Is the Vodafone network better than before?

02 December 2014

You’ve probably heard about the problems Vodafone has faced over the past few years, and chances are you know someone who was personally affected. Back in 2010, Vodafone technicians faced a perfect storm of technical issues combined with an unexpected increased demand on the network and, in short, the whole thing fell over.

These technical hurdles were overcome within weeks, but the damage to the Vodafone name in Australia has been damaged in a way that has taken years to repair. Australians love smartphones, so when a network turned our favourite tools into paperweights, the response was fierce and hard to forget.

But as we approach the four year anniversary of the Vodafail event, we want to know: is the Vodafone experience better than we collectively remember?

Then and now

It was Christmas 2010 when Vodafone's network became so unusable that it became front page news, though many customers had been experiencing these issues in the months leading up.

These customers described how their phones would report a strong signal, as in multiple bars of signal on the display, only to have calls drop out and data arrive incredibly slowly, if at all. Thousands complained, using official channels or by joining voices on a Vodafail site purpose built in response to the outages.

Similarly, Australian tech forum Whirlpool was flooded with complaints at the time, with a thread titled 'Vodafone Network Performance' attracting so many comments that it had to be recreated seven times over.

Reading back over the comments now you can see how frustrating the situation was for customers, people literally could not use their phones. But over time, you also start to see how and when the Vodafone experience started to improve.

This thread, currently active, traces back to the end of 2012. In it, current customers describe what it has been like to use the Vodafone network over the past two years. Among these comments, there’s over 100 speed tests performed across the county, mostly in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

For a snapshot of how these customers describe Vodafone from then to now, we collected all of the speed test data and crunched the numbers. To keep the figures from being pulled up or down by outlier test data, we then grabbed the median download speeds for each year.

Median download speeds 2012 - 2014, Whirlpool forum member speed tests

Median upload speeds tell a less impressive story, with the median uplink speed less than 5Mbps across all states and all years. Latency is also pretty consistent over the years, sitting at about 50-milliseconds on average.

The opinion held by these forum members has changed considerably, though. People who experienced Vodafone through the bad times now post enthusiastically about the changes.

Key Vodafone network figures (October 2014)
  • Dropped called rate: 0.51%
  • Success rate for all data sessions: 99.81%

According to Vodafone’s General Manager of Marketing Stephen Smyth, the change in sentiment follows several billion dollars invested in a major network redesign and has taken Vodafone from a time when it’s network buckled under the weight of the smartphone revolution, to being ready for a future where Australians are demanding more and more mobile data each year.

“We’ve been investing, broadly about a billion a year, concentrated on the 4G rollout, which has been the dominant theme of the last 2 years," said Smyth.

The future is data heavy

The network expansion has required a nearly $4-billion investment from Vodafone over the past four years, and judging by the way Australians use mobile data, it is right on schedule. Smyth believes Vodafone is well prepared for the next data rush.

“The telco industry, in Australia and overseas, is changing dramatically. It’s not just that everyone now has a phone, but it's how we are using our phones that is changing dramatically,” Smyth says, pointing to a recent Australian Bureau of Statistics study which revealed that the monthly mobile data consumption in Australia has doubled from 19 Petabytes per month to 38 Petabytes between June 2013 and June 2014.

These are big numbers, but Smyth believes this upward trend in data use will continue as we discover new uses for our handsets. Streaming music is one of the hot new trends, and Vodafone recently partnered with music service Spotify. But it won't stop there.

“We’ve heard a lot lately about the heating up in the video streaming war (in Australia), Netflix announcing they will come in, new joint ventures locally. Video is likely to be one of the factor that, at the very least in my opinion, will maintain that doubling of data for the foreseeable future.”

4G: not just speed

Most advertising about 4G services suggests that the key consumer benefit is a huge increase in download speeds, and while this is true, it is not necessarily the most important factor.

When Vodafone launched its 4G network on the 1800MHz radio band, it began moving a large portion of its customers from the 850MHz 3G+ network and helped to spread out which parts of its network is used for data services. As we’ll look at later, Vodafail was a failure of capacity, or having too many people trying to share the same ‘pipe’ at a time. Adding new bands of spectrum to its network is one of the key improvements Vodafone has made since the dark days.

To better explore how the Vodafone network has changed, we’ve put together a small timeline.

