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Analysis, Telecommunications - Written by Renai LeMay on Thursday, March 15, 2012 12:16 - 98 Comments
Telstra’s 3G network is dying in CBDs
analysis Popularity has its downside. Reports from around Australia over the past week have made it very clear that Telstra’s flagship Next G network is often struggling to function at all in the CBDs of capital cities such as Sydney and Melbourne during peak load times, leaving customers in the lurch without any access to wireless broadband.
On Tuesday this week I had a very unfamiliar experience.
After a meeting in North Sydney in the morning, I walked out of the café into a beautiful sunny Sydney day and attempted to check my email on my iPhone 4, as I do on a frequent basis. “That’s funny,” I thought to myself. “The little icon is spinning in the corner and I have full coverage, but nothing’s happening.”
At the time, I thought nothing of it, blaming the issue on temporary network congestion of some kind. I then caught a taxi over the bridge into the Sydney central business district, where I was scheduled to do the 6km torture run entitled ‘Pain in the Domain’ after lunch. As I often do, I planned to get some work done on my laptop on the road before this next commitment, tethering my iPhone to it to do so. But as I sat down on a park bench and booted up my laptop, again things took a turn for the bad, and mental storm clouds rolled over my previously sunny morning.
My iPhone was tethered to my MacBook Air through a USB cord. Once again I had full signal through Telstra’s Next G network. But once again, I sat looking at my screen and nothing was happening. I couldn’t load the articles I had earlier stored in cloud storage service Dropbox to post on Delimiter. I couldn’t file source material with my writers so that they could start writing the next batch of articles. I couldn’t moderate comments, respond to emails, check my RSS feeds, or even post a message to Twitter.
This cycle continued throughout the day. In the afternoon, following my run in Sydney’s Domain, I tried to check my email again. I was in a different part of the Sydney CBD, I reasoned — perhaps now coverage would be better. But nothing. And then, in a taxi on the way back to the office that afternoon, I tried again. Still nothing.
Now this isn’t the first time I’ve had problems using mobile broadband on the road. If you’ve ever tried to access the Internet via a 3G network at a major technology conference such as the CeBIT show in Sydney, you will be very familiar with the feeling of technically having full coverage on your 3G device, but not being able to actually access anything due to congestion.
But I’m not used to having this experience as part of the normal run of business out on the road. Telstra’s Next G network is the best mobile network in Australia, after all — and that’s why I pay a premium for it. At one point I used it so much that I was actually paying for both smartphone and USB dongle broadband connections.
I describe the situation above to illustrate my own problems accessing the service this week. However, in fact I am far from alone in suffering these kinds of problems with Next G, and I’ve been hearing similar tales of woe from Delimiter readers for weeks now. A quick check of recent experiences on Twitter this morning confirmed the problem was widespread.
And the comments are always the same. This is how one Next G user put it this morning: “I went to a site and Next G was ok but I get 0.24Mbps download on speedtest.net right in the CBD of Sydney.” And from another: “The Melbourne CBD was shocking up until the last few weeks. I haven’t had any issues anywhere else though.” In short, Telstra’s Next G network is dying in central business districts — particularly in Sydney and Melbourne, although I’ve also heard of a few problems in Brisbane. And the story is always similar: Customers have full bars of coverage, but congestion appears to be blocking any data from actually arriving at their device.
However, there’s also a flip side — in areas outside the CBDs, Telstra’s Next G network tends to perform very well, with customers praising its speeds. And indeed, when I got back to my office in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs on Tuesday, my Next G connection was again its normal self.
The cause of the problem is clear — as I wrote in early February, Telstra is currently making out like a bandit in mobile and completely destroying its competition. The telco added almost a million new mobile customers to its roster over the past six months of 2011, that growth is relatively consistent at the moment. The results meant that Telstra, at the end of 2011, had a total of 13.1 million mobile customers of various stripes.
Most of those customers are undoubtedly being added where Australia’s population is clustered — in the major East coast cities. And when too many of those residents arrive in the city CBDs for work and start to check their smartphones — let alone use mobile broadband connections on their tablets or laptops — Telstra’s network buckles and then breaks.
It’s a phenomenon which has hit both or Telstra’s major rivals, Optus and Vodafone, before. In 2008, in the wake of attracting what it said was “the lion’s share” of new iPhone buyers when the hyped Apple handset launched in Australia, Optus was forced to speedily re-examine the capacity of its own 3G network, as the data-hungry iPhone soaked up all of its available power and turned much of the network into a static quagmire which data could not traverse.
Vodafone had its own problems in late 2010 and early 2011, earning it the label ‘Vodafail’, to go alongside Optus’ ‘#badoptus’ moniker. And the jury is still out on whether the company will be able to recover from that issue. A year on, Vodafone is still hemmoraging customers and frantically guaranteeing them that its network now works as expected — or their money back.
In comparison, Telstra is incredibly better prepared than either Optus or Vodafone were for these kinds of capacity problems within its network. 12 months ago, the telco was already rapidly deploying as much fibre backhaul and wireless capacity as it possibly could into its network, and it has acknowledged that its rollout of LTE/4G speeds in CBD areas is as much about removing high-use customers from its 850MHz 3G network as quickly as possible and shifting them onto a completely different spectrum band, 1800Mhz.
However, with Telstra continuing to add massive customer numbers, mobile data usage continuing to grow rapidly, huge numbers of customers converting from traditional mobile phones to data-hungry smartphones, tablets adding an entirely new category of mobile broadband users and the telco even opening up its network to resellers, one really has to wonder whether the telco will be able to keep up.
For many of us, right now, the telco’s current levels of congestion are a short-term inconvenience which will strike on some days in some areas. Even though our businesses literally depend on the network functioning, we can put up with a few outages here and there due to the generally high level of overall reliability of the service. But one has to wonder what the next six months are going to look like for the big T.
If the telco doesn’t get a handle on its current congestion issues in the next couple of months, the problem will become a self-propelling meme unto itself, as happened previously with Optus and Vodafone. Despite the fact that its network may actually be performing to acceptable levels, Telstra will not be able to easily halt the perception that it’s not. You only need to look at the lengths to which Vodafone is currently going to convince customers, a year later, that things are back to normal to understand the magnitude of the task of turning public opinion once it’s been decided that a mobile network is crap.
Right now, Telstra has a limited time frame to make this right. I’m sure Telstra’s engineers are very aware of this fact — and I’m sure that the level of activity within the telco on Next G reflects this.
Personally, I’ve already made my choice. I will be heading back into the Sydney CBD several times over the next few weeks for meetings. I will continue to attempt to perform normal activities such as checking my email on my smartphone and accessing the web via my laptop and iPad. However, if Telstra’s network continues to perform as it did on Tuesday, I will have no choice. I will continue to maintain my Telstra mobile plan, but I will also sign up for a cheap Optus smartphone as a backup option. Because I simply cannot afford to be offline for hours at a time whenever Telstra’s infrastructure buckles under the demand. And I’m sure many readers will feel the same.
How is your Telstra Next G connection tracking? Post your thoughts in the comments below.
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