Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wireless Broadband Plans (Australia)

Talking to a friend about "going broadband" led me to think I should write something down...

If you are "on the road", MacDonalds offer free WiFi hotspots. If that works for you, saves all the hoopla of getting 3G broadband.
'Lifehacker' suggests there is a 50Mb download limit. provides a hotspot finder for 706 locations.

Additional Comments [19-Jan-2010].
This writeup of George Bray's is clear and concise.
I think it shows a definitive, cheap, simple solution to Mobile Broadband, plus flags a bunch of caveats.
Stop now and go read his piece if you want or need to actually do something soon.
Here's a writeup and video of my "Broadband from the Beach" equipment.


Not having had/run a mobile wireless broadband service myself, there'll be stuff I don't know about...
Please contact me by email or "comment" (below) to correct errors/misinformation, provide links or additional war-stories/advice/information/tips/comments.

Mobile Wireless Broadband:

There is some confusion about "Mobile" and "Wireless" Internet/Broadband.
There are mobile-phone 3G networks, long-distance data-over-wireless and 802.11 Wireless Ethernet, or "WiFi". This piece concentrates on 3G-based services. Australia is yet to see broadscale WiMax or 802.11 networks.

Mobile or Wireless Internet/Broadband and Laptops are an extremely powerful combination.
The only caveat is Mobile Internet generally comes from a USB device (or via USB from your phone).
The lack of a hardware/stand-alone firewall means it's difficult to share a connection and you give up some security.

Hand-crafted arrangements can be built:
... in Armidale and the only place I could get reliable 3G link was from my bedroom window.
Nokia N95 in the window with bluetooth link to EeePC 701SD on the desk and from there an Ad-hoc WiFi link providing access to me anywhere in the house.
Whirlpool Forums (a.k.a. "Broadband Choice") are a very good resource:
Whirlpool have a list of Networks and Resellers, as of Dec-2009.

There are three "3G" networks in Australia offering data (HSDPA: High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and competing reasonably aggressively:
  • Telstra - best coverage, generally best potential speed. Max 42Mbps,
  • Optus
  • Vodafone, 3, Hutchinson
"3G" (3rd Generation) mobile phone services are based on CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) protocols. This means if you have signal, you can get service (not so with GSM, which is Time Division Multiple Access). It also means you can improve your download speeds and effective coverage by attaching a larger aerial.

Telstra have very few or no resellers of its NextG broadband network.

Optus and Vodafone/Hutchinson have many resellers: folks like Virgin Mobile and Exetel offer great packages using one of these networks.

But there is a nasty 'gotcha': "Roaming Charges".
On some plans, especially low-end, you can be charged (from memory) around $100/Gb for roaming.
This may have changed, but is worth checking for specifically.

"Roaming" is where your provider doesn't have a service, but another provider does and will carry your bits - for a price...

On older 2G ("GSM" or 'digital mobile') networks, the data is called GPRS - General Packet Radio Service and used to be quite expensive and comparatively slow. Some carriers use this as a fall-back when you are 'out of area'.

Some friends did the "Gray Nomad" thing through Western Australia and back to Sydney this year.
They got a Telstra 3G USB modem and a new laptop.
It generally worked very well. They had about a week of 'glitches' at the beginning, but eventually found a helpdesk operator who'd seen the problem and got them on-line.
They also had a problem with the laptop power-supply 'failing'. It ended up being a seed lodged in the connector.

Travelling, they had 3 types of service:
  • None.
  • Slow, out in farming communities.
  • Fast, near mining towns and cities.
They were able to stay in-touch without on-site support: that's pretty impressive.
George notes on the CLUG list he regularly achieves 4Mbps with a tripod-mounted directional aerial.

Google threw up a few sites offering service comparisons:
They have different coverage. For example, only 'compare broadband' threw up  Exetel plans for $17.50/month for 1Gb and they only say "speeds vary".

