While the relative merits of Next G vs CDMA as a mobile phone network will forever remain in question, no one seems to be arguing that Next G is winning out when it comes to data.
The Next G network currently runs at a theoretical maximum downlink of 14.4Mbps and a 1.9Mbps uplink. In real terms, downlink speeds hit between 550kbps and 3Mbps, and a well positioned user — in a major city, for example — bursts of closer to 6Mbps, with upload speeds of some 300kbps to 1Mbps, bursting to 1.3Mbps.
The CDMA network, by comparison offered a typical user experience of 300 to 600kbps downlink and a mere 156kbps uplink.
Telstra expects that Next G's network peak will be 21Mbps by the end of the year and double that again by 2009 after it upgrades to HSDPA+, or 'Evolved HSDPA'.
According to Robin Simpson, research director at Gartner, Next G will give rural users a data boost, but creating a high bandwidth network for rural areas hasn't come without its trade-offs.
"When you design a wireless network, the laws of physics mean that you can choose only two of the three desirable characteristics: range, speed or capacity. In rural areas, you want range and speed, but you don't need much capacity, because there will be fewer people simultaneously accessing a base station — compared to the city," he explains.
"The 850MHz frequency is ideal for rural areas, as it gives you better range for a given speed, but not much capacity. In the city, this means that to get the extra capacity, Telstra has to build more base stations than if it had chosen the traditional 2100MHz 3G spectrum like everyone else."
"In other words, Next G has really been designed with a bias towards coverage and wireless broadband performance in rural and regional areas. A mobile user can now get one or two megabits per second pretty much anywhere in Australia that there is a town, whereas with CDMA they were lucky to get one-tenth of that."
The speeds make Next G popular among ISVs (independent software vendors) that are targeting services towards regional and rural Australia.
Take Momentum Technologies Group, an Australian company that specialises in video over mobiles. The start-up's application, mView, enables mobile devices to capture live video in the field and stream it in real-time across a wireless network.
Momentum cut its teeth developing applications on fixed and CDMA/EV-DO networks, but has since found Next G to be a better bet for data.
"Our clients are mainly in regional areas," says Momentum Group CEO Adele Whish-Wilson. "The overwhelming majority of these are using Next G."
Both the Tasmanian Fire Service and Queensland Fire and Rescue service use mView over the Next G network to transmit real-time video (from firefighters on the ground and helicopters in the air) of blazes back to their operations centres.
The application is also used by hospitals in regional Victoria — Echuca and Boort — enabling roaming district nurses to gain assessments from specialists back at the hospital via streaming video while out on the road visiting patients.
Agricultural industry group Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) also uses Next G to offer the NLIS (National Livestock Identification System) to farmers with Next G equipped mobile devices, giving them access to a database which can help prevent the outbreak of disease and ensure market access to Australian livestock.
The MLA, says NLIS manager Aaron Iori, wanted farmers to be able to enter data into the database from the field rather than the desktop.
"We hadn't considered such a service on the CDMA network, as data download speeds were not fast enough," he said.
Iori is well aware that many farmers are having trouble connecting to Next G from the bulk of their property.
"But there are ways around that," he says. "We deliberately built the application on the basis that the user wasn't going to have to be connected to the network at all times. If you don't have mobile coverage, you can still do all of your work, and the data gets sent to the database when connection is re-established."
For rural and regional users, the introduction and Next G and closure of CDMA are a catch-22. Most, like South Australian cattle auctioneer Nina Murphy, are "sad to see CDMA go", preferring it in terms of making a simple phone call.
But the switch hasn't been without its benefits. A Telstra representative installed Next G antennae at her company's last annual auction, enabling remote buyers to watch video feeds of the stock and submit phone bids over SMS.
"We sold two heifers to a buyer in NSW," she said.
Simpson says that many of Gartner's clients in regional and rural Australia — both government and private sector alike — can see the potential in Next G.
"For the first time, it is now possible for them to take their services closer to the citizen or to the customer, and there are a lot of new mobile business projects being rolled out as a result," he said.