Vodafone Hutchison Australia's 3G network continues to struggle under the weight of its customers despite it having claimed that a software fix would resolve issues at the end of last month.
The company recently announced that it plans to upgrade its 850MHz network, which would involve 1500 new sites — 400 of which should now be live. But that hasn't stopped VHA customers taking to both Twitter and broadband enthusiast website Whirlpool over the last month in droves to voice their complaints about the network's poor coverage and slow 3G download speeds. The latest Whirlpool forum thread has reached over 90 pages.
Last month, Vodafone social media employee Kirsty responded to initial criticism of the network's performance on Whirlpool, stating the issue was software-related.
"We want to let you know that we've uncovered a software fault that is affecting data throughput on our network. We're now working to correct the fault, and we expect to have more stable software installed on the network before the end of November," she said. "Once the new software is installed, we'll be putting extra capacity into the network to better support your 3G data usage."
However, the end of November has come and gone and customers are still suffering from outages, blackspots and slow 3G connections. The company yesterday was still informing customers on its Twitter account that there were "known issues" in Sydney.
Users in Melbourne were also experiencing similar issues, with one Twitter user advising others against signing up with the telco this morning.
"Word to the wise: avoid the #Vodafone Australia network. Has been congested for months, now not working in Melbourne CBD. Useless. Pass it on," he tweeted.
Dan Gee from Sydney, a Vodafone customer since 2001, had up until recently been pleased with the service and coverage offered by VHA, but recent issues with the network and the way the telco has handled his complaint has forced him to look to alternative carriers.
"I had just assumed that [the poor coverage] was in part where I lived at the time — in a valley in a heavily wooded area, and the rest of the family had occasional connection issues too. It was when in Melbourne at the end of October with two friends also on Vodafone (on my recommendation) and we were trying to check emails, Twitter and look up maps and restaurants and other touristy things [when] we all realised that something wasn't right."
In the middle of November, Gee moved to Granville and found it was nearly impossible to get coverage.
"Trying to get anything done with the phone is just impossible."
Gee said that the support he received on Twitter from the telco was helpful, but said they would only tell him there were "no known issues" and redirect him to call the Vodafone support hotline.
Getting in contact with Vodafone's telephone support isn't as quick as a tweet, however. A number of customers have informed ZDNet Australia that the current wait on Vodafone's technical support line ranges up to 90 minutes. One operator told a customer that there were 400 people in the queue at one point. Gee said that the minimum turnaround time he experienced was half an hour.
"And because I don't trust my mobile, this is done blocking up my office phone at work," he said. "The first phone call was vaguely offensive [telling me to] turn it off, turn it on, you'll need to reset all your phone's basic settings."
Gee was told by the operator to reset all his iPhone personal settings because certain apps can affect network connectivity but that did not solve the issues. No suggestions put forward by Vodafone eased his problems and Gee said he would be taking the issue to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman at the close of business on Wednesday.
"I've always been pleased with their service and coverage, so was more than happy to recommend their service to friends when they were looking to get an iPhone contract with a service provider. They kind of all hate me for that now," he said. "I definitely won't be recommending them to anyone else, and I'll be seeking ways to exit my own contract as soon as my current issues are resolved, or not."
Sydney PR agency director Vuki Vujasinovic only recently signed a 24-month contract with the telco but found it impossible to get coverage in Newtown when he moved there three months ago.
"3G reception has become shocking, but now worst of all, I can't even take most calls. I am constantly receiving messages from Vodafone telling me I have new voicemail, but the phone hadn't even rung," he said. "I'm missing out on vital business calls because the reception in Newtown is non-existent at times."
Vujasinovic said when he complained to Vodafone he was told the company could only guarantee coverage in the house at which he registered his contract in.
"My pointing out that it is a 'mobile' phone [and] I need to use it in places other than the home it was registered in, fell on deaf ears," he added. "It's gotten particularly worse recently and it has become virtually impossible to run my business with my phone, so I'm going to try and have my contract cut short and move to a network that I know has better reception in my area."
It's gotten particularly worse recently and it has become virtually impossible to run my business with my phone, so I'm going to try and have my contract cut short and move to a network that I know has better reception in my area.
Elissa Freeman, director of policy and campaigns with the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), said her organisation had been speaking with customers affected by the problems on the Vodafone network and had been monitoring the telco's interactions with customers on Twitter.
"This problem has been known publicly for at least six weeks. We have had moments at which Vodafone has made some public statements about problems on the network, but what we continue to see is poor advice going to customers and in some cases outright wrong advice about problems with the network," she told ZDNet Australia.
Freeman said the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) was the best place for customers to go to if they're being given the run around by their telco.
"Customers are entitled to remedies including release from contracts or some form of reimbursement if the service isn't operating correctly. But really it's about customers demanding respect from their providers," she said. "People are usually pretty good at understanding that problems do happen from time to time but they do want to know they're being given timely and accurate information about those problems."
"These sorts of denials and inconsistent advice about coverage issues do undermine the relationship telcos have with their customers and do a disservice to the industry as a whole," she added.
The TIO told ZDNet Australia that it could not comment on issues with specific service providers.
In Vodafone's submission to the Australian Communications and Media Authority's recent customer service discussion paper, the company said it had over 1.535 million customers using 3G services as of 30 June 2010. The company claimed in its submission that a peak of complaints from customers around the time of the release of the iPhone 4 was due to customers seeking to get a free mobile handset upgrade to the iPhone 4.
In a statement provided to ZDNet Australia, Vodafone said the 3G network connectivity issues had been mostly resolved.
"We did identify some issues that intermittently affected voice and data services for some customers. Our engineers have been working to restore full network services and rectified most of these issues last weekend and the network is now back in a steady state," the telco said.
This week Vodafone Hutchison Australia won the Mobile Service Provider of the Year award at the 2010 Frost & Sullivan Australia Best Practices Awards.