Is the Optus 3G network stretched to breaking point?

Optus-owned Virgin Mobile has beaten the Optus Timeless unlimited calling mobile plans with a new $99 “topless” plan.

The plan is provided over Optus’ mobile network and offers unlimited landline and mobile calls as well as 1GB of mobile broadband data.

Optus today also announced a cheap-looking prepaid wireless broadband service with fees as little as $30 for 2GB. (But see our article: Sting in the tail for Optus prepaid wireless broadband). 

Both of these offers are extremely attractive deals for people who want to get online cheaply when they’re out and about.

But can Optus’ network handle the influx of usage these deals will attract? The “Virgin Broadband” service that runs over Optus’ network is already attracting a ceaseless stream of vitriol from customers who say they are jack of network congestion resulting in slower-than-dialup internet speeds and frequent call drop outs.

Adam Turner at the Sydney Morning Herald even went so far as to say “I wouldn’t touch Optus’ wireless home phone offer unless someone could prove to me it’s better than Virgin’s woeful service.” (You can read his full post here.)

The wireless home phone offer Turner was referring to is the new Optus Wireless Fusion deal: unlimited calls plus 2GB data for $79 or the same deal with 7GB data for $89 both provided over Optus’ 3.5G mobile network via a home gateway.

APC readers confirm Turner’s comments about the poor quality of Virgin Broadband’s service a few months after it launched. A typical comment from one reader Anthony: “There is nothing good to say about VB I am just upset that I am stuck in a 2 year contract and being provided rubbish service. I am in the process of going through the telecommunications ombudsman to get out of this contract.”

Another comment from reader Mic.Mac.Hack “I have Virgin Broadband at home but have found the service really crappy. In North Balgowlah the internet cuts out and you get messages like “all lines to the area are busy” when you try calling in and frankly it’s a piece of absoloute crap. We have tried many of Virgin’s suggestions and nothing will make it any better.”

IDC telecommunication analyst Mark Novosel says he is working on the country’s largest analysis of mobile broadband network quality and that so far in his testing Optus is by far the slowest network for data. (Read his full comments in Asher Moses’ article at SMH.)

At a time where wireless broadband is price competitive with wired broadband such as cable and ADSL and where Optus is well positioned to combat market dominator Telstra it’s clear Optus desperately needs to extend its network to cater for this additional demand its pricing is attracting.

Both Optus and Vodafone are actually in the process of building new 3G networks using the 900MHz frequency in areas that have no current 3G coverage other then Telstra Next G. But clearly Optus needs more capacity urgently in congested metro areas too.

Optus customers are having to put up with mass state-wide network outages on the 3G network too with Optus blaming a buggy software release from network provider Nokia Siemens.

Frustrated Virgin Broadband customers are flocking in droves to the tech media and discussion forums to express their concerns but their questions are largely left un-answered by company officials who initially participated enthusiastically in the Whirlpool forums.

In a recent interview regarding the launch of Virgin’s iPhone plans new Virgin Mobile CEO Peter Bithos did not deny that there were congestion problems on the Optus mobile network but referred queries about service quality to the network provider Optus.

We asked Optus what it was doing to fix the problems. It’s response — provided two days later after apparently much deliberation — “Optus is actively building additional capacity across the network to cope with demand e.g. transmission and base stations. Optus’ 3G network currently covers 80% of the Australian population.”

Phew… took us hours to read through all the specific info they included there. Must be completely reassuring to all the customers having problems on the Optus network.

With additional reporting by Dan Warne