1800MHz? 2100MHz? 700MHz? What frequencies are Australian 4G networks on right now, and what does the future hold? Here’s what you need to know.
Welcome to Gizmodo’s 4G Week: Everything you need to know about 4G in Australia. From the networks that do and don’t support it, through to the devices you can use and the best deals out there.
• 4G In Australia Explained
• Every Australian 4G Contract Mobile Phone Deal Compared
• 4G Smartphone Buying Guide: The Right Handset For You
• 4G Tablet Buying Guide 2012: How To Choose The Right Tablet
4G In Australia Right Now
When 4G was first offered in Australia, there was only one network worth considering: Telstra. Since then, other networks have picked up the 4G baton and run with it, leading to greater competition in the market between the nation’s two biggest telcos and a handful of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO). At the time of writing, only two companies offer their own bespoke 4G services: Telstra and Optus. Optus, however, seized an opportunity in the market and decided to wholesale its 4G network offering. As of right now, iiNet, Virgin Mobile, Exetel and Vaya offer 4G data and/or voice services via the Optus 4G network.
The roll-out and adoption of 4G in Australia is almost as fast as the network itself.
After purchasing vividwireless back in Februrary, Optus was able to bring 4G services to its Newcastle testing ground, where 900 customers were issued devices to use over three months so the telco could stress test the network.
In July, Optus released 4G services to market for business customers, before the telco launched 4G services to consumers. Optus’ 4G network runs on the 1800MHz frequency.
Optus’ hero devices at launch included the 4G Samsung Galaxy S III and a Huawei Wi-Fi Hotspot device. The vaunted iPhone 5 then launched with 4G support on Optus before a steady stream of devices began to invade the telco’s 4G offerings.
Optus’ products are using the 1800MHz frequency, and while the network will run on many other unlocked handsets that have that band enabled, Optus has said that it will not offer technical support to third-party devices brought in from elsewhere.
Right now, the only other 4G LTE product available to consumers is Telstra’s “4G” branded LTE; that’s an LTE network running on an 1800MHz frequency.
Virgin Mobile is a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) of Optus, therefore, it announced that it, too, would be offering 4G services on the same 1800MHz frequency with the same hero handset — the Samsung Galaxy SIII 4G.
Telstra, meanwhile, kicked off its 4G product base with a USB modem; that was followed up with its first 4G phone, the HTC Velocity 4G; then followed the Galaxy Tab 4G, Samsung Galaxy S II 4G, Telstra Mobile Wi-Fi 4G, HTC Titan 4G, HTC One XL, Telstra Mobile Wi-Fi Pre-Paid Hotspot, the Samsung Galaxy S III 4G and the highly anticipated Nokia Lumia 920 and the incoming HTC 8X; you can read our thoughts on those particular products by clicking on each link.
This time last year, Telstra had two 4G devices on offer going into the Christmas buying period. 12 months later, that number has ballooned to 19 devices on offer.
All of Telstra’s LTE products, like Optus’, use the 1800Mhz band; while that’s the band that European providers will use, it’s critically not the band used by LTE providers in the US, although that market is also muddied by the fact that 4G had been used for a variety of technologies; not just LTE and WiMAX but also 850MHz 3G — the same stuff that Vodafone and Telstra both offer as “3G” (or in Telstra’s case, “NextG”) products. It’s also worth pointing out that LTE is at the moment a data-only product; Voice over LTE is not yet part of the equation, so 4G doesn’t do anything particular for voice calls.
4G In Australia This Year
Telstra’s committed to its 1800MHz 4G product right now and for the forseeable future. In fact, over the 6 months, Telstra has committed to increasing its 4G network to cover 66 per cent of the population. But what of the other telco providers?
Optus is committed to rolling-out 4G coverage in other cities as soon as its 3G refarming operations are completed there first. Melbourne has already gone live along with Sydney, Newcastle and Perth, while Brisbane and the Gold Coast will be rolled out early 2013. Adelaide will have to wait until mid-next year to get the Optus 4G goodness.
Vodafone meanwhile isn’t going to have 4G services available to the market until next year. The number three carrier hasn’t yet released the locations where it will deploy its 4G network yet. In the meantime, Vodafone is deploying its own 3G+ network.
We had expected Vodafone’s 4G services to arrive at the same time as Optus’ thanks to the network sharing agreement the two signed recently.
