Speed tests, smartphones, twitter and the mysterious case of the Vodafone’s disappearing LTE network.
[UPDATE: Vodafone has issued an official response which we've added to the end of the story.]
This month, I found myself testing the HTC Velocity and Telstra’s 4G network. Launched rather quietly in January, the Velocity is the first LTE smartphone in Australia and thus the only phone (currently) that can take advantage of the speeds that Telstra is offering via its 4G connectivity (in the limited areas its available, at least).
As a bit of background, I’m a loyal Vodafone customer. I’ve had the same number and been on the same Vodafone account since my first mobile phone in the mid-90s. Of late, I’ve found myself concerned that this “loyalty” is more of a telco-based Stockholm Syndrome, however, because while Vodafone has certainly improved, it’s still a long way off being great. I’ve noticed that on my phone, a 3G symbol in the top right is usually code for “no data access at all” and I’ve stopped even trying to Tweet from underground railways stations. I’ve even found there’s a certain camaraderie to be had with other Vodafone customers – if you see someone staring at their phone in frustration, you can ask “Vodafone?” and usually score a tired and knowing smile in response.
It’s annoying because in most other ways, Vodafone is excellent – its customer service and understanding of social media are superb, as is its web-based account self management platform and I’m (mostly) happy with what I pay.
So it was with some personal interest that I trialed my way through Telstra’s 4G network. To be clear – in my written review of the Velocity, I did not compare Vodafone’s 3G network with Telstra’s 4G one. That would be very much oranges and apples and is certainly nothing that our Labs guru John Gillooly would ever tolerate. But as a consumer? As a smartphone user and voracious tweeter? I wanted to see how the other half live.
And so, I found myself at 9pm, in the Sydney suburb of Newtown (within Telstra’s 4G coverage according to the map on the Telstra site), using the Speed Test app on the Velocity and also on my personal and much loved HTC Sensation XL to see what the difference would be like.
It was terrifying. The Telstra phone hit slightly over 32,000Kbps. My Vodafone one? Less than 1% of that speed. After I’d packed the Thai food back into my mouth and reconnected my jaw I did what anyone would have done in this sad modern world: I tweeted about it.
The responses were interesting – a lot of “what? how? where are you?”, followed by the internet classic “pics or it didn’t happen”. Even a few suggesting I was being disingenuous with the scores or even the fact that I was testing. More interestingly, Vodafone’s official Twitter account, @Vodafone_AU replied.
“Thanks for this,” read the first “I believe my colleagues have been in touch”. That was odd to me. I did have a meeting with Vodafone that day but unless I was being door-stopped, it wasn’t about its network.
“No one has been in contact,” I replied. “And they don’t need to, it was just a personal observation I thought was interesting”.
“It certainly was interesting,” came the reply – which I had to think about for a while to see if they were being a bit snarky. (I’ve chosen to take it in good faith). I told them that I was a loyal Vodafone customer and I was looking forward to testing Vodafone’s 4G/LTE network when it launches.
And that’s when everything got weird.
A reply – this time from @VodafoneAU_help – said in part “at this stage, we aren’t looking at 4G”. This was a surprise, because last year, Vodafone’s press department certainly indicated that they were looking very much at 4G/LTE and we certainly wrote about Vodafone working with Huawei onLTE capable network upgrades. In fact, way back in October 2010 the company was sending out press releases saying it had finished successful LTE trials in NSW, with 73Mbps speeds reported in test conditions. By February 2011, Peter Rossi CTO of Huawei even suggested that LTE services were “expected to come online by the end of the year” in an official Vodafone press release. Now, Vodafone certainly got coy about its LTE release schedules later in the year, but this is a very big difference between being reticent about timing and “not looking at 4G/LTE”.
“That’s not actually true” I replied, rather rudely in retrospect, before sending the @VodafoneAU_help a few of the links above. “4G is something we will look at in the future, but not at this stage,” went the response. “Sorry for the confusion.”
Unfortunately, that left me more confused. I contacted Vodafone PR asking for clarification on its plans for an LTE launch a few days before this was published. At this stage, they haven’t replied.
So I find myself wondering what really is happening with Vodafone and what my chances are of seeing a 4G option any time soon. The handset hardware is certainly on its way, with the Velocity just being the first cab off the rank. The competitors are doing a lot more than sabre rattling, with Optus delivering 4G in limited regions from April this year and a capital city rollout beginning the month after.
So, Vodafone: we’ve been together 15 years now and Valentine’s Day is next week. Got a 4G love letter somewhere for a loyal customer?
After publishing this story, Vodafone contacted us to issue this official comment:
"Vodafone will introduce 4G/LTE when the time is right, based on the commercial availability of handsets and mobile broadband devices at affordable prices. As part of our Huawei network upgrades, we have been rolling out 4G-ready equipment since the start of 2011."
Get ready for the 4G hype machine