The iPhone has quickly become an essential piece of technology in the hands of consumers. It can be used for practically anything — video, music, gaming, internet, navigation, email, posting on Facebook/Twitter/MySpace, checking the weather forecast and radar to planning your appointments and (with the latest model at least) recording and editing basic video.
Australia is a unique country for many reasons, and it has added to its list of distinctions the fact that all of our three major phone companies — Telstra, Optus and Vodafone —now carry the iPhone, with smaller but no less important carriers like 3 now also carrying it as standard.
It certainly is great to have a choice, but with that comes the more difficult decision - which Telco will give the best iPhone experience?
Forget pricing. Put aside for the moment the various plans on offer in terms of pricing, since the value of one against the other is going to depend very much on your own usage. Instead I’ll focus on network coverage and which networks best support the features of the iPhone — in short, which will give the best user experience?
Let’s start off by looking at a couple of the marquee features Apple has particularly focused on in hyping the iPhone.
Visual Voicemail. This is a feature that has been around since the very first iPhone but oddly it has only been adopted by one provider so far in Australia, and then only in late May 2009 — Vodafone. Currently no other Australian provider supports it. For those unaware of what Visual Voicemail (VVM) is, at the bottom right of the iPhone’s telephony app is the voicemail icon, which accesses the VVM system (if enabled by the carrier) and pressing this displays the name/number of the caller who left the message, the duration of the message and individual controls for playback. Hence VVM messages can be played back in any order, stopped and rewound at any time and deleted or saved as desired. This kind of voicemail management is very handy for people who receive and make a lot of voice calls on their phone.
So why don’t all the Australian telcos have it? The system was designed in conjunction with Apple’s primary partner in the USA, AT&T, and the hardware and software suited their backend systems. Unfortunately not all telcos use the same equipment, making adding VVM an expensive exercise to implement, for a relatively small number of users. The other, more cynical suggestion is that since some of the telcos derive revenue from the calls made to retrieve voicemail messages VVM eliminates this income, making it an unappealing feature to adopt.
Tethering. With the release of the 3GS and iPhone 3.0 firmware, Apple permitted tethering of the iPhone to laptops, essentially allowing the iPhone to act as a modem, connected to your laptop via USB or Bluetooth, so the laptop can connect to the internet using the iPhone’s data connection. As this has been a common feature on most phones for years its omission from the iPhone was something of a mystery. At time of writing all the major networks allow tethering of the iPhone — with final hold-out Telstra only just enabling this feature.
App integration. I’m not going to count the many and varied apps created by the various carriers for non-phone applications — such as Vodafone/3’s Cricket app, or Telstra’s Foxtel one — since the functionality on one network may be better or worse than on another and it would ultimately be dizzyingly complex to try and compare them all. Plus of course how useful will the cricket app be once cricket season ends? It is worth having a look for yourself though — search the App Store for each of the telcos and see what apps they have that may be useful to you.
As for core telephone functionality, managing your account and checking voice call and data usage are important features of any phone. “My 3” and “Planet 3” are web apps that allow the user to check their data/voice call usage and manage their account. Optus’s “MyZoo” is formatted for mobile web browsers — but not specifically for the iPhone. Optus has released “My Account” as a native application, but it is reportedly not very reliable — when and if it is fixed it will allow monitoring of your account status, billing and such. Vodafone currently has no web app nor native iPhone app for checking usage/account status. Telstra has “BigPond for iPhone” (only just released) which is a native application that mostly mirrors the BigPond home page and includes data usage and billing information. So which product gives the best end-user experience? There are a multitude of phone call/data usage checkers on the app store for differing amounts of money, but a free native application from your provider seems reasonable to expect. Hence Optus gets a point for trying to have an app, Telstra gets one for the same reason and 3 gets one for its iPhone tailored web app. Vodafone, tragically, misses a point in this category.
Data coverage. In many respects data coverage is the same as voice coverage except for one thing — speed. Right now the iPhone supports three speeds: 3G (fastest), EDGE (sluggish but liveable), and GPRS (painfully slow). All operators support 3G and GPRS, but only Vodafone and Telstra support EDGE. Optus and Vodafone share most of their networks, but for the iPhone the problem is that Vodafone has a 900MHz 3G band and alas the iPhone does not use this band — hence users on an iPhone miss out on this bit of 3G and drop back to the Optus GPRS system in those areas instead. 3 has 3G coverage where it has voice coverage in the major cities around Australia, but everywhere else is roaming on Telstra and quite expensive for data.
Exactly how fast the 3G coverage you’ll get (or how slow) will vary enormously by area, even within major cities, and providing a definitive answer would be staggeringly complex and difficult. Thankfully our mates over at Byteside enjoy staggeringly difficult stuff and performed a pretty thorough test series. Check that out when you’re choosing.
On area coverage alone, though, Telstra wins with three points, Vodafone gets two with its EDGE support beating out Optus and 3 each with one point because once you leave their 3G zones, it’s back to GPRS and slow data.
Voice coverage. So critical given that the iPhone is primarily and ultimately a mobile phone — though some might argue otherwise. Least dropped calls and best signal strength affect this item, so it’s off to the coverage maps of Australia. 3 has focussed on the major cities in Australia: Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, Wollongong and Brisbane. In all other areas it has a roaming agreement with Telstra. This means plenty of “hard hand-offs” between networks (leading to dropped calls) and higher roaming charges on voice when outside the coverage area. 3 gets a point for voice coverage. Vodafone and Optus share the networks to some extent and as such have essentially identical coverage — tied second with two points each. The winner by far for voice coverage is Telstra — perhaps it’s an unfair advantage given it has been in the market the longest and inherited a virtual monopoly position from privatisation but in the end it has continued to invest and to build its network — three points.
The final analysis. Telstra ends up in first place giving the best overall iPhone experience. The final decision also needs to factor in cost, but that is a far more complex analysis and the sheer number of plans and options boggles the mind. Despite Telstra winning the most points in this survey, though, my pick would be second-placed Vodafone because of the greater adoption of iPhone-specific features (and, ultimately, more competitive plans).
The iPhone is an amazing mobile phone but when choosing a carrier, it’s not always about the cost. Dropped calls and phone features will change your perception of the device which on one carrier may be passable; on a better carrier it may just be amazing. Original edited by Matthew JC Powell.