Can Vodafone close the rural 3G gap?

(Credit: Vodafone)

Commentary 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.

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? Will you be making the switch?

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Matthew posted a comment   

I live in Parkes, NSW and I had a Vodafone Nokia E71. The service was appalling; I usually missed calls and texts and could never connect to the internet. Interestingly, whenever I went to Canberra or Sydney I ALWAYS had service. How stupid considering that (while to majority of Australians live in cities) rural NSW has over 1 million people.


Jake posted a comment   

A few months ago I thought I'd be moving to Tennant Creek NT which of course has no voda reception. I rang up and the company informed me that 450 new towers were being put up in the next 6 weeks so I left it....Vodafone, please hurry up lol your customer service is fantastic however your actual product is **** Catch up before we all go back to 'the theiving devil' - telstra.


jily posted a comment   

I live in Dubbo NSW - 5 ks from the CBD - when the phone rings I need to take it to a window, up the back yard on a hill, or out into the street - even then it can drop out - most frustrating..i'm going to change - sadly to Telstra - I like to give others a go but its all about customer service - particularly in the bush and on the open road if the car breaks down. Interestingly though txt does work when I have a signal...


MichaelF1 posted a comment   

I live in Albury NSW i got vodafone and coverage is rubbish most of the time have no coverage if they dont fix it im off to optus way better coverage


Guru posted a comment   

I took the Vodafone mobile broadband today and the bandwidth is sooo pathetic. this is in the Alice Springs CBD area. 50'ish Kbps for the name-sake *broadband* is rubbish. Thankfully its only prepaid and im already thinking of buying a Telstra prepaid connection.


tjg posted a comment   

every day I drive the whole route of the Sydney M2 and M7 to Campbelltown and back. I cannot maintin a vodafone signal for more than 30 seconds to 1 minute on the majority of that journey. Rural?regional? forget it. I cant wait to get to Telstra.


itchynipl posted a comment   

I live in metro brisbane, my work mobile is with voda & it sucks! gprs for internet & crackly reception. Personal mobile is with Optus & its not much better. So much for either of these carriers to have good reception in CBD! I'm going to telstra in 2 months, it might be more expensive but atleast I will be able to make a call!


wowat posted a comment   

If you think voda is bad then you are in for some fun with optus. Have a squiz around the whirlpool forums if you don't believe me.

And what are tyou on about availability, quality etc? NextG is recognised locally and internationally as the worlds best mobile network. Cost wise there are options that make it about the same as the others in a lot of cases


McBain posted a comment   

Yeah sure. Great reception from vodafone. I cant get reception in Canberra CBD let alone popular clubs or even the elevator.... Lame


Annoyed posted a comment   

I live 6km from the Canberra CBS and can only getdial up speeds! Vodafone is rubbish

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