everything I wanted, Skype, IE, all the things that are heavy data users and the total bill was less than AUD20 per month using wireless and the coverage was fantastic. I'd suggest that the problem is not the amount of data but the cost of it.
  • Dream Will not Happen without Widespread FTTH

    Two reasons for this,
    First one is obvious, FTTH will offload the mobile networks.
    Second reason is you now have a means to gain access to the fibre in all locations. You can start setting up small cells in shopping centers, even is houses. As explained by Qualcomm the small femto cells should be able to be produced for the price of a wi-fi modem and can include 802.11AC. This model will only work if the MNO have them open access and they encourage the end user to install them on the network. Offering $1 GB or whatever could be a good start after all the end user has a device installed in there primes connected to there internet for back-haul.

  • Here's an idea

    Stilgherrian, if the quality of service you get from wireless is so poor, but the number of people signing up to it is still doubling each year, whereas the demand for fixed lines has been largely fixed for years, maybe you ought to be encouraging the government to spend our tens of billions there, or at least some of it, instead of spending all if it on a 20th century fixed line network. A 21st century telecoms network gives people mobility. Government should spend our money were we want and need it spent, and the massive increase in signup rate for wireless services shows where that is in telecoms.
    Gordon D
    • Troll Alert

      Back in your box Gordon, this is about Mobile Broadband. The article is clearly about mobile, and the related comments also. Keep you anti-NBN sentiments somewhere else (like in your own tinfoil hat for one). Stay on topic.
    • As stated in the article

      The immediate issue is the plans available, they don't allow anywhere near enough for daily use.

      A secondary issue (if the first was addressed adequately) is if everyone moved to wireless (3G/4G) the network would be almost unusable due to contention (the 4G networks are already starting to slow down). Until a way is found around that physical/physics issue, "Wireless for all" is likely to remain out of reach.
    • Good luck Gordon

      Oh Gordon, I think you feel we are living 10-20 years in the future, wireless networks are simply not capable of what you think is achievable, no matter how much money you want to throw at them, the technology is not even close to that of fibre to the home, stop living in your dream world.
  • Mobile broadband - farce!

    Let's face it - if you live in a metro area or if not that, then under a mobile tower, you are fine with "wireless" but let's get real - the illusion of "data anywhere, anytime" is not on!

    Last September and December I drove from just outside of Sydney to Broken Hill. I use Vodafone so from the west side of Nyngan where reception drops out until the east side of Broken Hill where it comes back again - nothing. Sure, in Cobar if you have Telstra, you get reception but be an interstate driver, a grey nomad or just someone on holidays and stop at a roadside stop in a nice park somewhere between Wilcannia and Broken Hill not close to any town and you get NOTHING at all no matter who you use UNLESS you have the ultra expensive Satellite phone and can, somehow, share data through that to your mobile device (pad, computer, whatever). Dont ever break down out there and expect to make a phone call, either!

    Until either the Federal Govt of the day (on the day it comes to pass) or one or more mobile network providers actually start putting up towers and/or repeaters to cover the major roads of Australia and even some not sealed roads that go to popular places like Birdsville Qld, then mobile broadband is a farce. You can NOT get coverage in MOST of Australia!

    So stay in your cosy little house or place of business and use your mobile broadband to give you untethered access because most of Australia doesnt have it!
  • Telcos aren't claiming that wireless can be our only internet,

    But it wasn't that long ago that it was Abbott's[1] Coalition that was claiming this, in their rose tinted vision of their future NBN.

    [1] Hey, if people can say Gillard Labor, I can say Abbott Coalition!
  • Good article but...

    Yeah it was a good article, but my gripe still rests with the Telco's for the sudden jeopardy of Data over-run pricing. It is obscene and downright sinister. Things have eased a little but, but i recall watching something on Iview and receiving a $200 plus bill for being just 500mb over limit. Another 1GB would have only cost $10 I found out LATER! Now I would have gladly (just) copped a doubling of the cost, say $20 for the overrun, but 10-20 times the price! I want more telco employees to shop with me so I can improve my business margins by charging the same indefencible out of order/contract fees. Sorry, your want sugar with the coffee now, no problems, that will be $50. Yes I know the coffee was only $5 but this is now outside of that order. You want fries with that.... no. That will be $8.65. At the collection window you now want the fries. No problem, that will be $86.50. But you had your chance back at the last window to get that for another $1. Yes I know it is sad, just press one for payments, two for an undeciferable operator or choose three to .......... beep, beep, beep.
  • mobile is not there yet...

    When I lived in Adelaide I had ADSL2 from Optus, so when I moved to a country town I switched to mobile from Optus. After a time I realised it was hopeless, Optus freely admitted their towers were saturated 18 hours a day on holidays, and there were no plans to upgrade any time soon. (Anecdotal evidence is the other carriers are no better). Finally I was able to get ADSL2+ from Telstra, which is effectively FTTN. My download speed is 24.5 Mbps. Downside is Testra wouldn't give it to me without a phone, which I didn't want because I have VoIP.
    We will have to wait years for Labor's NBN, I think most people want something sooner than that. Maybe mobile is the answer.
    • more....

      I meant to add.. the mobile networks need a lot of work though.
  • Just add a data pack

    to Telstra Mobile Broadband, it's not hard.
    • Oh gee JUST ADD A DATA PACK, never would have thought of that.

      JUST ADD A DATA PACK, never would have thought of that!!!!! It is this sort of mentality that doesn't solve problems, but inflames them. It's not having a data pack that is the problem, it is the SUDDEN JEOPARDY in overrun cost if you get it wrong. And who wants to pay for 5 GB data pack on the off chance you might go over 1, 2 or 3 GB - oh silly me, of course Telstra does. I hate little in my life, it is such a destructive emotion, but Telstra (well the who whole Telco mentality really) I find it really easy to hate. Automoron phone service anyone. The irony is all they have to sell is communication and are among the worst at it.
      • I've got an 8GB 4G Mobile Broadband plan

        Telstra send me a text when I get to 80%, if I think I'm gonna go over I buy a small pack, 1 or 3GB, really it ain't that hard. There is no 'SUDDEN JEOPARDY'.

        My point is the author got it wrong, you can have as much data as you're willing to pay for, yes it's more expensive than ADSL, but that's to be expected.

        As for your issues with Telstra I can't help you.