Troubled mobile telco Vodafone Hutchison Australia has revealed it will install new radio equipment at 8000-odd mobile base stations around the nation, in a giant network roll-out which will see incumbent suppliers Nokia Siemens Networks and Ericsson dumped in favour of Chinese vendor Huawei.
"Vodafone is also working with world-leading network technology vendor, Huawei to replace 2G and 3G equipment at all base stations throughout Australia (which makes up the radio access network(RAN)) as part of its overall plan to improve mobile coverage and download speeds," the company said in a statement this morning, in which it also apologised to customers for its recent network problems and outlined a range of initiatives, both technical and organisational, to resolve them.
"The national 2G and 3G RAN replacement project will see engineers targeting the most congested and highest demand sites first. All radio equipment at around 8000 sites will be replaced over the next 18 months. Current model mobile phones and mobile broadband devices are compatible with the new radio equipment, so there's no need for customers to do anything as we replace the equipment."
The company's choice of Huawei leaves its current vendors, Swedish firm Ericsson and Finnish company Nokia Siemens Networks out in the cold, and vaults the Chinese company into a position of prominence in the Australian mobile networking industry. The size of the contract has not been disclosed.
In a later statement, Huawei and Vodafone said that some 5800 existing base stations would receive the new Huawei equipment, while more than 2200 new sites are to be constructed, with the roll-out to take place over the next 18 months. The new network will be capable of maximum theoretical speeds of 42Mbps, and Vodafone is also working with Huawei to prepare the Vodafone network for an upgrade to 4G or long term evolution, which allows maximum theoretical download speeds of up to 150Mbps.
"Vodafone and Huawei undertook live trials of LTE technology in Newcastle during the last quarter of 2010 and achieved download speeds of up to 74.3 Mbps, under test conditions," the pair said.
The contract will also see Huawei recruit some 300 new technical staff in Australia as well as an expected 200 additional subscontractors, more than doubling the networking giant's current number of Australian staff.
In October 2010, VHA unveiled plans to expand and consolidate its 3G mobile network, as well as construct a new network which will use the 850MHz spectrum. The project included a decision to scrap its 2100MHz network for 2012. But in early November 2010, VHA customers started to experience slow download and upload speeds, as well as limited coverage in both Australia and New Zealand.
When problems surfaced in late 2010, VHA claimed instability was due to a software fault. Today, the telco got back to its customers admitting it was not prepared to face the growth in data usage, brought by the popularity of smartphones and mobile broadband. VHA chief executive officer, Nigel Dews, wrote to customers to apologise for the bad service delivered in the past three months, reiterating that VHA was not ready to face its growth.
"Some of you have experienced issues including dropped calls, delayed SMS and voicemails, slow data speeds, inconsistent coverage and long waits when you called us," he said. "The simple answer is that we've been growing fast, and when problems came, we responded too slowly".
From a technical point of view, VHA chief technology officer Michael Young said that software faults were detected while launching the upgrade of the network. "As we worked through upgrading and adding new capacity into the network we experienced some software faults which added to a very frustrating network experience for some customers," he said. "We also discovered that some of the new and upgraded sites were either resetting autonomously or interfering with other neighbouring sites".
Young said VHA has worked to correct those software issues immediately and it was now working on injecting more capacity and coverage into the network. He added the new appointment of Barry Kezik as general manager for Network Performance was also aiming at improving the telco's data and voice delivery over its network.
Dews concluded customer service was also being enhanced by extra human resources. "To make it easier to talk to us we have also added 300 more customer service staff to help you," he said. "We're also opening a new online customer forum for you to share your experiences, tips and questions with other Vodafone customers and us".
VHA said customers would be able to monitor network coverage and status through a new online service which matches postal codes to detailed information about site congestion and maintenance. Furthermore, a new "call-back" option has been put in place to ensure customers wouldn't have to wait on hold during peak times.
Enhancing customer service could prove to be crucial for VHA, after the Australian Privacy Commissioner last week found the telco was in breach of the Privacy Act when individuals gained access to one of its store passwords and thus to customer's personal information.
"We have responded quickly, are taking action and have brought forward the implementation of a number of enhanced security measures to better protect all customer information, a number of which have already been completed," the company said in a statement.
Updated at 1:11pm 22 February 2011: additional information added from Vodafone regarding the work with Huawei.