Telstra admits low mobile speeds on regional 4G phones ‘typical’

The Guardian
The Guardian
A farmer checks his phone. Telstra says mobile internet speeds of 2-10 Mbps are common in some regional areas of Australia.

Telstra’s chief executive, Andy Penn, has admitted that mobile speeds of 2 to 10 megabits per second (Mbps) are “typical” for regional areas such as Geraldton, even though the company advertises speeds of 2-50Mbps on its 4G phones.

The admission came in a letter to a telecommunications expert and RMIT University professor, Mark Gregory, who said 2Mbps on a 4G device was like “selling someone a Ferrari and then telling them they’re not allowed to get out of first gear”.

Gregory wrote to Telstra as part of an investigation into mobile coverage in regional Western Australia. He asked the telco what the average capacity would be for someone with 4G on their phone and four or five bars in a major community north or west of Geraldton.

Penn wrote back that coverage depended on different variables but he nominated a typical range.

“In a typical situation where our coverage maps indicate there is hand-held mobile coverage we would expect a speed range between 2 and 10 mbps. Certainly higher speeds can be achieved where there is overlapping mobile coverage, which is typically in larger regional hubs.”

Gregory said 2-10 mbps represented a very low download “throughput”, a term related to the data capacity being put into the network, explaining why consumers may find mobile phones unreliable in some rural and regional areas.

“It’s not their device and it’s not the local impairments, it’s a capacity problem,” Gregory said.

“We’re talking about 4th-generation [4G] technology that’s capable of hundreds of megabits per second.”

In the letter, Penn said there was a large volume of additional traffic on our network across Western Australia which could not be immediately “remedied”.

Penn cited Exmouth, which had a fourfold increase in network traffic over the same time last year, as an example. He said the company had a number of planned projects to upgrade the network capacity to improve the “end user experience”.

A spokesperson for Telstra said Penn had outlined a number of different factors that might be impacting the speed range, including the number of users, proximity to the serving mobile tower, the type of device used and environmental issues such as terrain and even building materials.

“Generally speaking it is difficult to assess accurately coverage of a township as many things can impact coverage from one location to the next … For example, a resident in one part of town may get great coverage while a neighbour in an adjacent street may not.”

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Asked by Guardian Australia, Optus and Vodafone declined to nominate the average speed for their mobile coverage in rural and regional areas.

Both telecommunications providers said many external factors, such as location and the device being used to access the network, could affect the connection and performance.

But Gregory said finding ways to reduce the impact of external conditions had been one of the key aims of the different technological generations such as 3G, 4G and now 5G.

The letter comes as 17 Coalition government backbenchers signed up to support a private members’ bill drafted by Berowra MP Julian Leeser to force telcos to improve patchy mobile services, particularly in the bush.

In the wake of government inaction to monitor performance, RMIT has set up a crowdfunding project to establish and operate regional mobile telecommunications performance data collection points across the Australia for three months.

According to a study by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, 58% of regional and rural Australians rely on mobile only for their voice communications compared with 61% of adults living in capital cities. But more regional Australians (18%) relied on mobiles only for internet than city dwellers (14%).

Gregory said Penn’s letter revealed that Telstra acknowledged the performance regional Australia gets was “really poor”, that the company was aware there was a problem and that it was going to do something about it in future.

“What people want to know is when,” Gregory said.

The key problem was the Australian telecommunications business model charged for data usage as well as connection, he said.

“The industry should be all about you paying to connect and all the data you need or want is available.”

Gregory highlighted that in New Zealand, the wholesale provider, Chorus, rebuilt the network using fibre to the premises (FTTP) and no longer charged for data.

Given Telstra acknowledged that it monitored capacity, he said, it should make this information publicly available, as more data on telecommunications performance was needed to improve standards.

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