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.
A Brief History Of Speed
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 three biggest telcos and a handful of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO). At the time of writing, all three major providers offer their own bespoke 4G services: Telstra, Optus and now Vodafone. Optus 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.
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 Right Now
Telstra's committed to its 1800MHz 4G product right now and for the forseeable future. Between now and Christmas, Telstra has also pledged to roll-out 4G coverage to 85 per cent of the nation's population. It's also experimenting with a bunch of other technologies to make 4G faster, better and less congested.
Telstra is set to add the 900MHz frequency band into its existing 4G network offerings to complement the 1800MHz spectrum it already has. That means less congestion and better coverage transition throughout the nation when it's deployed.
The 900MHz part of the network will be used to improve coverage in rural areas, while improving what Telstra is calling “depth”. Presumably that means in-building signal penetration.
Telstra plans to issue 4G device firmware updates where applicable to make hardware compatible with the new 900MHz network spectrum, while the telco works with Sierra Wireless as a hardware partner to issue a dedicated 900MHz device around the middle of the year. Devices like the Nokia Lumia 920 are already 900MHz-ready, while the BlackBerry Z10 and the Sony Xperia Z — coming soon — will be 900MHz ready out of the box, too.
Also on the 4G network, Telstra added that it would start trialling network technologies known as LTE-A (or LTE Advanced) and LTE-B (or LTE Broadcast). These are two technologies that Telstra is experimenting with for a future deployment, with the telco’s network execs saying that the company needed to understand these specifications for when they might be needed in future.
LTE-A is a system that lets the telco combine both 1800MHz and 900MHz spectrum to create one network stream. When someone moves deeper into a rural area, they shift from being on the larger spectrum over to the 900MHz spectrum to ensure consistent coverage. LTE-B, meanwhile, is designed for more effective video and media deployment around the network so that people watching or using media content doesn’t create a whole mess of congestion. Imagine for a moment 500 people all watching the same broadcast of a sports game over the 4G network on the same radio base station. With ordinary LTE, all of those users would be crushed under their own weight. On LTE-B, however, content is pushed to the tower to turn it into a broadcast-style system where the users would hook onto the one stream rather than consuming all of the tower’s network capacity. Telstra said this would have benefits for not just media broadcasts, but also machine-to-machine communications as well as files that need to be downloaded by a lot of folks at once.
Telstra also plans to bust congestion in the cities on its networks by rolling out smaller cell networks called Heterogenous Networks, or HetNets. These so-called HetNets will be used to deploy more coverage to densely populated areas and large events.
Optus is committed to rolling-out 4G coverage in other cities as soon as its 3G refarming operations are completed there first. Sydney, Newcastle, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra all currently support Optus 4G, with the carrier gradually rolling-out the fast network to the rest of the nation later in the year.
Vodafone meanwhile is the latest player into the 4G arena, turning on its super-fast service in the last few months, almost two years behind other major players.
Vodafone's killer feature is the amount of spectrum it has to play with in the market. The amount of contiguous spectrum you have available to customers equals the amount of head-room and therefore speed and capacity you're able to offer on your network. Vodafone has double the contiguous spectrum when compared to other carriers, making its 4G faster in certain areas. Our tests of the 4G have found it can go up to 100Mbps in certain areas.
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 the end of the year, freeing up the precious LTE-friendly 700Mhz spectrum, but who gets it?
Telstra, Optus and TPG Internet have collectively parted with almost $2 billion to secure spectrum in the 700MHz and 2.5GHz bands. The digital spectrum auction, also known as the Digital Dividend by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is the sell-off of spectrum once used for analogue TV services in Australia running in the 700MHz band, as well as the sell-off of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. These services are to be used by telcos for 4G services going forward.
Having a bunch of contiguous spectrum is pretty advantageous for pushing out faster 4G services. Just ask Vodafone: its upcoming 4G network is running on 20MHz of contiguous spectrum and the results definitely speak for themselves.
The Digital Dividend has been a secret, silent auction happening behind the scenes for the last few months, but finally the results have been announced.
Telstra parted with a whopping $1.3 billion for spectrum, securing two 20 MHz spectrum blocks in the 700MHz band and two 40 MHz blocks in the 2.5GHz band.
Optus was the second largest spender, parting with $649 million for two 10 MHz blocks in the 700MHz band and two 20MHZ spectrum blocks in the 2.5GHz band.
It had long been rumoured that TPG would also throw its hat in the ring for spectrum, pointing to potential investment in its own bespoke mobile service (currently TPG is an MVNO for Optus).
Those rumours were confirmed by the ACMA, who revealed that TPG Internet had spent $13.5 million for two 10MHz blocks of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band.
In total, the government netted $1.96 billion in the spectrum auctions, and only two 15MHz blocks of spectrum in the 700MHz band went unsold.
It's unclear exactly what the telcos plan to do with their new spectrum, but it's pretty clear that we'll see new 4G services spring up using the services some time in the new year as the switch-over from analogue TV to digital TV occurs.
Telstra has come out and told the market what it plans to do with its spectrum:
The spectrum will be used to enhance our network to help support extraordinary demand growth for mobile services and data. With the 700 MHz and 2.5 GHz spectrum we will be able to deliver faster speeds, more capacity and expansive wide area coverage of 4G LTE technology on our Next G network.
The low-frequency nature of 700MHz means the mobile signal can travel relatively longer distances, which is ideal for improving the services we can offer to customers in rural and regional areas. It also means better inbuilding coverage in metro and suburban areas.
Together with ongoing investment in our wireless network, which will total $1.2 billion in 2012-13 Financial Year, and the application of next generation LTE-Advanced 4G technology that we announced earlier this year, the additional spectrum will help ensure we continue to deliver Australia’s leading mobile network for our customers.
No surprises there, but the more you know.
And Optus has a statement out now, too:
The spectrum Optus has acquired in the 700 MHz band will provide stronger 4G coverage across both metropolitan and regional Australia, allowing us to expand our 4G services to more customers than ever before.
The additional spectrum purchased in the 2.5 GHz band, when combined with our already substantial holdings in 2.3 GHz, will enable Optus to provide unparalleled network capacity for 4G data services to our metropolitan customers.
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.
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...
Image credit: Shutterstock