Editorial: Bouquet 4 Vodafone

The plans are expensive and available to only a few, but Vodafone deserves credit for being the first to launch commercial 4G services

Oh my goodness, those 4G/LTE Vodafone plans announced last month are stingy. A $40 monthly SIM-only plan will get you just 500MB with a 4G upgrade. It’s not until you start paying $120 a month that the 4G upgrade is free and you get 2GB of data.

Then there is location, you’re restricted to Auckland if you want to use 4G services and only 30 percent coverage at that (although it will be rolled out in parts of Wellington and Christchurch later this year). Also, only six devices to choose from – although they do cover the iOS, Android and Windows operating systems.

Yet this hasn’t stopped Vodafone running a television advertising campaign promoting its 4G service despite it only being available to few New Zealanders.

Phew, that’s got all of the negative criticism out the way.

Because what I really want to say about the launch of commercial 4G/LTE services is: “Hooray and well done Vodafone!”

It is so good after all this time of writing articles about spectrum allocation and technology roadmaps and incremental increases in 3G connectivity to finally see a 4G/LTE service in the market.

As a technology journalist it’s often my job to look beyond the sales-speak and determine if users are being ripped off. And there is no way I’m going to defend Vodafone’s 4G plans.

But I do applaud Vodafone for getting there first with a fast network and for launching it in style. Let’s hope they show the same flair when they finally get around to offering Ultra Fast Broadband plans.

The day following Vodafone’s launch I drove to the deepest North Shore, and parked in a suburb called Forrest Hill. I had an iPhone 5 in one hand and an iPhone 4S connected to a wifi hotspot with a Telecom 4G SIM (as part of the telco’s Huawei trial) in the other. I conducted about 25 speed tests over the course of 15 minutes.

Not exactly scientific, but the results I got showed Vodafone’s 4G network had average speeds of 63Mbps download and 16 Mbps upload. It’s been configured to maximise download speeds – why?

“Asymmetry reflects our typical usage pattern. Most of us still pull down more than we put up,” was the telco’s reply.

The Telecom experience was different – it was a symmetrical service, with an average 33Mbps download and 34Mbps upload.

“We were very surprised that you were getting similar up and downlink speeds,” Telecom told me when I reported my results. “In general we have been seeing faster downlink speeds to uplink, in fact approximately double. The trial network is not configured to be symmetrical and we wonder if there were some settings/limitations on the laptop that you were using.”

Don’t you just love the way telcos blame users when you get the wrong service! Anyway, Telecom has sent me a data stick to trial the network on, so I will have a go with that. Although what is really needed is some sophisticated testing from a specialist, so hopefully we can bring you more comprehensive results.

Meanwhile, at the launch I had a quick chat to Vodafone chief technology officer Sandra Pickering. She tells me the telco still intends to keep its 2G network, for disaster recovery (voice calls will fall back to 2G in emergencies) and for machine-to-machine services.

She says the telco has been trialling the LTE service for a number of weeks. “Average speed is between 20 and 30Mbps for download, upload is 15 to 25Mbps, about 6, 7 8 times more than what you experience today.”

I suspect my downlink results were high because I was the only one connecting to that cell, as the good people of Forrest Hill are unlikely to be super early adopters.

Pickering also reiterated Vodafone’s commitment to enable the network being built under the Rural Broadband Initiative with 4G/LTE services - if it gets a decent slice of the 700MHz spectrum (it wants 20MHz, but I suspect it would settle for 15MHz).

All three mobile telcos are after a slice of this spectrum, so it’s good to see the government has announced the auction for later this year.

In the meantime, the 4G race has begun and Vodafone, Telecom and 2degrees (which bought left-over TelstraClear spectrum) are likely to slug it out for fastest network on the 1800Mhz spectrum in urban areas.

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