However, on commutes between home and work we did notice our phone switching to Vodafone's 3G+ and even 3G networks when our train went underground and in some indoor environments.
On my trip from Surry Hills to North Sydney, the phone used 3G from Museum station until it got outside at Circular Quay. Then it dropped to 3G again when the train went underground into Wynyard. When our next train got outside and onto the bridge, 4G returned. But we were back on 3G again when the train cruised into North Sydney station.
On a morning commute today, the phone switched between 3G HSPA and 3G HSPA+ on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, finally finding 4G at Milsons Point.
Reception also tended to worsen indoors, for example dropping to two bars both in a Surry Hills apartment and our North Sydney office. We also only had one to two bars inside the Greenwood shopping centre.
Both issues could be attributable in part to the 4G network using 1800MHz spectrum, which is higher frequency and therefore less able to penetrate walls. Telstra and Optus 4G networks currently also use this spectrum, but in the future they will use lower-frequency 700MHz spectrum purchased in the recent Digital Dividend auction. Telstra also plans to refarm 900MHz spectrum for 4G.
But enough numbers. What does all this mean from a practical perspective?
Streaming music was a breeze. Even with the network switching between 4G and 3G during our commutes, we had no trouble streaming tunes at high quality from Google Music. It took a few seconds to start but after that there were no pauses to buffer or delays between songs.
Streaming video generally worked well. Streaming a standard-definition YouTube video while crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge worked without any faults. In a Surry Hills apartment, streaming an HD video on YouTube started out well but mid-way through paused a few times to buffer. However, watching the Man of Steel trailer in HD in North Sydney was trouble-free.
Also in Surry Hills, we download a 92MB game in about 20 seconds. That could be nice for last-minute app downloads before getting on an airplane.
While speeds on the Vodafone 4G network vary and never came close to hitting the 100Mbps the telco has bragged about, it still offers a noticeable improvement over 3G. More importantly, when we used the network for everyday activities (i.e. not speed tests), the network never felt sluggish.
An advantage for Vodafone remains that its 4G network uses 20MHz of spectrum in the 1800MHz, which is currently double the capacity of rival networks. That should help keep the network running smoothly when more customers connect to 4G.
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