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Is Vodafone's new 850 network making a difference?

Vodafone responded to recent criticisms of its network with a pledge to expedite its plans to introduce the 850MHz frequency to its network. We take to the streets to see if these upgrades are making a difference.

Vodafone has copped lashings of criticism over the last 12 months for the quality of its network, both from the media and, more importantly, from its customers. It responded quickly, expediting plans to upgrade and expand its network infrastructure, with improvements to many current base stations and the creation of hundreds of new sites, introducing the 850MHz 3G frequency to its network in the process. To date, Vodafone has completed over half of this planned upgrade, but is it making any difference?

We took to the streets armed with an 850MHz-compatible Samsung Galaxy S II fitted with a Vodafone SIM, plus a matching handset connected to the Telstra Next G network. Below, you'll find the data we collected from both handsets after running download and upload tests around the city. Just remember, this is not a definitive set of tests performed in scientific conditions, but it should paint a pretty good picture of what it's like to be a Vodafone customer in Sydney at this time.

View the Vodafone 850MHz network test in a larger map.

The 850MHz compatibility of the Galaxy S II is key to these tests. This new 3G frequency in Vodafone's arsenal is the same part of the spectrum that makes up the backbone of Telstra's excellent Next G network. In theory, this should significantly enhance the performance of the network for the end user, especially in regards to data transfers, plus the 850MHz frequency will have a greater reach, meaning more data access in more places.

What we saw

Key results— strongest results shaded

Location Voda Latency Voda DL Voda U/L Telstra Latency Telstra D/L Telstra U/L
Sydney CBD 94 2261 477 137 2390 1172
Hornsby 90 2358 1084 232 1571 331
Ryde 107 4750 1502 85 7852 1019
Chatswood 119 655 40 69 6756 1254
Redfern 303 162 129 209 1973 898
Sydney Airport 286 144 120 165 8128 2358
Revesby DNC DNC DNC 160 6202 1819
Cabramatta 101 1290 113 191 2539 349
Granville 118 2483 1370 163 2322 1112
Strathfield 130 323 346 180 7756 94

Firstly, our hats are off to Telstra and its outstanding Next G network. We ran speed tests in just over 30 locations around Sydney, and the Next G returned download results over 2Mbps in 25 of these locales, with a peak speed of 8.2Mbps recorded in Ryde — or, in other words, a speed faster than our home ADSL2+ connection. Beyond the highlights, we maintained a constant signal along our entire journey using Telstra, which is a fantastic result.

In a lot of ways, Vodafone wasn't too far behind. While testing in the same places, the Vodafone network only had one complete network drop-out (briefly as we entered North Sydney), and only on two occasions did the network fail to complete our speed tests (Revesby and Liverpool). But even when we couldn't connect to the data network, the phone still reported a decent signal, and we were able to make phone calls.

This is vastly different to the performance of Vodafone's network this time last year. Before the introduction of the new and upgraded sites, we would experience complete signal drop-outs about half of the time along similar routes.

Still suffering from Vodafail?

We have no doubt that there will be multitudes of people reading this article who are still struggling with the Vodafone network, and are wondering why we saw such strong results when they are regularly re-dialling after phone calls drop out mid sentence, or waiting eons for simple web pages to load.

The answer is in our test phone's connection to the new 850MHz network. Very few phones in Vodafone's range currently support this radio band, so there is a good chance that your phone may not, and, unfortunately, there is little that you can do about this unless you have the option to upgrade to a newer, compatible handset. This is a bitter pill to swallow for anyone who has entered a new Vodafone contract recently, but who may not have been made aware of the benefits of choosing a phone that supports the 850MHz frequency.

If you are in a position to upgrade your handset, it is important that you look for 850MHz WCDMA (3G) network compatibility, and not just 850MHz GSM (2G) radio compatibility. Almost all phones released in Australia on all networks are 850 GSM compatible, but this will not get you the faster data speeds on the Vodafone network. If you are having trouble identifying this feature in any phone that you are considering, feel free to drop us a line.