Telstra's second-gen BigPond Wireless Broadband Mobile Card (yes, we know it's a mouthful) piggybacks onto the fresh-baked Next G network. Next G uses the same 850MHz slice of spectrum as Telstra's EVDO/CDMA system, which will be closed in early 2008, and sits adjacent to the long-standing 900MHz GSM band.
While the frequency allocation puts Next G at odds with the 2100MHz 3G services run by all four local mobile carriers, Next G uses 3G technologies such as HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) to deliver turbo-charged speeds for data and downloads. Telstra claims "average speeds of 550Kbps to 1.5Mbps" - you can check the results of our real-world tests later in this review.
The card itself is a rebadged version of the GlobeTrotter GT Max produced by the Belgium-based Option, one of the leading OEMs for wireless data cards (Option also produces 3G cards for Optus and, overseas, Vodafone).
It's a standard PC Card format which runs under Windows (2000 and XP) and Mac OS X (10.3.9 or higher). However, users of late-model laptops which are equipped with only an ExpressCard slot - and that includes all of Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro notebooks - will need to wait until Next G versions of the BigPond ExpressCard and USB mini-modem arrives early next year.
The design is slightly cleaner than the original EVDO/CDMA card which had a stubby vertically-mounted antenna that, if you were using a small to mid-sized notebook, easily got in the way of your hands unless they stayed dead centre on the keyboard.
The new card is a huge improvement. It sports a unique "Butterfly" antenna which springs out of the card to reveal two small plastic-encased elements (each is around two-thirds the size of an SD memory card) which sit at 45 degree angle to one another for optimum signal capture. When you're done, the wafers snap securely back into the card for safety.
There's also a socket for fitting an external antenna, which Telstra sells for AU$29.95.
While the BigPond Wireless Broadband Mobile Card obviously works best in its native Next G environment, should you find yourself in a low-signal or no-signal area the card will fall back to GSM.
That's not a very appealing thought when you consider GSM's data rate nudges barely 70Kbps on its best days, but as Telstra is co-siting Next G transmitters with its existing GSM and CDMA stations you should expect the Next G footprint to rapidly grow.
The card can also be used overseas, where it roams onto the 850MHz 3G networks of Telstra partners in 33 countries, but the surcharge of AU$15 per MB makes for a significant ouch factor.
Telstra's Next G data card sports a unique pop-up "butterfly" antenna which retracts into the card's shell when not in use. Click to enlarge.
Telstra's BigPond Connection Manager 2 software provides a user friendly front-end with a good degree of control over both card and connection settings, and is a welcome step forward in features and stability compared to the first version of the client.
We were impressed that the post-install routine offered to set up email through Outlook or Outlook Express, but were less enamoured with its background attempt to change our browser's home page to bigpond.com. This was detected and subsequently blocked only because we were running anti-spyware utility, as home page hijacks are a common trait of spyware.
Even so, the software succeeded in rebranding our Web browser as "Telstra BigPond Home Internet Explorer", although Firefox was unsullied. Memo to Team Telstra: offer your customers the choice to adopt bigpond.com as their home page, and don't bother with petty exercises in chest-puffing such as renaming their browser.
On the other hand, the manual blew us away. With 56 pages full of useful information on security, downloading (including warnings about excess usage due to streaming media and file sharing) and managing your account, and all written in plain English, Telstra deserves a pat on the back for providing its customers with a real handbook rather than a fold-out leaflet.
For wireless broadband, speed is pretty much where the rubber hits the road. That's doubly so for Next G, which Telstra has spruiked as being a turbo-charged HSDPA hare "with average speeds of 550Kbps to 1.5Mbps", compared to 3G's tortoise - and unlike the fable, slow and steady doesn't win this race.
Just a stone's throw from the North Sydney CBD, and signed up for Telstra's Super G Fast plan (see the end of this review for full details), we clocked the Next G card at an average 1.3Mbps (1,300Kbps) with the uplink channel at a more leisurely 210Kbps. This proved the card and network as good as Telstra's word in matching domestic ADSL speeds.
We also noticed that the card established a network connection in a rapid eight seconds, whereas some 3G notebook cards see you drumming your fingers for a half minute before you can even do anything online.
To test Testra's claim that the lower 850MHz frequency of Next G compared to 3G's 2100MHz would provide superior signal penetration deep into buildings, we camped out in the middle of the business centre floor of the Sydney Hilton Hotel.
Here the card averaged a steady 1.1Mbps flow of data, while the best we could get from any of the 3G networks using their own notebook data cards was 218Kbps.
Of course, reliable coverage is also paramount. We headed down to Bondi Beach, where radio waves are challenged by geography, and found the Next G signal to be sporadic at best. We've little doubt this will change as the network fills out and black holes are filled in, but it should also be noted that our chosen location also failed to serve reliable connections to 3G.
This illustrates why, despite Telstra's promise that Next G covers 98% of the population, you need to test drive any wireless broadband network in your most visited areas before pouring your money into the card and contract.
Telstra offers a 10-day trial of BigPond Wireless Broadband with a refund of the card's cost "if there's no or poor coverage at your preferred location because it's outside the coverage area or in a black spot".
The BigPond Wireless Broadband Mobile Card comes with usage plans based either time or volume, with two speed levels -- G Fast is limited to 256Kbps, while Super G Fast ratchets between 550-1500Kbps.
The entry-level AU$29.95 plan buys you 10 hours of Super G Fast per month. For AU$49.95 per month you can choose between 200MB at G Fast speeds or 20 hours of Super G Fast. Time-based pricing disappears with the AU$79.95 scheme, which delivers 1GB of G Fast or 400MB of Super G Fast. For AU$109.95 you get 1GB of Super G Fast, while AU$199.95 covers 3GB of Super G Fast. Excess usage on either G Fast or Super G Fast is charged at 30c per Mb on usage-based plans and 80c per five minute block on time-based plans.