Telstra has suffered some pretty serious technical problems this year, and the “apology” has been to give its customers a day of free data, but is that really enough?

On Sunday, April 3, Telstra said sorry with a day of free data.

It was the second time the nation’s largest telco has needed to go on the defensive this year alone, and it’s only April, with the day of free data downloads acting as an apology for the company when the voice, text, and data services went down across Australia on March 17.

At the time, Telstra said it was sincerely sorry for the inconvenience, and “as a way of saying we’re sorry we’ll be providing a free data day for all of our mobile customers on Sunday 3 April”.

April 3 was yesterday, and from midnight Sunday until midnight this Monday morning, Telstra customers had a free-for-all.

“Over a 24 hour period, or 25 hours for those living in states where daylight savings ended, customers downloaded the most amount of data ever on our mobile network,” said Mike Wright, Group Managing Director of Networks at Telstra.

“By the end of Sunday, our customers had download 2,686 terabytes of data, which is 46% more than the amount downloaded on Free Data Day in 14 February, and equivalent to 3.4 million HD movies.”

But even though we’re all downloading a lot, the congestion was so dire that some had to wonder whether the free bandwidth was even worth the effort, or even worth the apology.

Back in February when the first day of free data began, we found that after 8 am — when people woke up — the speeds dropped significantly. From our count in Sydney, we found speeds close to 60-70Mbps (7 to 8MB per second) before people got up for that special Sunday, and more like 8 to 15Mbps (1 to 2MB per second) the moment everyone else was awake and taking advantage.

That wasn’t good, but it was at least something you could handle.

April 3, however, Telstra’s congestion was severe, and made any idea of a free data “apology” questionable for anything resembling the latter. Even getting that free data at the speeds on offer was made more difficult, especially if you were in a region that wasn’t performing well due to excess user congestion.

Tested throughout the day, we found speeds more like 4 to 12Mbps (0.5 to 1.5MB per second), which meant if you had any downloads you had planned to do, good luck. Even the idea of a day of free data with speeds like this could be laughed off, because while the data wasn’t going to cost you anything, it also wasn’t going to come down quickly.

And this led us to a more significant issue with Telstra’s day of free data, a day which constituted an apology for problems with the service: can a day where the network struggled to let you reach high speed downloads be technically called an apology if it causes distress for everyone else in much the same way as what provoked the apology to begin with?

At midnight, we found 35Mbps. It didn't last long.

At midnight, we found 35Mbps. It didn’t last long.

Let’s tackle the free data day woes from a different point of view: what if you didn’t care about April 3 being a day of free data?

In this situation, you have no special downloads to make, and while you could buy a few movies, download some games, and generally find a way to exhaust a 4G device on big downloads, in this situation, you’ve chosen not to.

In fact, in this situation, you’re just a regular person keen to watch some movies or sport, or even make a Skype call over your mobile, essentially doing something that requires the full extent of a stable 4G network.

Only there’s one problem: on the free data Sunday of April 3, you may have been getting a severely congested network due to how many people logged on to take advantage of that day of free data.

Now there’s a fundamental problem here, and that is with everyone packing the Telstra network to download for free, the available bandwidth goes down. This in turn leads to lower download speeds and complaints across the board, so much so that we even found at times the ADSL2+ connection this journalist has at home was three times faster than the speed a Category 11 4G modem was achieving.

To get away from the jargon, the home ADSL2+ connection of this writer pulled 12Mbps or around 1.5 megabytes (MB) per second. Meanwhile, the Category 11 4G modem he had in the Telstra Advanced III mobile hotspot could only achieve around 4 to 5Mbps at the same time, equivalent to roughly half a megabyte (0.5MB) per second, even though the modem can theoretically hit as high as 600Mbps or 75MB per second.

That’s grossly under where it should be, and brings to mind the sort of speeds the old 3G networks pre NextG were delivering. Pretty unimpressive.

Sigh. Head meet desk. When ADSL is faster. When 3G is faster.

Sigh. Head meet desk. When ADSL2+ is faster. When 3G is faster.

Remember, though, this is the Telstra network under extreme strain, as people head online to take full advantage of this apology.

Except if you’re not using the network to take advantage, you’re also seeing a network that is struggling, and that’s not so dissimilar from what made Telstra fork up an apology to begin with.

And therein lies the problem with the free data day apology: across the board, it may not be worth the hassle, and Telstra might want to rethink what constitutes an apology to its customers for service failures.

A day of free data is a great idea, especially when telcos charge so much for access to that data to begin with, but if that day of free data is hampered by a network that is struggling to deliver the speeds that make that free data worthwhile, what exactly is the point?

It’s fair to assume that every telco and every network is going to have outages at one point in the future. Your ISP will go down from time to time, and that’s no different from when the buses or trains go out; maintenance is necessary to keep commonly used services from degrading and falling to pieces.

But when maintenance is needed, telling people is beneficiary, and if it happens on the fly and disrupts services, the apology has to mean something. It can’t just be empty words.

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“On April 3, you will have a day of free data,” Telstra practically declared. It didn’t say you’d be sucking it through a straw that had been left in the freezer for too long and now was all clogged, which is the metaphorical equivalent (wait for the ice to thaw and the rest of the customers to give up and get off the network).

For customers who didn’t care about the free data day, Telstra was overloaded and damaged, because while they had voice and texting services, that whole “4G” thing which amounts to high mobile broadband speeds just didn’t mean as much, especially if you were in a severely congested zone.

And that leads us to an important question: can Telstra’s network take this sort of damage?

The free data apology days certainly allow the nation’s biggest telco to test its systems and flex its muscles, but it also highlights a weakness, and that weakness is clearly congestion.

As much as we normally love Telstra, this weekend shows that its network struggles under extreme stress, because while the engineers were beginning to work out the flaws later in the day, a boost from 4Mbps back up to 12Mbps a few hours later still isn’t a tremendous win when 4G starts with 20Mbps speeds, not 12.

“We are also glad to see the underlying strength of the network demonstrated despite a few hot spots where heavy users caused localised congestion,” said Telstra’s Mike Wright.

“Overall, the majority of customers continued to experience a reliable level of service and we look forward to continuing to provide this well into the future.”

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12Mbps is a far cry from the close to 300Mbps we found when we reviewed the Category 11 Telstra Advanced III modem, and both speeds came from the same modem.

At this point, 4G activity can only grow and with 5G not far off in the not too distant future, congestion, throughput, and speeds will become some of the most important and critical issues for customers to become aware of.

For Telstra to continue to be the dominant force it has been in providing these services and infrastructure, work has to be done on its network to keep up with the demand, especially when this demand is something brought on by its own apologies.

From this writer’s point of view, Telstra might want to consider an apology that has a long lasting benefit for its customers, such as looking at international data prices, one of the areas where Telstra fails to be competitive, or even eye better prices across the board for its data, increasing the amount on offer for both prepaid and postpaid so as not to put the network under stress for one day every couple of months.

A “sorry” where it feels like the company is trying to do better over a longer period might do more good than harm, especially when the short term “sorry” you’re trying to say in the first place comes off as a mere placation that doesn’t go quite as well as expected.