A woman uses her smartphone as crossing street in Washington.
Telstra has admitted that its network in Melbourne's central business district has become congested after customers complained about poor 3G network performance, particularly in the south-west.
The issue appears mainly to affect the use of 3G data but customers also complain about call dropouts and their inability to make calls at certain times of day. The problems have been canvassed on the Australian broadband forum Whirlpool.
Mike Wright, the executive director of networks and access technologies at Telstra, said a number of 3G cell towers were not "performing as well as we'd like" but the company was working to remedy the problem.
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"We do get some areas of the network from time to time where it runs a bit hotter than we'd like," he said.
"We've got a couple of new towers due [for completion] in that area . . . over the next month to two months and we think that we'll [be able to] deal with that hot spot there."
Wright said 24 towers were upgraded in the CBD last year and 62 upgrades would be completed this year.
"It's not as if we are not able to supply,” Wright said. “It's a matter of just getting these towers finished and we'll have the capacity there.”
Customers have been complaining about the congestion since at least February last year on a Whirlpool thread, which reached 58 pages by Tuesday. The public demise of Vodafone's network began in a similar way, when thousands complained on the Whirlpool forum in 2010.
Some customers have received credits on their account or have had their phone and plan upgraded for the 4G network. Others have terminated their contract and moved to another telco.
"I wouldn't mind cancelling my contract and going somewhere cheaper," wrote Whirlpool user chromium on November 27. "The service couldn't be worse."
Another user, kraljm, wrote in January that they received a $500 credit and didn't have to pay their bill for six months because of it.
"Where did Telstra go so wrong," wrote another Whirlpool user, qd, on November 25.
"It wasn't long ago there were always people raving about [Telstra's network]. Now it's turned to shit, but just costs a lot more."
"They didn't anticipate that Vodafone would screw up so royally that hundreds of thousands of customers would leave and go to Telstra," Crazy CS responded to ad's question on the same day.
According to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman's 2011-12 annual report, poor network coverage in Melbourne accounted for 9675 complaints about telcos out of 56,785 complaints about telcos generally. In proportion to its population, Victoria had the highest number of telco complaints.
Elise Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, which represents consumers on communications, said Telstra wasn't alone in "struggling to keep up with demand in some areas".
"All of the network providers have experienced similar issues and all are investing in upgrading infrastructure as quickly as possible,” Davidson said. Customers of all telcos were beginning to realise that no matter which network they used, there was congestion at peak times in busy places, which can mean call dropouts and slow or no access to the internet, Davidson said.
But she added that the Telstra customers affected by congestion in Melbourne were most likely more annoyed than others "because they believe that they pay more to get access to a superior network and some don't feel like they're getting what they're paying for".
Foad Fadaghi, a telco analyst at Telsyte, said it was inevitable that during peak periods, data speeds on all networks suffered due to spectrum limitations but also general network congestion.
"Radio technology has these kinds of challenges with it regardless of which carrier you are with," Fadaghi said.
He added that putting customers on 4G networks was beneficial because the newer services were cheaper to run and encouraged increased use of data-intensive activities.
Phil Sweeney, who lives in Melbourne and collates news and sometimes writes for the Whirlpool website, has been facing the congestion problems since he switched to Telstra in January last year from VHA's 3 network.
"It was particularly disappointing given I had switched from 3 in search for better reception and performance," he said.
The consensus of the Whirlpool forum thread, Sweeney said, was that Telstra's network was "overloaded due to an influx of customers" through aggressive discounting and the deterioration of Vodafone's network.
Telstra added 958,000 mobile customers in the six months to last December 31, which analysts have attributed to customers leaving Vodafone. At one point Vodafone was losing about 100,000 customers a month.
"It's important to understand that the issue is not a lack of reception or 'bars'," Sweeney said.
"Most of the time (and certainly in the CBD) you have five bars of reception, and can make calls successfully.
"However, when you try to access data services such as web browsing, email or apps like Twitter, it will either be extremely slow or won't connect at all. It's not uncommon to try to run a 'speed test' application on the phone and not even have it commence the test as it can't even connect to determine the closest server."
Sweeney said the issue had appeared to improve earlier this year when Telstra added capacity to its network but deteriorated again at the end of August, about the time Telstra and Vodafone shut their tower-sharing arrangement. He said this probably forced some Telstra customers back to Telstra's 3G network and increased its load.
Poor mobile reception: what can you do?