Can Vodafone close the rural 3G gap?

Can Vodafone close the rural 3G gap?

Summary: Optus, Vodafone and Three have long struggled to match Telstra's reach outside the capital cities. Vodafone's major network upgrade is the best chance yet to dilute Next G's rural monopoly, but questions remain.


One of the great differentiating factors of Telstra' Next G mobile network has been its coverage, which has long been portrayed as reaching nearly all Australians and certainly seems to consistently out-reach its competitors.

That all changed this week, however, as Vodafone officially went live with its latest major network expansion — a fast and furious investment in mobile infrastructure that the company claims has boosted its reach from 80 per cent of the population to 94 per cent.

Signs are that the investment has paid off in some very real ways: a recent anecdotal report I read suggested that the Vodafone network offers "perfect" coverage down in Airey's Inlet, a Great Ocean Road town that has not exactly been an epicentre of 3G. One imagines similar results in many of the places where Vodafone is now introducing coverage for the first time.

(Credit: Vodafone)

As with all things mobile, your mileage will of course vary. But as Vodafone finally gets serious about expanding its network — and uses that network to bolster its merger with Three — the long-delayed upgrade is significant for one very important reason. For the first time, after all, residents in newly-covered rural geographies have a choice of mobile service provider — a concept that has been completely foreign to many in the past due to Telstra's de facto status as monopolist 3G mobile operator.

As I've previously argued, the creation of VHA Australia will be great for mobile competition by finally creating a third carrier of which Telstra will be, if not perhaps mortified, at least ... aware. Even if Telstra doesn't rush into defensive mode regarding Next G, it's going to have to watch Vodafone's subscriber numbers with more attention. Yes, Telstra's coverage by percentage may be higher, but odds are that Vodafone's expanded coverage will tick all the right boxes for a growing number of subscribers. Either way, it is going to help transform a critical part of the nation's mobile infrastructure by providing much-needed choice.

Vodafone's network expansion isn't only about whether rural residents can get phone calls in their houses or across their vast properties; it's also about improving coverage over the country's highways and byways, ensuring that even those who live in the city can pick up their phones with confidence while travelling. In some cases, this may mean there is only coverage on a thin strip of road; while this may be an issue for residents, it's better for casual passers-through than simply getting dead air.

One suspects there may be at least a bit of under-ideal-circumstances loading behind the 94 per cent figure.

Analyst firm Market Clarity pointed out issues with the actual density of mobile coverage earlier this year with research suggesting that carriers' coverage figures are routinely overstated because they count a population area as being covered when only the CBD is covered. There's no real sign yet as to whether this is still the case given Vodafone's newly expanded network, although one suspects there may be at least a bit of under-ideal-circumstances loading behind the 94 per cent figure.

Either way, Vodafone's investment should be great news for rural Australians. Should the real-world coverage and performance of Vodafone's expanded network prove as good as it could be, Vodafone should get a great boost in its 6 million-plus subscriber base as its traditionally good-value mobile and mobile data plans gain currency.

This could propel the company to the kind of growth enjoyed by Optus, which has seen subscriber numbers surge past 8 million thanks to its wholehearted embrace of Apple's runaway hit iPhone.

Should Vodafone's network not prove up to scratch, the company can expect to be lambasted by Telstra marketing, which has pushed the network's purported speed and coverage as its key differentiators. It may also suffer the kind of ignominy that has beset Optus, which has struggled with repeated network outage and seems, with data volumes escalating, to have become a victim of the iPhone's success as much as a beneficiary of it. Customers are sure to weigh in loudly on the results of the network upgrade — but either way, Vodafone has taken a major step towards closing the long-standing mobile divide.

Do you live in a rural area? How does Vodafone's new coverage compare? Have you made the switch?

Topics: Telcos, Broadband, Mobility, Optus, Telstra


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • I doubt it

    If there coverage is as bad in the country as it is in the city, they will never catch up. I live 35K from the Brisbane CBD and the network is a complete failure across most of the Redcliffe Area.

    I was just speaking with someone on Vodafone network in North Sydney and in 20min conversation call dropped out 3 times.

