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Speed test: How fast is 4G, really?

Telstra claims its 4G service can reach 40Mbps. Optus reckons it can download a Maroon 5 song in 4.3 seconds. But what’s happening in reality?
Written by Phil Dobbie, Contributor

There's no doubt that 4G is a magnificent leap in the speed of mobile connectivity. For many of us, it's a big step forward compared to our fixed connection. Of the 5,2587 ZDNet Broadband Speed Tests run by 4G users between February and October this year, 13 percent attained speeds of 20Mbps or more. That compares to just 1 percent of DSL tests (from 97,953 tests run by people from home).

4G tests showed an average of 9.5Mbps, compared to 3.6Mbps for 3G and 6Mbps for DSL. Fibre, of course, is another leap forward, averaging 21.6Mbps from the 3,120 tests run by home users.

In reality, 4G speeds might be even higher. Telstra 4G averages 12.5Mbps (from a sample of 2,188 tests) and Optus averages 13.6Mbps (just 110 tests). The remainder of the tests — just over half — have no internet service provider (ISP) associated with it, meaning that we didn't recognise the IP range. It's curious that there are so many, and that these speeds, on average, are so much slower. For whatever reason, these results could be lowering our average. Nonetheless, we can easily conclude that 4G is knocking the pants off 3G and many fixed services right now.

The big question is, what will happen when the network starts filling up? At this point, I was hoping to demonstrate that 3G networks were suffering congestion that resulted in slower speeds, but that's not the case. Over the last nine months, 3G services have held their own; in fact, if anything, speeds have picked up a little. An average of 3.4Mbps in February peaked to more than 4Mbps in May and August, finishing at 3.8Mbps for October. So a well-provisioned 4G network can hopefully achieve the same result, maintaining its impressive speed record.

It's not all good news, though. We know that mobile services can suffer depending on their locale, and 4G is no exception. 40 percent of the tests achieved speeds of less than 5Mbps. Almost 70 percent were less than 10 Mbps — that's a quarter of the top speed touted by Telstra.

4G is great, if it works, but it will never achieve the consistency of a good fixed connection.

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