2011: the first big post-Vodafail change was the launch of the 850MHz network, which was an entirely new network at the time and important for two key reasons. Firstly, the 850MHz network dramatically added to the capacity available to Vodafone customers. Also, by using the 850MHz band, Vodafone created a network similar in technology to Telstra’s Next G network, allowing Telstra customers to easily switch from Telstra is they wanted.

2013: Vodafone launches a 4G LTE network on the 1800MHz frequency, upgrading old 2G sites which had previously used the same band in the spectrum.

2014: Vodafone starts upgrading 850MHz 3G sites to 4G and prepares to launch 4G+, a new technology mix that combines downloads on the 1800 and 850MHz frequencies for speeds up to a maximum of 300Mbps.

These are the broad brushstrokes of the network rollout. For a closer look where and when changes are being made, the Vodafone team regularly keep a blog of all new mobile site builds and upgrades. Every week there is a significant post detailing the suburb where work has taken place and a brief description of the type of work that has taken place. Follow this link to see all ’Network’ related posts on the Vodafone blog.

So what exactly was Vodafail?

Working at WhistleOut, we hear a lot about what people think about their phone networks. Most surprising to us is how much people still say they believe the Vodafone network isn’t up to scratch, even though they haven’t used it in years. This is the lingering spectre of Vodafail.

Around Christmas time in 2010, the Vodafone network became unusable for large numbers of its customers, many who couldn’t access data on their phones and many others who experienced call drop-outs. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald at the time, a Vodafone spokesperson explained how issues with two separate key pieces of software caused each of these problems. But there was a larger issue which both of the technical symptoms pointed to: capacity, or the amount of traffic the Vodafone network could handle at one time.

Then-student Adam Brimo was one unhappy Vodafone customer who decided to create a space online where similarly disgruntled customers could lodge complaints and share war stories. Vodafail was born.

The Vodafail website where customers shared their user experience on the old Vodafone network.

“My goal with the site was to raise awareness and get Vodafone to address the problems and let people out of their contracts,” Brimo told WhistleOut recently. “The peak of was between December 26 (2010) to January 21 (2011).”

In that time, Brimo says the site received over 12,000 complaints, which he compiled into a report and passed on to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commitee (ACCC) and the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA).

Brimo says he left Vodafone as a customer as soon as Vodafone ended his contract and he hasn’t used the network since.

“From the investment they're making it seems that customer service and a few other areas have improved, including the network. But I don't know if the changes are enough to bring customers back.” said Brimo.

See for yourself

One area that former customer Brimo and Vodafone’s Smyth agree on is that the best way to see whether Vodafone is the right service for you is to try the network.

“I don't give recommendations on which telco people should use. It's best to use a telco's prepaid service first to see how it works for you before signing a contract.” said Brimo.

Vodafone is actually one of the easier networks to test as a customer, with monthly contract SIM-only options and a cooling-off period built into all post-paid plans. The latter, called the Vodafone Network Guarantee, lets customers return a phone and cancel their contract within the first 30 days after signing a contract with the telco.

“We understand that because [smartphones] are so central to people’s lives, they don’t want to take a risk,” said Smyth. “We offer the network guarantee because you might not know, when you ope your phone, that it is going to work everywhere you travel, so you can just take back your phone and cancel your contract.”

“We know people get excited about joining us and [the Network Guarantee] is us saying that if you’re worried, you needn’t be worried.”

To see how much more robust the network seems to be now, we conducted a number of speed tests over the past few weeks across a number of Sydney suburbs.

The image above shows the average test result in each of the areas, and as you can see, the results are pretty solid. The fastest download speed we saw during our tests was 57.55Mbps and the slowest was 1.08Mbps — taken in completely different parts of Sydney.

On average, the Vodafone 4G network delivered download speeds around 20Mbps and upload speeds at about 10Mbps — an excellent result, but with a few hiccups. The Revesby result, our slowest, was recorded on the 3G network after we couldn't find a 4G signal. This despite Revesby being within a huge 4G block on the Vodafone Coverage Map.

All in all, the days of writing off Vodafone based on the Vodafail network issues are definitely behind us. For the vast majority of Australians living in densely populated cities and regional centres, the Vodafone network will cover you at home, work and in between.

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