Selecting your plan:
[See also below "Specific advice for selecting a service and setting up your connection"]
  • Choose Prepaid or Contract. Prepaid means you can experiment.
  • Contracts: You are locked in for 12-24 months with "Early Termination" penalties. Beware of "automatic renewal" at the end of the contract - they may require you to specifically "opt out".
  • Prepaid: You need to look for $ per Gb and 'Expiry' - how long you've got to use a payment. (Hint: Don't apply payments until close to when you need them of you might lose them.)
  • Prepaid 'gotcha's: Recharges must be planned.
  1. First problem is to change plan options (phone or internet mobile plans) before applying the 'recharge'.  Payments/recharges cannot be altered once applied. [From my limited experience]
  2. It can take 48 hours for a 'recharge' to be applied to your account for some carriers. While you might technically be in credit, your service could stop or be charged at a (much) higher rate until the Telco systems process your payment.
  • Modems: Are they 'locked' to a network/ISP, or can you use it anywhere? You're also going to be interested if the modem is supported by your Operating System.
    Important user advice: Select your modem/gateway first.
  • Speed and Download limits: Mostly how plans are differentiated.
    Beware of the costs of downloading e-mail.
  • Monitoring Usage: Whether on a pre-paid or contract plan, you will most likely have to monitor the usage seen by your provider. George in his CLUG post, points out that that there is no standard way and potentially is an application tied to a specific operating system.  There is also the issue of stale and incorrect usage data being reported by the tool.
    This is a nasty 'gotcha': If you are paying by the Mb and can't reliably track it, don't fly too close to the limit. At best you'll be suddenly cut-off or 'traffic shaped', at worst get a very nasty bill.
Virgin Mobile (and presumably others) also provide a Home Phone package.

For $80/month (Dec-2009) Virgin Mobile give you a box that connects via the Optus 3G network and gives you unlimited VoIP calls within Australia (with a normal dial-in number), 4Gb/mth download and they're a little coy about the speed. But it falls back to 128kbps.

People like Virgin (and Optus?) have a "Fair Use" policy.  If they deem your usage 'excessive', your account may be cancelled or you'll incur fines.
'gotcha': On the CLUG list there was a report of Exetel dumping a customer as they "were unprofitable". You can't avoid this: the service providers supply you their service subject to their Terms and Conditions. You must agree to the "T&C" or there is no contract.

The only 'remedy' is to avoid the problem. If you intend to heavily use a service, sign-up for an appropriate plan.

Great Tips:
Tridge happened to mention at a CLUG meeting that at home he runs both an ADSL link and a back-up Mobile Wireless link. If ADSL goes out, he can still access his home computers from outside.

The normal Unix "route" software for IP doesn't allow for asymmetric links: there can only be one default route.
Packets may find their way to your host via a second route, but must return by the default route.

The details of "asymmetric routing" using "iproute2" are spelled out in this thread on the CLUG list.
Links to iproute2 Project and Linux Advanced Routing and Traffic HOWTO.

Speed and Latency:
"Oils ain't Oils" applies.
 4Mbps on mobile wireless will not provide the same apparent level of service as 4Mbps over fixed-wireless, 802.11 or fixed-line (ADSL or Cable).
Whilst you may have a theoretical download speed of 4Mbps, TCP/IP needs to correct errors and to wait to 'ACK' packets to come back before sending more. The round-trip-time can limit link performance.

Mobile wireless suffers from transmission errors (noise + lost packets), variable data rates (there are other users competing for air-time) and long latency (affects round-trip-time) due to many layers of packetisation, buffering and forwarding.

Long latency only marginally affects big downloads (the TCP/IP 'ACK' problem), but can be a deal-breaker for real-time services (VoIP, Skype, IM, ...) and when downloading many small files - as in normal websurfing and collecting email.

Radio reception is fickle for many reasons - tune in to AM radio at night for an example.
Mobile networks necessarily need to track 'handsets' and SIM cards to route traffic: what towers are you currently near?

Which means mobile networks must have a centralised handset location database and a single or limited number of interconnect points.  This means your phone or USB dongle is many hops from 'central office'. The ISP connects from there.

Telstra trumpet they support 21Mbps (going to 42Mbps?) - but not on all towers and your "actual speed" will vary with aerial, equipment, signal strength, other users and backhaul capacity...
As my Gray-Nomad friends found, Telstra won't invest in unwarranted (unprofitable?) capacity.