What we have seen is that some 1800Mhz LTE devices sourced overseas will work just fine on Telstra’s 1800Mhz LTE network; the HTC One XL we tested was sourced via MobiCity and ran just fine.
What about 700Mhz?
It’s widely tipped that 700Mhz LTE services will be the future of LTE in Australia, but the 700Mhz band is currently in use for analog TV broadcasts. They’re due to be culled by 2013, freeing up the precious LTE-friendly 700Mhz spectrum, but who gets it?
There’s only one telco that’s on the record as having done 700Mhz testing, and that’s Optus. When we first spoke to Optus earlier in the year, they gave me the following statement:
“We recently tested 4G services on the 700MHz band in Bendigo, Victoria, the first carrier to successfully conduct a trial in this spectrum band. Early indications suggest that no Australian carrier will have access to the 700MHz band until 2015.”
As Optus’ 1800MHz network went live, the telco said that it still has a strong interest in 700MHz. In fact, the telco revealed that it has a limited 700MHz test network rolled out in south Sydney that it’s using as an experimental tower. The telco will closely monitor what its customers do with the network over the next few months before assessing the outcome of the spectrum auctions.
Telstra is also on record regarding its 700MHz plans:
We intend to bid for additional spectrum in the 700MHz and 2600MHz bands that the government is planning to put up for auction at the end of 2012.
The 700MHz band has great propagation characteristics as it is a lower band like the 850MHz band we currently offer our Next G network on. The 700MHz band in the Asia Pacific region uses a different technical configuration than the 700MHz band used in the US. The 2600MHz band is likely to be one of the main 4G LTE bands used for international roaming.
While the strategy from Vodafone may have altered since Nigel Dews’ departure and the spectrum sharing arrangement with Optus was announced, he was quoted stating that:
“We will seriously go into our preparation for the digital dividend auctions and look expectantly at that process. But there’s a price for everything and you don’t buy anything that’s at the wrong price, you buy things at the right price and that’s what we’d be hoping to be able to do.”
The short form of this is pretty simple; if you buy a 700Mhz capable LTE phone or gadget right now, it won’t work on Australian 4G networks for a couple of years — and even then, nothing is guaranteed.
What about the 4G iPad?
If you were one of the many who lined up to buy the 3rd-Generation iPad when it first came out, you had two choices; the base Wi-Fi model, and the Wi-Fi+4G version. That 4G label wasn’t a terribly useful thing for the Australian market, however. The chipset within the third iPad is LTE capable, but only on the 700Mhz and 2100MHz frequencies, not the 1800Mhz frequency that Telstra’s and Optus’ networks require. It can’t be software upgraded to support it, either. In theory, once 700Mhz networks do roll out here, it may work — but that’s not a sure thing.
This got Apple into some hot water with the ACCC, and court action ensued, with Apple eventually withdrawing the “4G” labelling from the 3rd generation iPad; it’s now the “iPad Wi-Fi+Cellular”. Apple was fined $2.25 million for infringement. In the meantime, the easiest way to get an iPad working on 4G would be with hotspot tethering, either via one of the existing 4G phones or via an Optus or Telstra 4G Hotspot.
At Apple’s iPad mini press event earlier in the year, Cupertino took the opportunity to quietly update the iPad to the fourth-generation model which actually supports 4G in Australia. It’s currently being offered on plans through the three major telcos: Optus, Telstra and Vodafone, with the latter not supporting 4G until next year.
Will 4G LTE Gadgets Work On 3G?
In almost every case, you should expect a 4G-capable gadget of being capable of dropping down to 3G. There’s nothing technically stopping a vendor from producing an LTE-only gadget, but it’d be a terribly shortsighted move, as even with the expansion of LTE services worldwide, 3G still has far greater coverage, and any gadget that limited itself to only LTE coverage areas would be rather limited in scope. The HTC Velocity 4G is a good example; in 4G coverage areas we saw some excellent speeds with it, and outside them it was still a solid 3G performer. The same goes for the Telstra 4G Pre-Paid Hotspot, and the Optus 4G Wi-Fi Hotspot. That’s what you should expect out of LTE-capable accessories, but it does pay to check upfront that this is so.
Tomorrow: We round up every 4G-capable handset in the country, and tell you if it’s worth buying…
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