Most people head to the beach for the sun and sand, but I had an ulterior motive one day earlier this month as I headed out to beautiful Tootgarook Beach on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula: I needed coverage — and I'm not talking about sunscreen.
Searching for shells, or just searching for a signal?
(Credit: David Braue)
I'm not sure where it came from, but it was there: four bars and full 3G coverage, which could just as easily be coming from Mount Martha across the water as from any nearby base stations. I didn't care where it was coming from, but it was enough for email to work again. And it was a welcome relief from the situation at my friend's holiday house, where we'd stayed overnight and collectively struggled to get more than one bar between the lot of us.
You know the drill: stand in one place, and there's no service. Move three inches to the right, stand on one foot, hold your phone over your head and suddenly you've got three bars. At least, until the earth turns ever so slightly and everything goes awry again. And this house is just three blocks inland from the beach.
Whether such erratic performance is a symptom of one carrier's network I cannot say, since all the phones present were trying to connect to Optus' 3G and GSM networks, so we lacked any point of comparison. What I can say, however, is that coverage varied massively all over the peninsula, ranging from a full five bars and 3G coverage in the major towns to stand-on-your-head-and-cross-your-fingers no service in other places.
These weren't all far-out-of-the-way places, either; many were heavily populated areas that happened to suffer mobile coverage blackouts due to vagaries of topography or the curiosities of weather patterns. With tens of thousands of people on the streets and beaches, it's hardly the kind of wide-open, bush-filled space that many think of as stereotypically rural.
Ongoing coverage issues were enough to make a person want to go with Telstra, whose Next G network remains the unchallenged king of coverage outside our metropolitan areas. Well, almost. But as I sat there trying to get enough of a signal to send a few emails from my office-away-from-the-office, it became clear just how much of a compromise we are still making in mobile coverage once we head out of the major cities.
Of course, that was already clear on the drive down — when a downloading email attachment became stalled after we left the 3G coverage area. And it would, of course, be painfully familiar to anybody who relies on mobile communications in rural areas.
As I have previously suggested, ongoing upgrades to Vodafone's network should theoretically improve the situation, and may already have done so; perhaps those more familiar with its network in rural areas can comment below.
But as my experience with Optus proved, I doubt many would refute the suggestion that our mobile networks remain horribly patchy — with 3G coverage still suboptimal and GPRS still considered by many people to be the leading edge in mobile data technology.
It's an old story in relation to voice services, but the growth of mobile data is steadily changing many customers' decision trees.
When you're talking about voice services, there's always GSM to fall back on — but GSM and its GPRS overlay are hardly adequate fallback methods for the growing number of people using wireless broadband services. And those services are catching on like wildfire.
But with LTE already starting to rear its head overseas, Australian carriers are going to face a conundrum pretty soon: do they invest in yet another generation of high-speed data network, or do they keep building out their 3G networks to fill in the morass of coverage blackspots that persist?
Without doing the latter, visions of ubiquitous telecommuting such as Darren Greenwood's (any beach references are purely coincidental although we cannot confirm or deny rumours ZDNet.com.au's next office will be opened at Bells Beach) will remain largely pipe dreams.
After all, now that pricing of mobile services has come down a bit across the board, resolving coverage issues may be well and truly the only way they can counter Next G's broad reach and, despite Telstra's recent "efforts" to adjust its wireless broadband plans, non-competitive pricing. This continues to be the secret to Telstra's success: customers know they're paying a bit more, but it's OK because their service is likely to work in places where competitors' services won't.
It's an old story in relation to voice services, but the growth of mobile data is steadily changing many customers' decision trees. Telstra's latest results showed that its wireless broadband business is absolutely exploding, probably in no small part due to its superior coverage.
Optus and Vodafone/VHA will need to work hard to make sure that Telstra doesn't enjoy a monopoly on wireless broadband simply because their networks are too unpredictable; if they can't guarantee a similarly seamless experience, even in somewhat out-of-the-way places, they're going to find themselves all washed up.