Vodafone's Network Improvements Don't Seem To Be Making Much Difference

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.

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Comments

    I commute each day from Woy Woy to Sydney. I started with Vodafone, but the signal was very poor, only coming online again around the Hawkesbury bridge. The area from Hornsby to Normanhurst was also a blackspot. The connection dropped out so often that it was too distracting to actually work.

    I also tried Optus as I use Exetel for ADSL and mobile, but it also has issues.

    As expected, the best connection is a Telstra ZTE MF60 wifi hotpot. With that sitting on the window ledge, there is an almost constant signal from around about Wondabyne through to Sydney (ie no signal from a bit past Wondabyne until through the Woy Woy tunnel).

    The MF60 performs better at holding a steady signal on Telstra NextG compared to a Samsung Galaxy S2 in hotspot mode. But I don't have a Telstra tweaked Galaxy S2 ( http://bit.ly/qjJyVn ).

    I'm not so concerned with raw speed. As long as it stays connected and there is reasonable throughput for mostly text based websites, then I'm able to work effectively.

    Three of us were at a BBQ on the weekend, all sporting a new SGS2 from different carriers - what a great opportunity to look at respective carrier data performance we thought...

    After 10 minutes, I was still trying to download SpeedTest.Net

    Thanks Vodafone!

      After knowing how bad Voda is....WHY WOULD YOU SIGN UP TO A NEW PLAN????

    You don't have to go past Gosford to see pretty abysmal performance. I travel from Epping to Town Hall each day, via Chatswood. They big long tunnel used to be pure awesome 3G territory, now there is decent coverage for about 25% of the ~40 min journey.

    If they are improving the network, I haven't seen any sign of it.

      Hey it's not just me! I thought I was imagining it...

      When I first got my iphone I was so impressed that I was getting 3G goodness in a tunnel. But now my phone drops out all the time through there.

    Oh Vodafone~ You have about 4 months to fix your network issues before everyone moves to Telstra for the iPhone 5 release.

    Vodafone? are they still kicking around?

    I live and work in Cardiff. There is absolutely no 3G reception and unstable 2G.
    Just ran a speed test and got 228ms ping, 57kbps download, 52kbps upload.

    6 months ago I couldn't get any data to come through at all. It seems their upgrades are pretty bad, but at least I can check email, facebook, etc when I need to (slowly!).

    I agree, Vodafone is definitely no competition to other carriers here in Newcastle/Lake Macquarie.

    I just attempted the same test from my home/office.
    I ran the test four times. Three times I got the error message "Network communication issue. TRY AGAIN"
    My result for the only successful attempt is:
    Ping = 531ms
    Download = 43kbps
    Upload = 26 kbps.
    That might be expected if I out back of Bourke, but I don't! I live 500 metres from the Gold Coast freeway, right in the middle of suburbia!

    I have family up that way (just north of Gosford) and I stayed there last weekend. I complained about the bad reception I was getting and the response was unanimous - "you have to be with Telstra if you want reception here". Shame.

    (then my father cracked a lame joke about trying to employ a receptionist)

    I commute from Wahroonga (near Hornsby) to the City. I get a lot of IT support calls at all hours of the day but I send them all to voicemail while on my commute as there are far to many mini-blackspots throughout the trip. Since all of the calls I receive are >15mins, there is no point on my journey where I can have a call go longer than 15 mins without a dropout. Thanks Vodafone...

    Ive been wiht Vodafone for 20 years. ( Think that makes me loyal. Bugger all reception at my office in Subiaco 2 ks from city centre and bugger all at my house. Thank god I'm on unlimted plan as the drop outs would cost a fortune in call backs. Although Unlimted calls x F&*JK all reception is still crap value

      I dont understand...you pay for crap knowing it is crap?

      why?

      We are turning into America :(

    Long-time Voda customer but I stick to inner Sydney 90% of the time, so I mostly don't have signal issues. However, even with awesome 3G signal strength, I often get crappy speeds.

    To the people who are still with Vodafone, why?
    Stuck on a fixed term contract? Just inertia/laziness?
    They don't seem particularly cheap for data plans, and their appalling network is common knowledge these days.
    I used them for a few months 18 months back, discovered they were terrible and switched to Exetel (on Optus). Still not brilliant, but generally usable (1Mbit+) most of the time.

    "hard to take Vodafone seriously "

    you said it.

    My positive comment would be that I can say Vodafone's coverage has at least stopped deteriorating (Sydney CBD / northern beaches)

    It is no worse for me now than at any point in the last 2 years.

    When you factor in the growth of data plans and smartphones, that's a reasonable outcome for a cut price service provider - now if only they would stop pretending they have the equivalent of tier 1 network.

    Definite black spot around Stanmore through to Summer Hill in the CBD. Whether it is Vodafone, 3 or Telstra.. it always drops out there.

