Vodafone’s new 4G network provides blazing speeds outdoors, but in a test of the network Techworld Australia found widely fluctuating speeds and occasional drops to the 3G network.
Vodafone’s 4G network is initially only available in metro areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Newcastle and Wollongong. The telco is now allowing existing customers with 4G devices onto the network and will begin selling to new customers next month. Vodafone has said it will deploy 4G in stages, with plans to add 2000 additional mobile sites this year.
Vodafone Hutchison Australia lent us a Samsung Galaxy Note II for our week-long test of the 4G network in Sydney. While Vodafone officially switched on 4G for existing customers on 12 June, we got a head start on 7 June.
A quick disclaimer: adding thousands of customers to a network can increase congestion and negatively affect speeds, so our test may not be entirely representative of customers experience on Vodafone 4G after many more people join the network.
We took the handset on a daily train commute between Museum and North Sydney station, a ride that includes a transfer at Wynyard, crosses the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and includes underground and overground rail.
We also took the phone out on a boat in the Sydney Harbour during the Vivid Festival on an extremely packed weekend (however, it should be noted that Vodafone’s 4G had not yet launched so we were more or less alone on the network). Ookla’s Speedtest.net app was used to measure speeds.
Overall, we found download and upload speeds on Vodafone 4G to be quite fast for the most part, though actual speeds ranged dramatically between really fast and, well, not as fast but still pretty fast.
Over 17 speed tests conducted over the seven days, the average download speed on 4G was nearly 33Mbps while average upload was 12Mbps. Latency ranged between 54ms and 67ms, with an average ping of 58ms.
The download speeds is much lower than the 100Mbps figure flaunted by Vodafone, but still close to what many Australians get from home broadband. In addition, the upload is much faster than what one would get on ADSL.
The highest download speed we experienced on the Vodafone 4G network was 67Mbps at Circular Quay during Vivid Sydney on June 9, and the lowest was 16Mbps as our train approached Wynyard from the bridge. The highest upload speed was 40Mbps at the same time as our highest download speed, and the lowest was 1.6Mbps during a test at Milsons Point.
On a boat in the Sydney Harbour, download speeds ranged from 19-36Mbps and upload speeds ranged from 10-25Mbps. Latency was 55ms for two tests and 67ms for another.
However, on commutes between home and work we did notice our phone switching to Vodafone’s 3G+ and even 3G networks when our train went underground and in some indoor environments.
On my trip from Surry Hills to North Sydney, the phone used 3G from Museum station until it got outside at Circular Quay. Then it dropped to 3G again when the train went underground into Wynyard. When our next train got outside and onto the bridge, 4G returned. But we were back on 3G again when the train cruised into North Sydney station.
On a morning commute today, the phone switched between 3G HSPA and 3G HSPA+ on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, finally finding 4G at Milsons Point.
Reception also tended to worsen indoors, for example dropping to two bars both in a Surry Hills apartment and our North Sydney office. We also only had one to two bars inside the Greenwood shopping centre.
Both issues could be attributable in part to the 4G network using 1800MHz spectrum, which is higher frequency and therefore less able to penetrate walls. Telstra and Optus 4G networks currently also use this spectrum, but in the future they will use lower-frequency 700MHz spectrum purchased in the recent Digital Dividend auction. Telstra also plans to refarm 900MHz spectrum for 4G.
But enough numbers. What does all this mean from a practical perspective?
Streaming music was a breeze. Even with the network switching between 4G and 3G during our commutes, we had no trouble streaming tunes at high quality from Google Music. It took a few seconds to start but after that there were no pauses to buffer or delays between songs.
Streaming video generally worked well. Streaming a standard-definition YouTube video while crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge worked without any faults. In a Surry Hills apartment, streaming an HD video on YouTube started out well but mid-way through paused a few times to buffer. However, watching the Man of Steel trailer in HD in North Sydney was trouble-free.
Also in Surry Hills, we download a 92MB game in about 20 seconds. That could be nice for last-minute app downloads before getting on an airplane.
While speeds on the Vodafone 4G network vary and never came close to hitting the 100Mbps the telco has bragged about, it still offers a noticeable improvement over 3G. More importantly, when we used the network for everyday activities (i.e. not speed tests), the network never felt sluggish.
An advantage for Vodafone remains that its 4G network uses 20MHz of spectrum in the 1800MHz, which is currently double the capacity of rival networks. That should help keep the network running smoothly when more customers connect to 4G.
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