Even when you hit a "white spot" (high-speed tower), you have to compete with everyone else in the area for a slice of bandwidth.  May be great in the bush, may be less great in highly used areas - like the city or a rural/regional tower offering the only effective broadband in the area.

Additional Comments:
[30-Dec-2009] Thanks to CLUGers, in no particular order, for their help and comments:
  • Alex Satrapa
  • Scott Ferguson
  • Ian Munsie
  • Keith Goggin
  • Miles Goodhew
  • George Bray

A great piece on using mobile wireless by George Bray sent on the CLUG list.

A note on the CLUG list on setting up Telstra 3G (the MF626) on Linux (Ubuntu 9.04) by Carlo Hamalainen. [19-Feb-2010]

Contract 'gotchas':
"Early Termination Fees" that most providers are charging these days:
Sign up for a two year contract costing $480 all up, they'll sting you for $540 if you terminate the contract before the two years is up (not to mention, they automatically sign you up for a further two years if you don't opt out during the three month grace period at the end of the contract).

The moral of the story is make sure you check the conditions on those contracts, folks.  Early termination, "roaming" (in the case of at least one provider, they will charge you the 'normal rate' for data if you fall off the 3G network onto their GPRS network), "acceptable usage" and other caveats.
General comments on Mobile vs Fixed-line service:
Summary: "it sucks, don't do it."  :P

Seriously, Virgin Mobile offers free tethering with their $54/month iPhone plan - that's $54/month including payments on the phone. I don't have the details on me, and I can't find the plan on the Virgin Mobile website, (the kiosk in the Canberra Centre near Mac1 will be able to help you).
I think it's a 300MB/month data allowance.

On the flip side, I've never had a good experience with 3G broadband except for the situation where you can mount the antenna in just the right spot and leave it there.
In other words, you get the best 3G coverage in the same places you get the best ADSL 2+ coverage.
Optus specific comments:
  • provide an internet addressable IP to their mobile broadband customers
  • does not charge extra for roaming onto their slower GPRS link
  • provides a "usage meter" to help you track your usage (some reports of delays and misreporting)
  • Virgin use the Optus network with mostly the same Terms and Conditions, with the additional proviso that peer-to-peer traffic may be capped.
Non-mobile wireless, Canberra only:
Netspeed 'Longreach'  works with Linux (SuSE 11.2) with a 2km range, but "Slows when Foggy". The Netspeed whitepaper says it's a fixed wireless network using a Motorola product with a 10km range. Expect 7Mbps, with a 14Mbps maximum.  Their 'availability' checker lists 3 deployed base stations (Canberra South Side) and 2 towers under deployment (north side).  Good rates if it works for you.
Tethered data on the Hutchison/Three network:
I use my Nokia 6110N paired via Bluetooth to my netbook for tethered Internet access. I pay $8/mo for the privilege of the "Internet" connection (Otherwise you're in a walled garden). They have a $5/mo plan with much higher data cost and lower included data volume. Their roaming data charges used to be astronomical, but I think they changed this recently ...
Generally it's slow, the latency's massive, but it works and it's very convenient for email/web. Also, if you commit to a 12 or 24-month plan they double your included data volume.
Specific advice for selecting a service and setting up your connection:
When shopping for a 3G plan I would recommend selecting a modem first, then finding an ISP that will sell you it - or will sell you a SIM only.

One feature you should look for is an external antennae connection - very useful in some areas. Check to make sure the model fits without interfering with access to other ports, and that it doesn't raise to laptop off the desk.
I'd recommend a 5m USB repeater cable for better reception, and to allow placing the antennae away from the user.

Make sure your machine is capable of supplying more than 500ma to the USB ports. Consider buying a "split-tail" USB lead - one input for data and power, another for extra power from a second USB port if your machine is USB power taxed or lacking. For about $3 from JayCar you can buy a portable USB power supply - it takes 4 AA batteries and reduces the output to 5V, hack on another single AA carrier and it will supply 5V from Ni-MH batteries.

Most of the UMTS (3G) modems I've looked at have the option of selecting HPSDA only (no roaming surcharges). I'd recomment setting your modem to that unless you are going into a bad signal area. Some plans do not include SMS.