    I like that you used a picture of another "network" that is always promising improvements but we never see them. :) hehe..

    As Sandy says, "I don't care so much about raw speed as I do about staying connected" and that, for most people, is the key to customer retention for the networks. Slow speeds can be infuriating.. no doubt.. but constant dropouts and blackspots in places that really shouldn't have them is worse, imo.

    don't live in the middle of no where and bit*h about no internet.

      For me: Sydney's Inner West - hardly "nowhere", yet I still have crap reception and constant drop-outs while standing perfectly still.

      Beecroft is not "middle of nowhere". I can't get any reception out thataway! And Summer Hill... again, not in the middle of nowhere - troll.

    Vodafone are still allowed to trade in Australia? Consumer affairs should just shut them down for good.

    The coverage went zero for a good 10 mins in UWA perth today

    I live in Sydney and use my mobile all day, everyday. The Vodafone coverage is fine, especially if you are on the new network. Apparently (according to the girl in the store) only new handsets work on the new network. I just switched over from Optus and i'm loving it! Cheap as too.

    Vodaphone pretty much doesn't deliver data to Newcastle.

    Can't comment about Vodafone but being a regular Central Coast to North Sydney commuter the coverage between Chatswood and Hornsby is appalling on the Telstra 3G network.
    Don't know if anyone else has this same issue?

    I live in Wyong and din't (past tense) have any problems with the network (3G 4-5 bars) from home until they started with their so called upgrades in early May this year. We suddenly lost all 3G connectivity and the 2G kept dropping out. Vodafone lodged an Investigation and its still ongoing.

    In the meantime we get compensated for two iPhones and a Pocket Wi-fi. I just want a internet that works rather than being compensated for something that I can't use.

    As late as yesterday I received a call from their Network Support Team asking questions about my trouble shooting and what works and what doesn't. She eventually told me that the network upgrade won't be done until October.....!!!

    I wish they could have told me that in May..!!

    You think they might be stalling..??

      I had the exact same experience, Pete, except I'm in Newcastle. My 3G stopped working altogether in early May and I spent a few weeks trying to get Vodafone to look into it. They kept telling me it was the upgrades and that they'd be completed in June and offered to compensate me by paying my bills for three months. I didn't want compensation, I just wanted working internet, so I sent an email to the Telecommunications Ombudsman via their website and voila - a week later I get a call from Vodafone saying they will release me from my contract. I've since signed with Telstra and haven't looked back.

    I live in Wagga Wagga, and the service here has only gotten worse in the past 4 months!

    Used to get 3 bars with some dropouts and slightly delayed texts.

    NOW, im getting 1 bar, if any (in city centre!), constant dropouts, SMS's that are sometimes delayed by SIX DAYS!! (or they dont come through at all).

    My mum questioned me as to why I dont ever respond to her texts.. its because i never receive them!

    They couldnt call me, so tried to sms me about my grandpa dying. I got the SMS 4 days later.. WTF Vodafone.
    And its not my phone, its a brand new iPhone4 - works PERFECTLY with my fiance's telstra sim.

    This survey is useless unless you tell us what sort of modem you used. Did it work on the new 850 3G frequency or only the old 2100? I'm guessing the latter. You should disclose this in the article. If you actually have any idea of what I'm talking about. And I am not a Vodafone fanboy!

      As the article mentions, I used the Pocket Wifi Hotspot 2, which supports the 850Mhz frequency. However, Vodafone's own press release notes that 850MHz hasn't yet been enabled for the Newcastle/Central Coast sites. I quote: "Improvements to the Vodafone network are set to continue in the area in the coming months with Vodafone planning to introduce the first new 850MHz network sites at the end of September."

      Bottom line: Vodafone wasn't claiming an improvement due to 850MHz, and I wasn't testing for them -- but if they had been in place, I would have picked them up.

    We're actually seriously considering joining up to Vodafone. Both of us need new handsets - my old Treo 650 is gradually developing senile decay and wife's fone is just that. The adverts for the V-network upgrading are plausible. We live in the Canberra region. Neither of us like Telstra. Our ISP is Optus but not too impressed with them either as they won't upgrade their network coz Telstra monopolises all the ports @ the exchange. Waiting for the NBN. In the meantime Vodafone looks as likely as any other, once you've dealt with your personal predjudices.. ;)

      Find a friend with either the pocket hotspot or the USB modem and test around your area (and other areas you spend time in). One can say in general terms that one network is better than another, but there's so much local variance, what's bad for someone else could quite easily be good for you.

      I'm in inner northern Melbourne and the Voda performance here is just fine. ~1.5 Mbps downloads in busy periods and up to ~3.5 Mbps under light load. I usually get better upload speeds on my phone than we do over our ADSL.

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