In the past few days I've been writing about how Virgin Broadband has the potential tobreak Telstra's landline monopoly. But if you've been itching to know how the service performs in real life, read on...
In the past few days I've been writing about how good the deal from Virgin Broadband is, and how it has the potential to break Telstra's landline monopoly
. But I've been itching to know how the service performs in real life and now, I've been able to find out.
First up, I should make clear that this is not a service targeted at typical APC readers, who value maximum broadband speed and a largish download allowance. For you (and me) the best option is still ADSL or cable.
This is a service for the rest of the population who are not technophiles. This is for all the friends and family who ask you what they should get hooked up to, preferably at the lowest cost possible. And it's especially good for renters who relocate every 12-18 months, because there are no connection or relocation fees -- you just pick up your modem and move.
To recap, the Virgin Broadband service is delivered over Optus' 3G/HSDPA network, so you can disconnect your landline and free yourself of the $30/mth line rental fee. There are no upfront costs, and for $60 a month you get 4GB of wireless broadband at an average 500Kbit/s, and unlimited phonecalls to landlines nationwide and to Virgin Mobile mobiles. The calls are not VoIP -- they're circuit-switched mobile calls, placed via your regular analogue phone handset, so even full-pelt internet usage won't affect call quality in any way.
About the modem and setup
|Virgin Broadband modem: on the left you can see the external mobile antenna connector
The review modem from Virgin Broadband arrived on Friday afternoon and I eagerly plugged it in at the office.
The unit is a Virgin Broadband branded GlobeSurfer II 7.2 from Belgian company Option. Its current firmware is capable of HSDPA connections at up to 3.6Mbit/s, but the chipset is capable of 7.2Mbit/s with a future firmware upgrade. Of course, these numbers are irrelevant to the end user, as Virgin Broadband caps the service at 700Kbit/s per user, but it's good to know that there are speed upgrade options for the future. There's an FAQ section about the modem on Option's website here.
The GlobeSurfer II is quite small and is slickly designed using an iPod-style shiny white plastic. On the back, there are two screw-mounting slots so the unit can be wall-mounted. It also has a nice, compact power supply which should fit easily on any powerboard.
The top of the unit has three buttons -- one to invoke the modem's status screen, one to power the device on/off, and one to invoke a data connection (though the modem will automatically connect if you try to access the net through it, regardless of whether you've pressed the data button or not.)
A mono OLED screen on the side of the modem shows caller ID information as well as modem status -- signal strength, connection type (GPRS/UMTS/HSDPA) and if the modem is currently doing something special like starting up. The screen also lets you see missed calls (including their caller ID) and notifies you if you've got voicemail. Free deposits and retrieval of Virgin Mobile's voicemail service is included in the package -- it's accessed by dialling 212 on your phone.
When the device is idle, a real-time clock bounces around the screen. The time is updated using an NTP (network time protocol) server, so you never have to set it manually, which is handy.
When I switched the modem on, it displayed a cheeky "you're turning me on" message. It takes a little while to boot, but not much longer than the average ADSL modem. Interestingly, the modem is clearly running some form of Linux/UNIX -- the system log is quite informative, showing the modem setting up internal USB devices, and initialising all the different chips that make up the modem. In fact, Option has a page on its website that allows anyone who sends them a cheque for $US15 to obtain the source code of the router.
There's an external antenna connector of the MC-Card type, too, should you be in a marginal reception area.
Speaking of patchy reception, the Optus mobile coverage at APC's Goulburn St Sydney offices is usually so bad that we often can't make out what a caller is saying. Optus sent a tech round to check it out and found that because we're high up (level 23), we're in range of too many base stations and therefore phones hop from base station to base station constantly, causing voice glitching and dropout. Great... too much reception can be as bad as too little, we've discovered.
I was worried that the dodgy excessive mobile reception would cause problems with the Virgin Broadband modem, but as it turned out, the reception on the modem was fine, and after turning it on, it went straight into UMTS mode (3G) and as soon as I hit the connect button, it connected in HSDPA mode.
Setting up the modem really is amazingly easy. It comes with the SIM card already slotted in at the back and you just have to connect the power and turn it on. It'll automatically make the best connection according to the coverage available and the modem's inbuilt router will assign your computer an IP address automatically. I tested at the APC office and at home in inner-west Sydney and in both locations, got HSDPA coverage with no problem. (It's worth noting that at home, I can't get any Unwired reception at all despite being in a "green" coverage zone, which highlights the better penetration of mobile signals.)
There are two ports on the modem -- one for ethernet and one for your plain old analogue telephone, which can of course be either a traditional corded model or a handsfree base station.
I carried out speed tests at both APC in CBD Sydney and at home, in inner-west Sydney using the speedtest.net website. The results were pretty much as promised by Virgin Broadband -- on the whole, download speed was up around 500Kbit/s, but sometimes over 700Kbit/s.
