Vodafone's 4G: Last but far from least

Vodafone Australia's 4G is the quiet achiever.

When Telstra launched its 4G network in 2011, it brought out then-meme superstar Rebecca Black to show off how you could share the fact that it was Friday with the rest of the world — probably on a crowded train with incredibly appreciative commuters — without having to worry about the song pausing to buffer over 3G.

Image: ZDNet

Telstra staff members were decked out in brightly covered 4G T-shirts and deployed onto the streets across the major CBD locations where the telco launched 4G, with coverage on all the major TV breakfast shows just to make sure we got the message. We got it.

You can understand the fuss; there was nothing like it in Australia at the time, and Telstra had the entire market to itself.

Optus' launch soon after was much more subtle by comparison. There were just some new plans and devices.

If you blinked, you might have missed Vodafone's 4G launch on Wednesday. There was no fanfare, there were no overly exuberant, brightly dressed employees stalking us in the streets, there were no new exciting plans and devices to win over new customers, and there were certainly no memes.

When the emails and text messages began to go out to tens of thousands of customers at 11pm AEST on Tuesday night, they were the first to know that Vodafone's 4G was here.

It was a long time coming, however. The company gave journalists a small taste of 4G earlier this year , when it demonstrated that it would use 2x20MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 1800MHz band for 4G to be able to offer much faster speeds than Optus and Telstra in most places today; up to 100Mbps.

The network deployment switch-on wasn't something that happened overnight. Allen Didovich, Vodafone's 4G technology program manager, told ZDNet that Vodafone made a decision to defer commercialisation of long-term evolution (LTE) 4G until the AU$1 billion 3G network overhaul was completed, but work began on deploying 4G at least a year ago.

"About a year ago, we started full deployment [of LTE]. We've been busily beavering away in the last year, developing the core of the network and the coverage we're launching with," he said.

"In the last six months, we've been extensively testing the network, and that has taken multiple forms [from] the base testing, but then progressing into more interactive and more testing around friendly users and our own staff.

Vodafone's head of network product management Robert Glennon said that more testing went into the 4G network than anything he had ever seen before.

"I cannot begin to describe the depths of testing. I've never seen testing like this in a 10-year telco career. This has been tested to death."

Didovich said Vodafone decided that everything had to be right before the network went live.

"We got to a point where we felt comfortable with our offering, and we felt we had something that was pretty special. I know there are a lot of people keen to get on there, but we're taking an approach where we want to really make sure things are coming along as we expect, and we're comfortable with the progress."

On launch day, only six customers called in to Vodafone's call centre with questions about how to switch to 4G.

Hundreds of thousands of existing customers are expected to be on 4G by mid July, when Vodafone will begin to offer 4G plans to new customers.

The initial footprint of the network is limited to parts of Sydney, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Newcastle, and Wollongong, but there will be over 1,000 towers upgraded to 4G by the end of the year to triple the size of the network footprint.

Vodafone is ensuring that each site upgraded to 4G meets a minimum standard of service, so that each site not only has 4G but also the full 3G service with decent backhaul.

"In those areas where you fall off 4G, you don't slam onto the 2G network or the really shoddy 3G connection, but instead you're dropping onto the next best thing, which is 3G plus," Glennon said.

"The challenge with LTE 4G is not so much just knocking the sites up and switching the cards out; it's completely an overhauled core network and massive transmission capability," he said. "You can't go launching 4G on shoddy transmission or crappy backhaul."

Didovich said that as a result, it's a completely new network.

"This network is basically built from the ground up. We're talking about everything, not just at the base station level, but right into the core network right into the internet."

Testing Vodafone's 4G

An HTC One SV connected to Vodafone's 4G network in the Sydney CBD offices of CBS Interactive with two bars of 4G coverage was able to get a maximum 53Mbps download, 18Mbps upload with a 29ms ping. The average download speed across 25 tests was approximately 42Mbps, with an upload speed of 9Mbps and a ping of 30ms.

The network had absolutely no trouble constantly streaming Spotify, TuneIn Radio, and ABC News 24. In using the device as a wi-fi hotspot, a 245MB video of The Daily Show took less than 3 minutes to download from iTunes.

The 4G footprint is, at the moment, not incredibly wide. Outside of the CBD and out in the inner west of Sydney, it was easy to lose 4G connectivity from one street to the next. But that is not entirely different to the coverage for both Telstra and Optus when they launched their respective LTE networks, and in the locations where 4G was not available, generally DC-HSPA+ 3G was switched on and the average download speed was approximately 6Mbps.

The major test for Vodafone's 4G network will come in July, when the company starts to build up a significant number of existing and new customers on the network. But given the level of work and investment that has gone into the network to date, and the company culture shift that seems geared toward getting it right the first time, Vodafone seems well prepared.

While the company has struggled for the past two years on the back of its 2010 network issues, Vodafone's 4G network is the quiet achiever that could very likely turn all that around.