4G's slow summer

Average 4G speeds have dropped 18 percent since November. It seems that a bunch of new users could be slowing things down. Can it bounce back, or are we starting to move down to the long-term average for wireless technology?

You'd expect broadband speeds to drop in the school holidays, due to bored kids with more time to play games and surf the internet. We saw it at Easter , when DSL speeds were 5 percent down on the previous month. Speeds were soon resurrected, and by September they were 14 percent faster.

According to the latest data (gathered from users of the ZDNet Broadband Speed Test) the summer holidays have shown a similar drop for home DSL users. January showed a 3 percent fall on the December figure. As the first graph shows, speeds took the biggest hit early in the month, although those with the top four internet service providers (ISPs), Telstra, Optus, iiNet, and TPG, avoided the bigger dips of the smaller players.


This time, though, the drop isn't just the impact of a school holiday. It seems to be part of a gradual slide since October. It could be because ISPs are under-provisioning their networks--as we eat up more data, their backhaul links are running hot. Or it could be because people on higher-speed plans are now moving to fibre, leaving DSL as an outpost for price-sensitive, low-speed users. Certainly, we're seeing fewer DSL test lately--in January, there were less than half the DSL tests we saw back in August (6,500 tests).


It's a different story for 4G. Drops in speed are most likely the result of extra users hogging bandwidth. More capacity can fix the problem, but for how long? And how many users? Monthly speeds have been up and down for most of the last 12 months, as if capacity was provisioned, then filled, with a lag between each. The best average was for May 2012, which, at 14.1Mbps, was well above the January figure (9.9Mbps).


Throughout these cycles, 4G has exceeded the average speed for DSL. But can it maintain the rage? 4G networks are still fairly empty, yet it seems already extra users are slowing things down. 4G tests have doubled since August (from just under 300), and speeds over that period have fallen 28 percent. It looks like a few folks got a 4G phone for Christmas and the networks need to respond. Speeds will pick up, but I suspect we're a way off discovering what the true long-term average is for wireless broadband.

Meanwhile, for fibre, which averaged 25.4Mbps in January, we can be sure that the trend is only heading upwards, irrespective of the number of users piled onto it.


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