Check the modem model numbers - when I was looking a couple of months ago I noticed that Dick Smith in Civic had 4 prepaid Dodo Huawei modems.
I noticed that one of them had an extra alpha in the model number - one sales rep assured me the "G" model was the same as the non-G, another said it was better. A quick search on the internet showed the "G" as a lower powered model - supposedly no longer distributed. The Huawei has an external antennae connection.

You will hear reports of slow connection speeds under Linux with some modems - generally because the user has an old driver module with a very small maxSize (the module takes a vendor and product parameter only).
Gateway, connection sharing and stand-alone firewall:
... have a bigpond 7.2 Home Network Gateway (3G9WB)
  • 4 port Ethernet router
  • configurable security
  • runs off 12V DC with internal voltage regulator more than adequate for car use
  • can use high gain antenna for fringe area
  • EXPENSIVE $90 per month 5GB shaped
  • VOIP works OK mostly @ ~40kms near line of sight to tower (or better

    Saturday, December 19, 2009

    So I bought a new Intel Mac Mini...

    In early 2006 I bought a Power PC (PPC, G4, DDR2-SODIM) Mac Mini to use for a Uni course.
    Could've gone Intel, but it was new technology, so I avoided it...

    Coming up to 4 years on, and I've filled the disk, the CPU fan is a little noisy, new things like 'Google Chrome' are 'intel-only' and OS/X 10.6 ('Snow Leopard') is Intel only... Plus VMware and Parallels can run on Intel platforms.

    This time I paid the ~20% extra for a top of the line 2.53Ghz core duo, 4Gb DDR3 RAM, 320Gb 2.5" SATA - which is roughly 4 times the capacity in all dimensions as the PPC version.

    First surprise, doesn't come with a DVI-VGA adaptor in the box. BUT, now there are 2 video connectors, 'mini-DVI' and 'miniPort'. The shop only had a 'miniPort' VGA adaptor on the day and I went home with that...

    Attach to KVM, boot and - no monitor found. VGA adaptor works fine directly connected.

    Second surprise, 800Mhz Firewire is a 9-pin connector not 6-pin (400Mhz on PPC Mac).

    Booted new Mac and it says "got an old Mac?" and gives instructions to reboot the old one "holding down the 'T' key" to start a transfer. Which meant closing out all my running Apps and discovering just what they meant.

    Which was hold down the 'T' key whilst the machine was shutting down, before the reboot.
    It comes up in 'Transfer mode' - displaying a "firewire transfer" symbol. Apparently you can use an 'ethernet' transfer mode... Didn't try that.

    After 2-2.5 hours, the transfer completed - 75Gb moved over. Accounts, Preferences, Applications and User Data copied and working.

    I've had to reload Adobe Acrobat Reader, apparently it wasn't a 'Universal Binary'.

    Even the licensed & registered 3rd-party software I had (MS-Office, NovaMind, OmniGraffle) 'Just worked' on reboot. The transfer was clever enough to not move system binaries. As a bonus, I got a work Perl system back... In the past I'd installed a second, non-Apple, version and managed to zap on both versions...

    Third surprise was initialising "Time Machine". It took 2.5hrs to transfer 75Gb, which is about right - I've timed the old HDD @ ~20Mb/sec sustained raw read rate.

    It took a day and a half (!!) for "Time Machine" to initialise... 33-36 hours, Ouch!
    The USB drive, a 1Tb Western Digital 'Book for Mac', runs at about 10Mb/sec for raw reads (36Gb/hour).

    I can only guess why it ran so slowly... The "Time Machine" is a HFS filesystem.
    "Activity Monitor" showed some very large numbers for Gb read from the system Disk, but the amount written to the USB drive matched the progress numbers reported by 'backupd'.

    In the middle of the initialise, I rebooted the machine because I could see no evidence of progress.
    Rebooted, restarted the initialise and off it went again. Seemed to pick up from where it left off.

    There were one or two other times that it took hours, literally, to backup a few Gb.
    Now it does 2-3Gb in 5-10 minutes, as you might expect.

    What I love about "Time Machine" is this is the first time I've had a good backup system for my home desktop. Seems odd as this is what I do professionally, but there it is.

