Over the past week, I've been testing the performance of Vodafone's brand-new 4G network in Sydney and Melbourne. The verdict? It's sometimes very fast, but coverage is fairly limited, the existing Vodafone 3G network seems as flaky as ever, and it still suffers sometimes from the 'Vodafone moment': that point where the service suddenly becomes hopelessly slow and you want to stick a knife into anything sporting a Vodafone logo.
Picture: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
We have been waiting a long time for Vodafone to finally launch its 4G services in Australia. Telstra has offered 4G since September 2011, and Optus has been on the market since July 2012. There's a lot of catching up to do.
Vodafone announced on Wednesday that selected existing customers would be invited to move onto 4G from this week, with new customers able to sign on from next month. Currently, the network is parts of Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Newcastle and Wollongong (generally the CBD areas). When 4G isn't available, you drop back onto the best available Vodafone network (sometimes HSPA, branded 3G+, sometimes 3G, depending on where you are).
Ahead of that rollout, journalists (including myself) have been able to test the service. So over the past week I've been checking out the speeds available, using the Speedtest.net app on a Samsung Galaxy Note II. Most of that testing was in Sydney, but I also checked out performance in Melbourne, a city which has proven difficult at times for both of the existing 4G carriers. These tests cover download speeds , upload speeds and ping times. For the first two, higher numbers are better; for ping tests, the lower the better.
Something to remember with any speed testing: performance on mobile networks varies hugely, depending on the time of day, the area you're in, the weather, and the device you use. Even moving just a couple of hundred metres can make a massive difference. Networks rarely reach the theoretical maximums, and most carriers shy away from making specific performance claims.
Bear in mind also that at this point hardly anyone is using Vodafone's 4G network, so these numbers are very much the best-case scenario. We've seen with both Telstra and Optus' 4G offerings that the speeds available decline over time as more people use the network. There are potential benefits for non-4G users, since in theory they don't have as much competition for spectrum, but congestion remains a challenge for every mobile network operator.
The High Points
At times Vodafone's 4G offered some very high speeds. The best single connection I managed, in the Sydney CBD, was stupidly fast: downloads speeds of 78Mbps, upload speeds of 28Mbps, and a ping time of 34ms. That was definitely an atypical result though: most of my CBD testing in the area near our Circular Office saw results around 25Mbps download/10Mbps upload earlier in the week, and the numbers generally became lower as the week progressed. It seems likely that decline reflects other customers also being allowed onto the network. But even 25Mbps is a very impressive result and most people would be very happy with that, especially if they're not paying extra for the privilege.
Melbourne did not do anywhere near as well. In my CBD tests, the maximum download speed I achieved was 12Mbps.
The Low Points
Given the limited range of Vodafone's 4G coverage, for much of the time you'll be back on its 3G and HSPA networks. I've found in the past that Vodafone's claims of network improvement don't always match reality, and it still feels that way. What sticks out is the fact that network reliability is often questionable. At my home, I saw network download speeds varying between 0.2 and 4Mbps in the space of a 15-minute period late at night. The 0.2 was the 'Vodafone moment', when you would wonder why you're paying anything for such an abysmal service. When it worked, it was perfectly acceptable, but then it would drop to sub-optimal speeds for minutes at a time. Not great at all for a mobile broadband offering.
Testing At Airports
One area I'm always keen to examine is performance at airports. Vodafone has 4G coverage in Sydney and not in Melbourne, but the actual network performance difference when I tested was fairly minimal. In Sydney on 4G, I managed 8.1Mbps download, 1.2Mbps upload and a 67ms ping time. In Melbourne on HSPA, every figure was better (12Mbps, 6Mbps and 38ms respectively). Yet again this reminds us that the type of network you're connected to doesn't matter as much as the performance you actually receive.
Given its much-publicised network woes, Vodafone really needed to impress with 4G. While it is much better than what Vodafone offered before, I'm not sure it's strong enough to fully compete with Telstra or Optus in its current form. I'd definitely recommend checking reception at your home and workplace before signing up if you can -- if the service is as poor as I found at my house, there would be no point going any further.
Having three active mobile brands competing is definitely good for consumers, but it doesn't feel to me like Vodafone will be able to persuade very many former customers to switch back if this is the peak performance it can offer -- especially given the evident ongoing weakness in its 3G network. I'll be interested to see how the performance in other cities measures up, which is something I'll be looking at over the next fortnight.