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Telstra just launched gigabit LTE and it’s the fastest mobile network on the planet

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Smartphone use is transforming the way we all access information, but typically mobile network speeds have lagged behind those of wired broadband. Today, though, Australian network Telstra has launched the world’s first commercially available gigabit 4G network, a move that signals a big shift, from a world where we need fixed lines to get our high-speed internet fix, to ubiquitous, high-bandwidth, always-on mobile connections.

At an event in Sydney, Australia, Telstra’s Mike Wright took to the stage to demonstrate the technology. Using Netgear’s new Nighthawk M1 gigabit LTE mobile hotspot, he ran three live speed tests, achieving a staggering peak speed of 895Mbit/sec download and 97Mbits/sec upload.

 

“It’s the largest ever step increase,” in the speed mobile download speed, said Wright, “and the first time we’ve done a big step increase on the uplink,” with peak bandwidth up to a maximum 150Mbits/sec for uploads.

That’s seriously impressive stuff. It’s 24 times faster than my fixed-line broadband connection back home, and what’s even more staggering is that these speeds were achieved while streaming live 4K 360-degree video over the very same network from the event. Without the video stream impinging on performance, I saw the same test achieve 932Mbits/sec download and 128Mbits/sec upload speeds.

To put that in a little more context, that’s enough to run 37 simultaneous 4K Netflix streams. Over a cellular connection. Just think about that for a minute.

Of course, this is in a controlled environment at a launch event designed to show off the technology at its best; once users start to use the network in anger, real-world speeds will be significantly slower. In tests, however, Telstra said it was seeing download speeds of up to 300Mbits/sec and upload speeds up to 90Mbits/sec, which is still enough to download a 3GB file in around a minute and a half.

Us Brits are going to have to wait a little longer for our gigabit fix. Gigabit 4G is available initially only in Australia, across Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane on the Telstra network. But the good news is that it could arrive a lot sooner than you think. Mobile network EE is set to introduce the technology sometime during 2017, and the arrival of compatible hardware is imminent.

Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon 835 SoC at CES earlier this year, incorporating the firm’s Gigabit-ready X16 modem; this is the chip that’s set to feature in most of the major flagship smartphones in 2017, the first of which will arrive in the first half of the year.

The first dedicated mobile hotspot was shown off at the event, too. The AUS$360 Nighthawk M1 mobile hotspot delivers gigabit cellular speeds for up to 20 connected devices; includes an integrated 5,040mAh battery that will last up to 24 hours; and boasts media-streaming facilities via integrated USB and microSD card slots.

And because one of the key technologies behind gigabit 4G is 4×4 MIMO, owners of some smartphone models should see a speed bump when the technology rolls out without having to upgrade. Sony’s Xperia XZ smartphone, and US-model Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge phones all have 4×4 MIMO antenna arrays – and the potential to get faster when the time comes.

Do I really need gigabit LTE?

A thousand megabits per second is one helluva lot of bandwidth, and more than most people can get on fixed-line installations right now; the key question is, what on earth would you do with it? Telstra and Qualcomm had a number of demonstrations set up at the event to show off just what it means in real-world use.

First up was a basic video-download exercise, in which I saw a 30-minute 720p video 140MB in size download in seconds. Great news for Netflix download junkies who may not be organised enough to download their movies and TV before they leave the house.

Next, a productivity demo, comparing the synchronisation of a 378MB Google Drive folder on a pair of Windows laptops, one hooked up to the internet via an HTC A9 with Cat6 LTE (300Mbits/sec), the other to a Netgear Nighthawk M1. The difference was stark, with the Nighthawk M1-connected laptop completing the test in 43 seconds versus 1min 50secs for the other laptop.

Finally, I was shown a 4K 360-degree video, running at 30fps at a bit rate of 22Mbits/sec, streamed live from the outside of the Sydney opera house over the Telstra network and back down to a Google Pixel XL mounted in a Daydream View VR headset. That’s a pretty demanding video to be live-streaming over a mobile network, and yet I witnessed not a single frame dropped.

Many other examples of how the firms envisage gigabit 4G being used were supplied, including house-sharers wanting fast broadband access without having to get tied down to a fixed-line supplier and mass adoption of live 4K video broadcast.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the speed of this network, however, was when I had the opportunity to run my own real-world test at the end of the event. Hooking up my iPad Pro 12.9in to one of the demonstration Nighthawk M1 hotspots, I fired up Netflix and downloaded one of my favourite films, Serenity, in 45 seconds flat. That’s a 524.4MB movie in less than a minute.

Final thoughts

It’s easy to get excited about the arrival of faster mobile speeds, but even tempered with the usual caveats, Telstra’s launch represents a huge moment for the mobile broadband industry, and internet use as a whole.

How long it takes to reach widespread penetration in the UK, where exactly it will roll out initially, and how much it will cost remain to be seen. However, it will arrive a lot sooner than 5G, and when it does it looks certain to have a huge impact on the broadband industry, both from a mobile and fixed-line perspective.

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