The story so far: I was given the opportunity to test Hong Kong CSL’s LTE network with a ZTE dongle and a loaner laptop which started out as an Acer Aspire running Windows Vista but is now a Fujitsu Lifebook running Windows 7 (thanks to CSL swapping one for the other shortly after Part 2 of this series was posted yesterday).
So I’ve had the chance to do a little additional testing on a more advanced device, all of it from the Questex head office in Causeway Bay.
The difference is considerable – at least in terms of video performance. In network connectivity terms, it’s harder to compare because, as revealed yesterday, performance varies depending on the location, how deep indoors the dongle is, whether it’s stationary or moving, etc. But I can tell you that I got no buffering messages on any of the video sites I tried, and in fact the YouTube videos loaded noticeably fast.
I also tried some FTP transfers via an overseas host, and while they weren’t significantly faster than Wi-Fi, that could be the result of either the backhaul link or congestion on the FTP server.
I started this test with a basic benchmark in mind: Wi-Fi. I’m a regular Wi-Fi user and subscribe to a service that allows me to connect to hot spots all over Hong Kong. Consequently, cellular broadband has to offer something similar or better.
Result: For now, at least, LTE is closer to similar than better, at least as far as web surfing and watching videos go.
Again, this is partly a function of location and how close you are to a base station, indoor signal propagation, etc. However, it has to be stressed that this is also partially the result of external factors beyond the operator’s control, such as overloaded content servers and their backhaul links experiencing heavy traffic. No matter how fast your access link is, the speed at which the data actually gets from the host to your device is only as fast as the slowest link between the end-points (which is why data centers, local caching and CDNs are hot items right now).
Also, as explained above, a related issue is device capability. Much of the streaming video I watched on the Aspire laptop was quite jerky, while it was fine on the Lifebook – which I presume is the difference between having a 1.3-GHz Pentium chip vs a 2.53-GHz Core Duo chip. So what customers plug the dongle into does matter, although this is likely to be a non-issue with the latest laptops, tablets and even smartphones coming out.
By far the biggest advantage LTE has over Wi-Fi is its ability to connect anywhere you want to sit down and log on. The actual connection process is also far simpler, though it’s not always faster than the time it takes to detect a Wi-Fi AP and log on via the landing page.
One other result worth pointing out: if you watch a lot of YouTube videos via LTE, you will burn up a lot of data. In just a single afternoon of web surfing and watching streaming videos, I racked up a full GB of data, according to the data monitor included with the connection manager.
Granted, the monitor says it’s for reference only and not to be taken literally. And if you sign up for an unlimited data plan, it's a moot point. But for tiered service plans with data caps, caveat emptor.