Upload speed was also impressive for a mobile-network based service: it was up around 350Kbit/s, which shames the 64Kbit/s upload speed of Telstra's garden-variety 256/64 Kbit/s ADSL connections. Interestingly, though, when I first tested it at home, the best upload speed I could achieve was about 57Kbit/s. When I tested again a day later, it was over 350Kbit/s, which either suggests there was some cell congestion when I did my first test, or that Optus is still actively working on adjusting the settings of its HSDPA base stations to accommodate the Virgin Broadband service in the lead up to its public release in early August.
|A speed test on Virgin Broadband from the APC offices in CBD Sydney
|The first speed test I did from home in inner-west Sydney: note the low upload speed of 56Kbit/s
|24 hours later, the second test I did from home: this time, an upload speed of 347Kbit/s.
I was also curious to see what a P2P transfer would be like, given Virgin Broadband makes a point of saying in its acceptable use policy that you can't use any application that sits in the background streaming away while you're not there.
"The service is provided for interactive use. However, if automated programs or programs that maintain a persistent connection to a remote service are used, they must only be used when you are physically present at the computer. These activities include (but are not limited to) automated file downloading, IRC ‘bots’, continuous streaming media and peer-to-peer file sharing applications."
In fact, the company says that P2P transfers will be throttled down to 64Kbit/s, which is a pretty useless speed for P2P, but also understandable given that P2P can fill bandwidth 24/7 which is bad for other users of a wireless network. With any wireless network, including the Optus 3G network, there's only so much wireless bandwidth per cell to go round. It's not a problem for wireline ISPs because they can simply keep upgrading their back-end pipes in order to accommodate P2P demand.
Nonetheless, I felt it was my duty to readers to see whether Virgin Broadband actually had systems in place to block P2P or was simply waging a war of words on the protocols that bring us all so much pleasure in the form of movies, music and TV shows. I picked a torrent that had over 800 seeds, which would be sure to have very fast download speeds, and as you can see from the screenshot below, the transfer speed after just a short time of torrenting was 73.4KB/s -- equivalent to around 734Kbit/s. Evidently, either Virgin Mobile hasn't yet got a system in place for throttling P2P, or it is planning to apply throttles to customer connections on a case-by-case basis.
|P2P bandwidth wasn't throttled in our testing: your mileage may vary.
Of course, you'd be pretty foolish to buy Virgin Broadband based on the above test result and have the expectation that you'll be able to do P2P too: Virgin evidently doesn't want users to do it, and if it becomes a problem for them, they'll obviously find a way of stopping you from doing it. And they have every right to, since they've been very upfront about it in the marketing of their service.
(As a sidenote, if Virgin really wanted to knock P2P on the head, it could simply disable UPnP in the modem and remove the modem's port forwarding configuration functionality, but it is still present in the modem as shown in the screenshot below.)
(Note to Virgin Broadband: that is not a suggestion; if you take it out, you know users will find a way to put it back in, using the Option generic firmware, etc. And like everything to do with P2P, there are legitimate reasons to have UPnP and port forwarding, like MSN Messenger file transfers and certain VoIP setups.)
|Port forwarding configuration
As the Virgin Broadband service is designed to be a complete landline replacement, it comes with a standard landline phone number in your state's number range (e.g. 02 8123 4567 for Sydney) so people can ring you at regular local/STD costs. From mid-September onwards, Virgin is offering landline number porting, meaning you can cancel your Telstra landline and transfer your home phone number to the Virgin Broadband modem.
I made several phone calls to test the quality of calls over the Optus 3G network. Obviously, most people know what a mobile call sounds like, but I was interested to see what it would sound like coming out of my old Telstra Touchfone 200.
I made the rather surprising discovery that calls through the Virgin Broadband product are actually higher quality than through my Telstra landline. I live in an apartment building and the phone line has never been that great -- calls are soft and my ADSL2+ modem reports a pretty high attenuation level, which basically means the signal coming from the exchange has faded out quite a lot by the time it gets to my phone plug.
I was also surprised that calls via the Virgin Broadband box really were landline-quality and better than what you would typically get from a mobile phone using earphones, for example. I experienced no sound glitching of any sort during several lengthy phone calls.
It is possible to access the internet while making a call. On most mobile phones, this can't be done -- phones usually cancel a data connection while a call is in progress. This wasn't the case with the Virgin Broadband modem -- I ran speed tests while on a call, and they provided the same results as when a call wasn't in progress.
As a sidenote, one interesting possibility with the modem is the ability to forward all calls on the modem's landline number to a Virgin Mobile number. Since all calls to Virgin Mobile numbers are free of charge, you then effectively have a mobile phone with a local number attached to it. To achieve this, you have to take the SIM card out of the modem, put it in a mobile phone and set the call forwarding rules (I tested this, and it worked.) It can't be done through the modem interface, as it doesn't have any settings for call forwarding, and the regular Telstra landline call forwarding code *21[number]# didn't work when dialled.
