Australia's 4G networks are only getting faster. But it's the future beyond 4G that equally concerns Telstra, so it's playing an active role in ensuring that the next big leap forward in mobile networking is one that suits Australia and Telstra's Australian customers — and it's spending money to do so.
Telstra is set to be a key player in the shaping of the 5G network standard — to the point that it's even sending over senior engineering staff to the Ericsson research lab in Sweden to collaborate and collect data on which 5G radio spectra would be best for Australia's vast geography and unique network layout, with our city/country split necessitating both extremely high-bandwidth networks that also need to travel a very long distance.
With that secondment of staff, Telstra will learn how 5G's extremely high frequency spectrum will be best applied to Australia, and will bring that data home to study. 5G allows for hugely improved network speeds over 4G — where 4G is currently on the cusp of breaking the 1000Mbps barrier, 5G will allow for speeds of upwards of 10Gbps — over 10 times faster — using millimetre-wave frequencies. Telstra has demonstrated 5G speeds of 11Gbps in trials in Ericsson's Swedish labs.
Telstra's chief executive office Andy Penn is a member of the GSMA board that runs Mobile World Congress, and sees his and Telstra's role — which is more formative than competitors Optus and Vodafone in terms of 5G partnerships and development — as positioning the company well to take advantage of the technology it's shaping with partners like Ericsson. "We play a very active role, with chipset manufacturers and handset manufacturers.
"We were pretty instrumental in getting the handset and chipset manufacturers to develop chipsets for the 700MHz frequency, basically in making [it] the standard frequency for 4G. We continue to play that role. We believe that Telstra — and Australia — are at the leading edge of innovation in this regard, there's an opportunity for us to play a role in making sure that all of the ecosystem becomes aligned."
Because Telstra has the ability — not only in spending dollars but in collaboration between engineers — to shape how 5G is developed and standardised around the world, it is putting itself in a position to take unique advantage in Australia of the new technology when it is implemented. It'll run 5G network trials in the real world at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on Queensland's Gold Coast, and will be testing 5G throughout 2016 both in its labs and in the field.
This investment will cost Australia's largest telco a large amount of money, but that money is an investment that will avoid confusion over standards and that will potentially save losses in the long run. Telstra's rush to release the world's first LTE Category 4 carrier aggregation network in 2013 meant a rollout of technology on the Gold Coast pairing the 900MHz and 1800MHz frequency bands, used by the 4G Advanced hotspot — another world first.
That 900MHz and 1800Mhz carrier aggregation tech was eventually abandoned to some customers' dismay, with Telstra settling on the long-distance '4GX' 700MHz frequncy band along with its existing 1800MHz holdings for future carrier aggregation. It has now settled on 700/1800/2600MHz for its three-band CA plans, which will be used for the 1000Mbps 4GX hotspot and future 4GX devices. Being deeply involved in 5G standards will save Telstra any of this confusion in the future.
"If we aren't front and centre with [5G], then Australia will miss out and our customers will miss out. I do have a very strong view that innovation in the new world requires a very strong degree of collaboration, we fundamentally agree with partnerships — like with Ericsson — and those parterships are only getting stronger."