Test driving Vodafone's 4G network

Vodafone's 4G network is a step in the right direction for Australia's number three telco and could yet allow it to accomplish the impossible... a comeback.

The launch of Vodafone Hutchinson Australia’s 4G network this month wasn’t accompanied with much fanfare but it does mark a critical next phase in its turnaround plan - the part where it stops apologising and starts competing with Optus and Telstra for customers.

Vodafone has been in ‘sorry’ mode for just over a year now, in a bid to stem the torrent of complaints about its service and the exodus of disgruntled customers. Now, after spending millions on reinforcing and upgrading its 3G network and launching a 4G network, the telco looks ready to make its move.

The turnaround strategy, implemented under the auspices of Vodafone Australia’s CEO Bill Morrow, is still a work in progress and Morrow’s contrition and his resolve could still fall short if Vodafone fails to deliver on its promises with the network.

Here’s Vodafone’s latest network pledge from its CEO Bill Morrow:

“Vodafone customers in 4G areas with compatible devices will have access to speeds that are among the fastest not only in the country but in many parts of the world,” 

Up to 100mbps” Vodafone went on to confirm, in a statement it issued to the media last week. 

Well, the good news is that Vodafone isn’t fibbing. The 4G network is fast, very fast. 

Test driving the network

Now, before we delve into those details, a little housekeeping about network speeds is in order. Mobile data download speeds, upload speeds and performance largely depend on how many users are trying to access a given network. While we left the majority of our heavy downloading until after the network was publicly launched to the public last week, the network is still relatively empty.

So, think of the figures in this review as an indication of the network’s current potential rather than an actual, empirical result.

In our tests across Melbourne on a Samsung Galaxy Note II, Vodafone’s 4G network clocked up an average download speed 42.6mbps, with the fastest speed test racing in with a download speed 66.78mbps. It’s also significantly faster than Vodafone’s much improved 3G network, which dialled up an average download speed of 10.5mbps. 

Download speeds are important but to really put the network to the test, we timed how long it would take to download the 3.5GB HD version of the movie Argo

Do not do this at home. Vodafone's maximum data plan caps off at 5GB per month, so you’ll burn through your data allowance faster than you can say “bill shock”. Presumably, these plans will be revisited as Vodafone continues its 4G push. 

Vodafone’s 4G network made short work of our little test: it downloaded Argo in just under 20 minutes. To offer a comparison, the 3G network accomplished the same task in 40 minutes. 

Vodafone’s 4G network live-streamed the ABC’s News 24 channel and the ABC’s 90 second news updates with precision and no buffering time. But aside from these aforementioned tasks, there really wasn’t too much of a difference in how the two networks handled the various everyday chores we assigned it. 

Facebook and Twitter loaded effortlessly on both networks. Both Vodafone’s 3G and 4G network also loaded YouTube clips with ease and took roughly the same amount of time to load some news sites. The networks also clearly streamed Pandora Radio with ease. 

It’s a good thing that Vodafone’s 3G network is quite good, as it covers for the 4G network’s biggest fault... its lack of coverage. If you’re going to invest in Vodafone’s 4G network, it’s essential that you use its coverage checker to see if you’re included in its current network footprint.

You don’t want to end up in a situation, like this reviewer, where you have to start driving around the suburbs looking for 4G reception. If your property isn’t covered as part of its 4G network, don’t fret. Vodafone has pledged to significantly expand its 4G reach over the course of this year. Overall, for an initial rollout, its reach is still pretty impressive. 

There’s always a catch

But despite all the advances Vodafone’s made with its network, it’s still plagued by some of the same problems that haunted it during the unspeakable “Vodafail” era. 

Indoor coverage remains a concern. Vodafone’s network still has trouble penetrating larger buildings like hospitals. And this is frustrating considering that within such buildings Telstra’s network exhibits full reception.

Oddly enough, despite few using Vodafone’s network during the trial period, it also experienced dropouts when used on a crowded sardine-like commuter train. Let’s hope this is an anomaly rather than a norm, given how many would seek to harness the network during the daily commute. 

So is Vodafone’s 4G network up to speed to win back some love? For now, the answer is yes and should at least allow Vodafone to hold on to existing customers.

Its near death experience may have jogged Australia’s number three telco out of complacency, but it isn’t out of the woods just yet. The end game has to be about weaning customers away from its rivals, most notably Optus. That will require building a substantial level of trust and most of all a network infrastructure robust enough to handle a bigger volume of customer traffic.

That will take time, at least a couple of years, but Vodafone’s first step in the local 4G race is a promising one and could perhaps help the telco actually pull off the impossible... a comeback.

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