I also tried putting the modem's SIM card in a regular mobile phone and it worked fine -- when I called the Virgin Broadband-assigned landline number, my mobile rang. Of course, given Virgin Broadband's ban on making phone calls outside your home zone, this is not a terribly useful capability, and of course, it stops your modem from working. But if you happen to live on a large property, this capability provides a cordless phone on steroids -- as long as you have Optus mobile reception (even 2G), you could make unlimited nationwide calls at no extra cost, and people could call you on your local number.
The modem's admin interface is really excellent compared to most ADSL modems I've seen. It's laid out in an iconised control-panel style, which makes it quite easily to work through.
There are numerous handy features:
- Dynamic DNS support, so you can have a domain name always pointing at your modem's IP address. (Option has a PDF describing how to set it up here)
- L2TP/PPTP VPN server, so you can connect to your home network from a remote location and access network resources as if you were locally connected
- SNMP, so you can monitor your modem's various statistics using an SNMP monitoring utility
- Remote administration, so you can configure your modem remotely using HTTP, HTTPS or Telnet
- UPnP, so that software like instant messagers, P2P programs and VoIP apps can open ports on the router for you, avoiding firewall hassles and manual configuration
There's no up-front cost, but there is a two year contract at $60 per month. This includes the usage of the home modem. However, if you cancel the service, you have to send the modem back to Virgin, as it remains their property.
If you cancel the service within the first 24 months, there is a $15 per month charge for the remaining duration of the contract. However, there's a 30 day money back guarantee on the service, which means you won't have to pay anything if you're not satisfied within the first month (you just have to return the modem in 'as-new' condition.)
A great aspect of the service is that unlike every other mobile broadband service on the market, there are no excess usage fees -- if you exceed your 4GB of usage, the speed is simply throttled back to 128Kbit/s, which is still a usable speed for web browsing and email.
There are a few problems worth mentioning, though none of them are deal-breakers considering how good the package is overall.
Unsecured WiFi: Danger! Danger Will Robinson! Virgin Broadband has committed the cardinal sin of shipping a modem with WiFi already switched on but unsecured, and may locusts descend on their crops for this transgression. Yes, that's right -- they've shipped a pre-provisioned modem to Joe Average who doesn't know the difference between TKIP and a quick nap in the afternoon, and who will soon find his monthly usage allowance is being rapidly chewed up by the porn-surfing neighbours. Seriously, this is a very significant mistake by Virgin. At very least, the modem should be shipped with WiFi switched off, and ideally, users should be forced through a wizard in the modem's interface in order to switch it on and configure security.
Slight connection delay: because cellular bandwidth is a precious resource to a mobile network operator, the modem's internet connection is 'on-demand' -- that is, after a period of inactivity, it will disconnect from the network and automatically reconnect when you try to access the net again. However, in my testing, I found that this took about 10 seconds, and during this time, my web browser would just give errors saying pages couldn't be loaded. (Of course, if you leave something like a mail client open in the background checking mail every minute, the modem stays online indefinitely.) These connection failures will confuse Joe Average and his wife who won't be able to understand why their net connection isn't working when they fire up their web browser. It'd be a big improvement if the modem returned a page saying "connecting, please wait" when a user requested any URL while the modem wasn't connected.
Power outages mean a dead phone: although this isn't a VoIP service, it suffers the same fate as a VoIP service if the power goes out -- your phone won't work. This is the one kick-ass feature of landline phones: power is delivered over the phone line. However, it's hardly an issue in this day and age, because most people have a mobile phone with them at all times, and this is an adequate backup phone for emergency use or for complaints to the power company. (And of course, a cheap UPS is the other alternative.)
There's only one LAN port: so you'll need to add a network switch if you want to connect multiple computers via Ethernet. Then again, they're really not expensive.
You'll still pay for calls to many numbers: Don't get too sucked in to the "free calls" part of the deal. It is genuinely great that you can call any landline in Australia free of charge, but the free calls to Virgin Mobiles are of limited value unless you switch all your family's mobiles over to Virgin (which is surely part of the strategic plan behind this deal.) You will still be paying for calls to Optus/Telstra/Vodafone/3 mobiles at 45c per minute, charged in 30 second blocks. Furthermore, international calls are quite expensive: the cheapest countries are 45c per minute and there are three other charging zones -- 90c/min, $1.30/min and $1.80/min. Also, there are no capped deals for any charged call type, unlike the other major telcos, which often have "$1.50 for 20 minutes" type deals. However, calls to 1800 numbers are free, and calls to 13/1300 numbers are charged at 25c untimed.