Consumers won't see access to millimetre wave 5G until at least mid-next year, but Optus is keen to get testing the technology ahead of the government's early 2020 spectrum auction, according to Optus' head of 5G Harvey Wright.
It's an insanely busy time in the world of building 5G networks, with Telstra recently announcing its mmWave ambitions (but sticking to its guns when it comes to variable 5G pricing), Vodafone launching its 5G access to consumers and Optus just last week announcing the trial rollout of its own dual-band 5G network, a world first.
I had the opportunity to chat with Optus' head of 5G Harvey Wright to discuss Optus' own take on where 5G is and what consumers want in the light of research Optus had commissioned that suggested consumers were seeing 5G as a reliable and fast alternative to traditional fixed network options.
Optus hasn't been shy in targeting home consumers wanting fixed broadband alternatives, with its first 5G offering last year being a trial of an unlimited 5G home service, followed up by a full launch with a range of 5G mobile devices.
5G rollout is being pursued "aggressively"
According to Wright, Optus is now live across 500 sites in Australia and they're "aggressively rolling out" new sites.
"Since launch, we've now doubled the number of sites that we've got available and we're aggressively pushing hard in terms of rolling it out to more customers. In terms of addressability and coverage, we've got coverage across a number of cities and states" he said.
"For example, we've got over 170 sites in New South Wales, across Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle. We've got presence in Canberra, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and WA across those metro areas but also in places like Mornington Peninsula or Moreton Bay."
mmWave testing this year — but Optus' dual band gives it an early edge
Optus' rollout isn't hitting quite as many sites as rival Telstra, which also last week detailed its plans for early licensed testing of 5G on the millimetre wave bands. Optus isn't quite at that stage yet, but Wright is adamant that it will get there, but within the pace actual spectrum allocation provides.
"I think (mmWave) is an exciting technology. Obviously it relates to the spectrum bands that are yet to be unlocked here in Australia. You're probably familiar with the fact that millimetre wave has been around for a wee while now particularly in the US where you've got carriers like Verizon and AT&T using it for fixed broadband replacement. We are obviously keeping a close eye on that market and we'll be testing it at some point this year in terms of technical viability."
"Millimetre wave won't be available until next year when the Australian government makes it available for operators," he said, but Optus appears to be banking on its dual band spectrum holdings in the established mid-band range, having last week announced world-first trials of dual band 5G.
"I think we're quite fortunate in that we have a pretty decent holding of an advanced spectrum obviously at 3,500Mhz but also 2,300Mhz and we think that in the short term that's going to give us the sort of capacity and capability that we require to deliver services and particularly 5G fixed wireless access."
If you are keen on the idea and potential of dual band, you're going to have to get a compatible device, however; while the network is still in trial phases, right now the only devices with that kind of capability are the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S20 5G handsets.
"The dual band ecosystem is evolving, and it will be device-specific," said Wright. "We're currently utilising the 3,500Mhz spectrum and it's delivering the sort of results that we're definitely happy with. In the case of our fixed wireless access product, we're delivering speeds in excess of 150Mb/s and for a lot of customers, that is a great alternative product."
5G demand is "managed"
Fixed wireless relies on spectrum and being able to provide the throughput consumers expect to see, and Wright is keen to point out that Optus pre-checks consumers before they're allowed to sign up for 5G Fixed Wireless through Optus.
"We're quite particular about customers getting access to 5G in the home. So we actually put customers through a service qualification step, so when you go and buy the 5G home products, you've got to put in your address and we do that to make sure that you can get a 5G signal in the home and to make sure that we manage capacity accordingly within the network."
Mobile network capacity is a challenge for any telco, but it's especially critical when you're selling what's meant to be a high-speed alternative to (mostly) fixed-line solutions like the National Broadband Network.
Here, Optus is playing it rather safe when it comes to existing customers rather than signing up new customers in large numbers.
"We manage the demand in a particular area in order to protect that customer experience for those customers that are already on the network," said Wright.
Which of course raises the spectre of customers wanting to sign up for Optus 5G home broadband but not being able to if it's already heavily subscribed.
"One situation (that could emerge) is that we would stop selling in a particular area. Remember this is very hyper-localised so it would be down at a tower or even sector level," he said.
"The other thing is that obviously provides a great feedback mechanism for our networks team in terms of upgrading the network. So where we see pockets of demand or spikes in demand, that then allows the network teams to go and invest in deploying greater levels of capacity."
Why are 5G phones so expensive?
Optus' current 5G device offerings aren't quite as wide as rival Telstra – they're essentially level pegging with Vodafone now that its 5G network is live in Australia but there are understandable concerns around the rather high prices of existing 5G handsets. Wright's position on this is that it's a question of maximising premium value.
"I think what you're getting with these handsets is not just 5G capability, you're actually getting obviously the latest in terms of features and functionality for these phones."
Like many, Wright sees 2020 as the year when we should see more affordable 5G devices.
"As the technology, evolves and as volumes ramp up, we would expect there to be a broader range of devices coming to market," he said. "We expect this year in particular to be a really exciting one. You've got the likes of Qualcomm announcing new chipsets with the X50 and the X55 in play and the X60 which is going to again provide a jump in terms of capability and hopefully cost as well."
"I think this will be a really interesting year to see how the handset manufacturers deploy or bring to market a range of offerings for all segments and price points," he said.
Charge for 5G? Maybe...
The other side of the pricing arrangement is whether Optus will, in fact, charge consumers for 5G access. Telstra is moving full speed ahead with its own 5G charging plans, while Vodafone has explicitly ruled it out. This is still very much Optus' position.
"We are always reviewing our constructs and pricing," said Wright, "so I can't rule that out at this time".
Wright's position is that Optus is pitching better value with its current deals, but he won't rule out charging for 5G itself in the future. Optus' current offers provide double data to consumers on its 5G plans, but only if you contract for a 5G device with the telco. If you bring a 5G phone to Optus, you can access its 5G network, but its double data deal will not apply.