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.
Yesterday's iPad announcement included the promise of 4G LTE speeds, which got many folks excited about the prospects of a 4G-capable iPad; if that launched on March 16th, it'd become the second 4G-capable tablet in Australia after the Samsung Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G.
There's just one problem; the chipset within the new iPad is LTE capable, but only on the 700Mhz and 2100MHz frequencies. This led to some debate -- and plenty of confusion -- about who's doing what with 4G frequencies in Australia. Here's what you can do right now, what you'll be able to do very shortly, and what the future holds, straight from the telcos themselves.
4G In Australia Right Now
There are only two networks offering 4G-branded products in Australia at the time of writing; Vividwireless offers a 4G WiMAX based product with, in our tests, less than stellar results.
Vividwireless is due to become part of the Optus empire in short order, but this has little to do with its WiMAX and much more to do with its pending spectrum licences. In any case, WiMAX isn't LTE, and it appears clear that the future of 4G in Australia will be LTE-based.
Right now, the only 4G LTE product available to consumers is Telstra's "4G" branded LTE; that's an LTE network running on an 1800MHz frequency. It's currently available on its USB modems, the HTC Velocity 4G and will in the near future come in hotspot form. For those keeping track, the use of 1800MHz means it's not compatible with the LTE functionality of the new iPad, although the Galaxy Tab 8.9 4G certainly is; its speed is clearly the key selling point.
4G In Australia This Year
Telstra's committed to its 1800MHz 4G product right now, and it'll shortly have some competition in that space, as Optus is due to launch its 1800Mhz network in April. Chatting to an Optus spokesperson yesterday, the official statement regarding Optus' 4G plans at this time reads as follows:
Optus will be rolling out 4G services in the 1800MHz band from April 2012 to Newcastle, Port Stephens, the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie areas. Optus 4G services will also be delivered to Sydney, Melbourne and Perth from mid-2012 with further expansion expected shortly after.
What of Vodafone? Despite spending billions deploying Huawei equipment to improve its ailing network, Vodafone appears to have distinctly cooled on 4G, with Vodafone CEO Nigel Dews stating recently that "We’re less inclined to do the aggressive talking about LTE".
That doesn't mean that Vodafone won't launch a 4G network this year, but it's anybody's guess as to when it will -- and they're certainly happy to give first and second mover advantage to Telstra and Optus respectively.
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? The process of divvying up the spectrum falls to the ACMA; it's indicated that the auction will take place later this year, with draft auction guidelines due later this month.
There's only one telco that's on the record as having done 700Mhz testing, and that's Optus. Again, speaking with Optus yesterday, 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."
Update: Telstra's also provided me with a statement:
We’ve reframed our 1800MHz spectrum (previously used for 2G) to offer Australia’s first 4G LTE network
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.
Telstra is re-using its 2100MHz spectrum to add capacity to the Next G network in areas of high demand, so that customers can continue to enjoy the speeds and reliability they expect from this network.
So in other words, any 700MHz LTE equipment that you get now probably won't be LTE-functional in Australia for a couple of years, if then, and that's subject to what could be quite the bidding war. Although again, Vodafone may be a minor player here; CEO Nigel Dews was quoted regarding the digital dividend as follows:
"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."
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. That's what you should expect out of LTE-capable accessories, but it does pay to check upfront that this is so.