    Maybe they should be upgrading city network before putting extending second rate network int the country.
  • Rural 3G gap

    Let us not forget that Telstra got Government funded infrastructure courtesy of the CDMA network. Left to them all of rural Australia would be without coverage
  • Vodafone don't deserve a chance

    Vodafone were supposed to have the current upgrades done before November 2008. Now, nearly a year late, they finally have some updates, but looking at posts across many fora, there are still problems. Vodafone had a chance - and they blew it! What's more, their customer service is just as appalling as that of Optus or Telstra. You may as well get poor customer service from a telecom group with good coverage than to get poor customer service from a telecom group with poor coverage.
  • I Agree Network Stinks

    Vodafone coverage stinks, drop outs all the time. They need to work on existing coverage before expanding it.
  • Could be your handset too

    For too long people have automatically pointed the blame on the networks & their poor coverage or perception of said coverage. The problem though can often be put down to handset, headset or car-kit & antenna etc. Many things can effect the handset - such as no. of times it's been dropped or just general compatibility with the network.
    The other thing that needs to be taken into consideration is the governing bodies ridiculous guideline that coverage is calculated by population coverage & measure with a car-kit w/ an antenna. Now how many people use car-kits w/ antennas these days? Everyone uses bluetooth headsets or Bluetooth speakerphones like the Blueant Supertooth 3 etc.
    It's all kind of smoke & mirrors, like how the carriers charge, per second, per minute, per 30seconds, flagfall, no flagfall etc.
  • Don't make me laugh ...

    I always find it comical how people are willing to slag off carriers in these type of forums but are not willing to put their name to their posting.
    How long have you been with vodafone? What sort of handset are you using?
    Chances are you're probably using a dodgy handset coz u were too tight to upgrade or didn't want to get locked in to a contract ... hahaha.
    Having used all 3 carriers - Telstra, Optus & Vodafone, I would safely say that Vodafone is as good or better than Telstra in metro Melbourne & miles better than Optus in the Metro area. Telstra may have the better regional coverage but lets not forget that is only due to the fact is has been there since day dot & was formerly run by the government. What have they done that's new or innovative? Introduce an 850Mhz network that is only used is a couple of other countries, thus limiting your choice of handsets & network compatibility for travelers. Come on, lets be realistic
  • Comical ...,130061791,339292586,00.htm

    As was previously reported, the delays were caused by Ericsson whose head honcho got the chop or resigned as a direct result of it, weren't they ???
  • Not only Voda

    Actually according to the Optus coverage maps They have "yes'G'" (their 900mhz HSPA network) coverage in Aireys Inlet as well. Why isn't coverage like this being toted?
  • Leaving Vodafone

    We have been a business customer of Vodafone for a quite a number of years, and when we moved to them from Telstra their customer service was fantastic and could not be faulted......but now 4 or so Account Managers later it's absolutely woeful, and only available 2 days a week. For reasons beyond logic Vodafone say they can't give us someone different????

    Coverage has also been a big issue, and we were sold a furphy....I was worried about coverage, but was assured by the Vodafone Salesperson that if any of our staff were outside a Vodafone coverage area then it would roam to Telstra, so there was no issue, well as we found out that wasn't exactly the truth, but had signed-up on a contract by the time we found out. As a positive for Vodafone there business cap plans are great, and it's just a pity they can get the rest right. Our second contract is about to end, and we are going back to Telstra and getting great service through one of their premium partners.

    Aaron (Assume your from Vodafone)....happy to discuss further with you....our case should be well documented in the Vodfone system somewhere.
  • Handset

    where do you get thre handset?
    mostly from the same network that supplies the coverage.

    coverage or handset, same issue.
    poor performance.
  • Vodafone Coverage

    The original blog posting is saying things that I cannot see in any of the information released by Vodafone.
    I cannot see any objective statement that indicates that the Vodafone geographical coverage has improved in any way. I cannot see, in other words, that Vodafone has installed, or claims to have installed, any new cell stations that might improve the reach of 2G coverage. All I can see that Vodafone is saying, and i don't dispute this, is that they have added 3G (or maybe just EDGE - 2.5G) to existing cell stations so that where they had existing 2G only they now have 2.5G or 3G as well.
    The fundamental problem with Vodafone is the lack of cell stations in appropriate areas to provide coverage of any kind.
    My business would be happy with 2G and we have been conducting our own tests, side-by-side with the same handsets, one on Optus and one on Vodafone, and cannot find one location that matters to us where there is Voda and no Optus, but find many where there is Optus but no Vodafone.
    A few of the prior replies to the original blog posting have not been objective, attacking people's choice of handsets and attempting to introduce other irrelevancies.
    The facts don't change. We know them as they matter to us from our tests. We have found Optus increasingly expensive and find some Vodafone plans attractive, but attractive tarifs are useless if the service does not work and that is the Vodafone problem in many locations that matter to us.
  • Vodafone Coverage

    In our location...
    Mid North coast NSW, rural area.
    Telstra: none/pricey.
    Optus: marginal/cheaper
    Vodaphone Good/cheapest.
    No contest!
  • Vodafone Coverage

    I've got 3 different phones with 3 different networks.I've got a virgin (which uses optus line), a 3 (which roams to telstra when it doesn't have coverage) and a vodafone. i was at an underground carpark and guess which one had reception out of all 3....VODAFONE did.

