The mobile compromise is still a beach

The mobile compromise is still a beach

Summary: 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.

TOPICS: Mobility, CXO, Networking

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'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.

Topics: Mobility, CXO, Networking


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.

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  • Telstra = coverage and upload speeds > others' download speeds

    For business email, having good upload speeds is critical as it affects how long it takes to send documents.

    Telstra's upload speeds are typically over 1Mbps, and up to 3Mbps on the 21Mbps service, compared to the lousy theoretical 345kbps from other telcos.

    I just did an with the 21Mbps modem and got 3.5Mbps download and 2.2Mbps upload. Makes other telcos' offeringings only fit to be given away free with breakfast cereal.

    You get what you pay for. Plus with Telstra, support people actually use the phones and you can talk to real techos.

    When an earlier modem went faulty, they actually sent a replacement out next day and we just had to get the faulty one to them within a few days. Much more business friendly.

    While all the other telcos are trying to appeal to 'tyre-kickers', Telstra is actively supporting businesses and their data needs, albeit at a price.

    We went with them after many years of trying to avoid Telstra because of their arrogance and high prices. But after experiencing the poor service and support of other telcos, they are worth the extra money.
  • What handset do you have ?

    So you are saying you went back to GSM then.

    Were you using a 3G 900MhZ handset ?

    Doesn't sound like it.
  • I use 3 and Telstra - to suit the situation

    I use 3 for phone and phone data but 3 has terrible coverage outside of metro areas and roaming charges add up real quick.

    So I found out I could get a prepaid Telstra SIM and just get the pre-paid data activated on it so no phone cost. Then I picked up a USB modem on Ebay for $75

    Now I top up each month depending on travel plans and thus I get connectivity just about anywhere at a fairly low cost.
  • Vodafone Network coverage = Swiss Cheese

    I had Voda GSM a few years back, and could not get network coverage at my home in inner suburban Melb.
    Recently bought a pre-paid Vodafone mobile broadband pack, to see if their network coverage had improved with the much trumpeted 3G network expansion.
    Still can't get any voice coverage at home on Voda GSM or 3g, maybe 1bar of GPRS/EDGE if I stand on top of the BBQ in the back yard, and very little mobile bb coverage in work locations around outer 'burbs.
    Tried Optus before, but it doesn't have mobile broadband coverage at many locations where I have to go to for work.
    Telstra might be a big rip off, but it is the only one that really works properly and has good coverage.
  • Just your bog-standard iPhone

    GSM fallback normally works fine but performance definitely varied widely in this area.

    As an addendum, Optus has been in touch since this piece went live and advised that this year will see updated coverage in these areas:

    Rye central
    Mt Martha Park
    Fossil Beach
    Frankston East
    Langwarrin West

    I'll be interested to see if things are better on my next trip to the area.
  • A good approach

    Yes, I have a Three dongle but didn't even bother bringing it along due to bad experiences in rural areas.

    Despite Voda and Optus network buildout, it seems that anybody who needs guaranteed coverage anywhere they might happen to be, still needs to consider Telstra as their first (and possibly last) course of action.
  • Not so bad

    I've had 4Mbps down 700kbps up from Vodafone with a 7.2Mbps modem. Also successfully used it for VOIP in a poor signal country area (900Mhz band).
  • 900mhz

    I spent Christmas New Year at Merimbula on the NSW far south coast.
    Coverage was adequate for calls but data on my 2100mhz phone was back to GPRS on Optus, appallingly slow.
    So I pull out the internet stick and with 900mhz the speed was truely spectacular, except now I need two services, two plans, too bad.
  • Ocean Road coverage

    If you're with Optus, don't bother with your gadgets along the Great Ocean Road. Anglesea and Lorne are the only places you will get any sort of coverage and you need to be right in town (esp. Lorne). Because of the rugged coast line even Tel$tra coverage can drop out though. I can tell you from experience that Separation Creek, Wye River and Kennet River are Tel$tra only. Come on Optus, this is one of the premier road trips and holiday destinations around.