Review: Neotel's NeoFlex service

I didn’t have to think too hard about testing Neotel’s NeoFlex Data service when Fleishman-Hillard’s Casey Monteiro offered me the opportunity a couple weeks ago. Like many South Africans I have been looking forward to Neotel’s arrival and its offerings in the hope that it will provide much needed relief from Telkom’s abusive monopoly for the last decade or so. While Neotel hasn’t exactly come to our rescue with cheap broadband for all, it does present some interesting alternatives to Telkom’s ADSL.

NeoFlex modem.pngNeotel already had the NeoConnect service by the time it introduced Neoflex Data. The differentiator between the two seems to be the number of people who can use the service at the same time and the speed the service offers:

A home business owner, your family, or a small to medium enterprise, with up to 10 staff members. Today you can get Neotel’s multi-user Internet service and all get on at once. Connect with NeoFlex™ Data. Join the world of unlimited possibilities – Neotel. Unlimited.

NeoFlex’s specifications from the Neotel site (not the easiest site to navigate!) are as follows:

  • Peak speeds of 3.1Mbps (downloads) and 1.8Mbps (uploads)
  • Average data speeds of between 450 to 900Kbps (downloads) and 300 to 700Kbps (uploads)
  • 4 Ethernet ports and Wireless LAN connectivity (up to 10 user Internet access)
  • 10GB package at R699pm (device fee and VAT @ 14% included)
  • 15GB package at R899pm (device fee and VAT @ 14% included)
  • Additional data at 8c/MB
  • Wireless solution that can be used anywhere within your region of Neotel coverage
  • Device also acts as a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server and will assign IP addresses to connected users
  • Battery back-up in the event of a power failure

I thought the best way to test NeoFlex was to use it the way I use my ADSL and see how my experience of the service compares. There has been some talk about how the bandwidth NeoFlex offers (unshaped, by the way) is way too much for the average user or that the speeds offered may be too high for these users. I think it is important to bear in mind that the NeoConnect Prime service seems to be the service aimed at those users who want more options than NeoFlex offers.

Anyway, it is probably a good idea for you to know a bit about my data consumption for the purposes of this review. Here is a profile of my data usage at the moment:

NeoFlex post.001-001

I put together a comparison between NeoFlex’s two offerings and what it would cost me to match it (as much as possible) with my current ADSL package:

NeoFlex post.002-001

The data rates are as advertised but as we all know, they advertised data rates [apologies, this sentence didn’t express what I meant to say very well] rarely come close to what we actually experience when using the services although if you read Neotel’s specs earlier in this post Neotel does say that actual speeds are “between 450 to 900Kbps (downloads) and 300 to 700Kbps (uploads)”. This isn’t far from what I experienced. An initial bandwidth test revealed a download rate at 793Kpbs and an upload rate at 445Kbps (I didn’t record the time of that test though). I then ran two further tests which are probably statistically irrelevant because of their timing and the fact that there are only two tests. They are still interesting, I think:

NeoFlex post.003-001

ADSL’s performance far exceeded NeoFlex’s when it came to downloads but NeoFlex was noticeably faster when it came to uploads. It is also worth pointing out (again) that NeoFlex data is unshaped whereas I am using a shaped service from Axxess. Unshaped packages would add another R500 to R750 a month for the same amount of bandwidth. That kind of pricing makes a huge difference and potentially puts Neotel ahead of ADSL for many users.

I connected both my wife’s and my MacBooks to the NeoFlex router via wifi (both directly and through an Airport Express access point) and directly using a network cable. Except for a couple speed tests we didn’t use my ADSL connection for the week. We used the service to access our social networks, upload and download media, email, streaming video and general work related stuff. The usual.

Update: If I understand the indicator on the router correctly, I enjoy excellent coverage in my area (strong green light) and the only time I experienced a break in connectivity was for a few minutes during a storm last week.

I found that NeoFlex has a pretty high latency which was annoying at first but we got used to it. In one speedtest I ran there was a difference of about 100 milliseconds between NeoFlex and ADSL. For general downloads the latency wasn’t a problem because once the download kicked in or the web page started loading, the data transfer appeared fast enough. I did notice it wasn’t as fast as my ADSL connection usually is when I saw a couple image placeholders in web pages (I don’t usually see that when I am on ADSL) but aside from that, I didn’t find myself waiting inordinate periods of time for downloads to finish.

I noticed a significant difference between ADSL and NeoFlex when it came to streaming video. I have been using Seesmic more and more lately and I found that video playback is pretty choppy on NeoFlex although the audio track seems to be better. I didn’t bother trying to watch YouTube videos before loading them in my browser first.

I have already expressed some preliminary thoughts about the service and now that I have had a solid week’s worth of testing, my initial thoughts haven’t changed all that much. The service, as a whole, presents a decent alternative to Telkom’s ADSL service (particularly people using Telkom’s “slower” services) mainly because of the price point:

NeoFlex post.004-001

Of course I am not a typical user and I tend to use a lot more data in a month than some people use in a year. Most users will browse the Web and check email and will be very happy with slower data rates and dodgy streaming quality. Given the prices and the caps this isn’t the service for home users who want something faster than dial-up. Those users are better served looking at the NeoConnect options. NeoFlex is intended for homes with multiple users who consume more data than usual or for small businesses. For the most part I think it is a decent alternative to 512Kbps and 384Kbps ADSL offerings in those environments.

Thanks, again, to Fleishman-Hillard for the opportunity to test the service!

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