    Their customer care over the phone may not be great cos you are connected to some other call centre overseas... BUT try their stores.I agree with Aaron,handsets affect it too... THE TYPE OF ROOF affects it too.. if u live in a house with tin roof... u won't get reception.

    Try virgin... they drop out ALL THE TIME.My partner's family is thinking of changing their service once their contract expires because it drops out all the time. When i had a problem with my virgin service... they just told me they don't know when it will be fixed, it depends on OPTUS... i had to wait for 1.5 months before it got fixed!
  • Ain't vodafone's fault

    Hi Scott, just wanted to ask u... where did u sign up and who assigned you the account managers.from my knowledge, account managers are not assigned by the actualy vodafone company but the dealers?
  • Vodafone Coverage

    "THE TYPE OF ROOF affects it too.. if u live in a house with tin roof... u won't get reception" ... sorry, this is just uninformed comment.
    Metal walls and roof can affect radio signals but would affect all carriers' signals equally, depending on the direction to the cell tower - this comment does not add to the discussion. We are talking about Vodafone versus the others, here, regardless of who has a tin roof and who doesn't. Let's stick to facts that have some bearing on the issue.
    I would be surprised about the truth of the underground carpark statement. Underground carparks are usually in metropolitain areas, and in metro areas Optus and Vodafone share 60% of cell stations - same network infrastructure, same location, same transmitter, same antenna. I'd expect Optus and Voda to have identical coverage in metro areas for the 60% of the cells that they share.
    You might happen to have found one carpark located near one of the 40% of Vodafone cell stations that isn't shared with Optus.
    I've done a lot of testing with the idea of moving to Vodafone for my business; objective testing shows that Voda coverage is poor in comparison with the others.
    Yes, a few people might find the odd cell station where Vodafone is better than the others - after all, Vodafone participated in a Federal Gov't highway coverage programme where they were paid or subsidised to provide highway coverage. Probably the other carriers did, too. In Vodafone's case, highway coverage is about all they do outside metro areas.
    I don't think this helps the discussion.
    Just one data point plus some uninformed comment does not invalidate a lot of data from a lot of users showing that Vodafone coverage is poor, generally.
  • The VF network is saturated and unusable in many areas

    Ironically in areas where the Vodafone network signal is strong the network is badly overloaded. During evenings even with a strong 5/5 signal it is barely usable and suffers constant disconnects and horribly slow downloads.

    Vodafone needs to vastly expand their backhaul bandwidth to solve these crippling issues. There is no point offering a $39/mth 3G internet service when it is barely usable.
  • Still not good enough

    What you are implying, Aaron, is that it is acceptable to supply equipment that does not work properly under certain circumstances. How can this be okay?
  • iPhone 3GS regional users get ripped off again.

    I live in Warrnambool (300kms south-east of Melbourne on the great ocean road). When I made the switch to Vodafone a few months ago, i was told 3G would work come the 32st August 2009.

    Only to find out that the 3G service being offered to regional customers in my area is the 3G 900mhz band.... and iPhone does not support 3G 900mhz band, it simply reverts back to using a very SLOW EDGE network.

    What is annoying now, is that I have to drop Vodafone as my mobile carrier, especially when I'm satisfied with Vodafone's deals, and go back to Telstra for 3G iPhone coverage, and I hate Telstra.

    I felt I was lied to by the Vodafone representative.

    So here is the answer for all you regional iPhone users out there.....

    iPhone 3G speeds will only work with Telstra in Victoria regional areas.
  • edit*

    Obviously I meant the 31st* of August ^^
  • Peter T.

    I am sure that I read on a forum that Vodafone spent around $500m on their upgrades. This supposedly upgraded their coverage from 68% (or perhaps 80%, depending on which article you read) to 94%. Either way, that is pocket money for such an extensive upgrade and explains why there are already so many complaints about the upgrade.