Vodafone recently issued a press release saying that its network improvement program has made major improvements in the Central Coast and Newcastle area. However, when Road Worrier ran its own tests in that area over the weekend, the results were less than impressive for anywhere north of Gosford.
Regular readers will know that testing the performance of 3G broadband is one of Lifehacker's specialities. Despite that, it has actually been a long time since we've done any testing of Vodafone's 3G network performance for data. Given the network problems which the carrier has been suffering for some time, Vodafone has probably been grateful for that fact.
A press release from Vodafone last week made me think it might be time to take up the testing baton again. Vodafone had claimed earlier in the month that general service was improving, but this was a more specific claim:
Vodafone customers in Newcastle, parts of the Central Coast, and the Hunter became the first in Australia to experience Vodafone’s network equipment upgrade program when a three-month project was completed this week. The Newcastle and Central Coast network is now delivering customers improved call quality and more reliable mobile broadband connections with greater capacity.
I've travelled repeatedly on the Sydney-Newcastle train route over the last decade, so I know that general network service from every provider has improved in recent years. There are definite blackspots (some of which, such as tunnels, aren't going to disappear for any network), but the performance when I've used it with both Telstra and Optus in the last year is much better than it has been in the past.
Can Vodafone match up to that standard with its newly-enhanced network? To find out, last Saturday I travelled from Eastwood to Newcastle by train to measure Vodafone's performance.
The testing scenario presented fairly favourable conditions. I was travelling on a largely deserted train on a Saturday, so there was less competition for bandwidth from fellow commuters. I also ran my main speed tests when stopped at station platforms, so I could get relatively consistent results. (I kept using the connection where possible between stations, but didn't do formal speed testing.) And I was using the Pocket WiFi 2 hotspot device, which meant that I was not grappling with Vodafone's generally abysmal client software. (To clarify a point that keeps coming up in the comments: while the WiFi 2 can access the newer 850MHz network being rolled out by Vodafone, 850MHz has not been enabled in the Newcastle area yet.)
So what happened? Here are the results I got via Speedtest.net at each station on the journey where I could actually get a signal:
The first thing to point out is that this is far from every station on the route. While the overall availability of signal was OK (and better than I remember the last time I used Vodafone on this route), there was absolutely nothing going on between Hawkesbury River and Woy Woy, or between Tuggerah and Morisset. Particularly notable was the absence of any network signal whatsoever at Wyong, which is one of the three main non-Sydney population centres on this route (Gosford and Newcastle itself being the others).
The second point is that in terms of performance, this is generally disappointing. Gosford was the only point north of Hornsby where download speeds even managed to go above 1Mbps. The results for Newcastle are particularly unimpressive, given the focus on Newcastle performance in Vodafone's announcement. I did multiple tests to ensure this wasn't a weird one-off; the number in the table is the best result I got from those.
As Newcastle is a major population centre (and well-served by competitor networks), I really did expect better. I didn't get the chance to test services such as Skype, but for even video playback this is far too slow. Certainly if I lived anywhere between Newcastle and Wyong, I'd find it hard to take Vodafone seriously as a competitor.
Given the huge numbers of customers it already has, I hope Vodafone's network improvement efforts bear fruit. For data customers, however, the Newcastle and Central Coast enhancements don't seem to be delivering much so far based on my tests. If you're a regular traveller in this area, we'd love to hear your experiences in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman realises that on the train trip from Hornsby to Newcastle, the most sensible thing to do is enjoy the view. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.