Spark’s baffling advice to frustrated Hamilton mobile phone users reveals better coverage is coming

Telco Spark had a bizarre recommendation for a customer fed up with long-running poor mobile phone coverage in the Hamilton suburb of Flagstaff – “try another provider to see if they offer better coverage … Vodafone or 2degrees”.

The customer, one of dozens of Spark customers in Flagstaff and neighbouring Rototuna setting local social media alight with their frustrations, received the emailed advice from a Spark staffer – along with sympathy for the “super-frustrating” situation.

The Herald has seen the emails between the customer who it agreed not to name, and Spark.

A second recommendation from Spark was to buy a coverage aerial booster “for up to $1500 with no guarantees”.

A Spark staffer’s investigation of the problem, which customers complain causes calls to drop out mid-conversation, missed calls because the phone doesn’t ring, and bad lines, concluded there was no plan for a second Spark cell tower in the location “any time soon”.

The advice was Spark deemed the coverage quality “fair coverage” – “which can mean that it’s not good”.

While the response brought the customer no comfort, the Herald’s subsequent inquiries reveal relief is on the way.

Vodafone said a major cell site building and upgrade initiative was under way in the Waikato, starting in the affected area later this month.Spark advised it would build two new cell sites in the area “towards the end of 2022”.

The customer said the inquiry by the Spark staffer came after several unsuccessful attempts to discuss the issue with the telco, including an email and three phone calls.

Switching providers is not an option for some Spark customers with corporate phones who are working from home in the pandemic. Besides, some posters on the local residents’ Facebook page say they have switched but it made no difference to their mobile coverage quality. A few said it did the trick.

While the pandemic forcing people to work from home has put pressure on networks, the Herald can attest the Spark reception issue in Flagstaff existed at least two years before the outbreak.

Flagstaff and Rototuna have an estimated population of 24,180, according to Statistics NZ.The two suburbs have for some years been Hamilton’s fastest-growing.

The Herald put questions to Spark and shared residents’ reported frustration that it was extremely difficult to get responses to their emails and phone calls to the telco.

Its response in a statement was that Spark mobile coverage in the two areas “varies depending on your proximity to the cell site”.

“For the communities of Flagstaff and Rototuna, we are in the process of getting an additional two new sites built towards the end of 2022. This will not only provide better coverage, but also relieve the capacity restraints from the existing tower that serves the community.”

Vodafone’s response was that it was just a couple of weeks off commissioning a new mobile cell site in Huntingdon, Flagstaff’s neighbouring suburb. Construction on a new Rototuna North cell site would start in February and was expected to go live by the end of March next year. A cell site outside the Flagstaff shopping centre was due to be upgraded in February.

Over the next 18 months Vodafone planned to build 32 new mobile cell sites in the Waikato.

On customers’ difficulty getting answers out of Spark, the company said: “Regarding your questions about customer service, we do apologise if any of our customers have felt they received a service from Spark that isn’t up to standard.”

On Spark’s advice to the customer to try switching providers for better coverage, the company’s statement said it could not investigate without the customer’s information but was happy to look into conversations or advice provided if customers were comfortable sharing details.

“However we can say that the process from our customer advisers is to perform troubleshooting and if that doesn’t solve the issue, we will have the issue escalated to our network teams to investigate more broadly.”

A 2degrees spokeswoman said the company had had no significant complaints or social media comment on its coverage in the area.

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