    Another cute thing with "Time Machine" is it can use a Network connected device - like a wireless connected Apple 'Time Capsule' or instructions are out on the web for using a "NAS" - like an old Linux box.

    The "Time Machine" interface is well thought out.
    You 'enter Time Machine' and the Finder comes 'front and centre', the background changes to 'beginning of the Universe' picture, all the other Apps slide away and the rest of the decorations appear.

    When you're done, your desktop just slides back into place. Very cute.

    There's a major caveat with "Time Machine" - it's granularity is "whole file".
    I use 'mailbox' format (a 'folder' contains all messages in a single file) versus 'maildir' format used by Apple Mail (every message is one or more files in a directory). Everytime a new message gets added to one of my 'folders', the entire file is written. I've looked and there are several which as 1+Gb :-(

    It's pretty much 'rsync' with a nice GUI and a few tricks in the HFS filesystem.  One of which I read (to confirm) is that it allows directories to be linked.  This was removed from POSIX because you can get complex loops in filesytems...

    Things I don't like about "Time Machine", but aren't reasons to bail:
    •  I haven't been able to find how to turn on decent logging.
      The default syslog entries written in /var/log/system are high-level (#files, total size).
      Where/How do I get a list of the files it dumped?
    • I could exclude Thunderbird's mail folders and save on backup time and space.
      What I'd really like if I could tell it that these files grow by concatenation, and to link to just the most recent version... Though data might be lost if file is truncated, but the semantics of that should be simple. Eg. if the current backup version is perfect subset of the new file, just concatenate the new lines. Otherwise, create a copy.
    • Haven't found, after a quick look, the API. Be nice to be able to integrate with 'rsync'.

    'locate' works, but there is some internal magic that seems to exclude 'Desktop' files...
    Almost everything is scripts, but I can't find the list of excludes. Perhaps it is just silently failing because of the number of files I have in a directory there...

    The Western Digital "MyBook" only transfers 10Mb/sec (36Gb/hr). Seems slow.
    If "Time Machine" reads or writes every block on the filesystem, that would explain the initial load time and observed volumes of data read.

    Mini-display port versus Mini-DVI.
    If two VGA adaptors are used, Display-port is the 'primary' (system boot and menus).
    If VGA and DVI on Mini-DVI: the Mini-DVI is the 'primary'.
    [Don't have enough dongles to test all combos]

    Working with a USB/DVI KVM.
    The Intel Mac Mini has a DVI-D connector, the PPC Mac Mini has a DVI-I (integrated, allows for DVI-D or DVI-A).
    The connectors on the KVM I bought are DVI-I, which won't plug into a DVI-D socket. (A DVI-D cable will plug into either a DVI-I or DVI-D socket).
    I won't spring $50 for a separate DVI-D cable  until I talk to the vendor.

    Meanwhile, I saw a $25 VGA to DVI-A cable.
    Connects to the KVM, but nothing displays. Presumably because the DVI-D connection on the monitor only does digitial. Who'd have thought :-)

    The PPC Mac Mini came with a VGA/DVI-I adaptor. It doesn't work in reverse. :-)

    The KVM exhibits the usual "doesn't play well with sleeping computers" problems:
    • While the KVM does connect speakers/microphone through, there is sporadic hum.
    • with 2 or 4 ports connected, put a system to sleep via menu and it is 'woken' after a second or two.  Something to do with the USB  interface of the KVM. Execute a delayed command, flip to another input - All Fine.
    • Single device connected - system will sleep from menu, but at some random time, it's alive again.
    • Waking a system is impossible without unplugging/replugging its USB connection to the KVM
    • Not 'sleep' exactly, The keyboard and mouse sometimes become unresponsive. Either reconnect them to the KVM or reset the KVM (remove all powered connections, including video).
    This DVI/USB KVM has the habit of complaining about selecting an inactive port. It will lock up (needs 'reset') if moved to an inactive port. Not sure if that's sometimes or if there on the port for more than a few seconds.

    I tried turning off the 'beep' from the keyboard - locked up & needed a full 'reset'. Could've been I swapped it to an inactive port.