700MHz auction: The death knell for Aussie 4G?

700MHz auction: The death knell for Aussie 4G?

Summary: The world of speculative telecommunications investments has quieted down considerably since the beginning of the decade, when hype-fuelled carriers plunked down billions to reserve the right to carry mobile phone calls, video calls, and massive volumes of spam at high speed using then-fanciful 3G mobile technology.

TOPICS: Google, AT&T

The world of speculative telecommunications investments has quieted down considerably since the beginning of the decade, when hype-fuelled carriers plunked down billions to reserve the right to carry mobile phone calls, video calls, and massive volumes of spam at high speed using then-fanciful 3G mobile technology.

Just whether those investments have paid off may be open to question, but such is the price of progress. Great to see, then, that carriers still have some vision left in them: after months of speculation and quiet bidding, the auction for the US' soon-to-be-vacated 700MHz radio spectrum has culminated in a US$19.6 billion windfall for the country's government.

That money is likely to disappear down the financial sinkhole that is the war in Iraq — the amount raised would only fund the conflict for just over 27 days — but that's another issue entirely. The point is that we now have a framework for next-generation data services — and it's one that Australia is likely to miss out on completely.

Wireless hype masters, start your engines: by all accounts, the lower frequency of the 700MHz television spectrum offers longer range, fewer black spots, and the rollout of WiMax and next-generation wireless technologies such as Long Term Evolution (LTE). The latter technology, which could be a killer for earlier-generation mobile services if it combines long range with high speed, was demonstrated at last month's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: Freescale showed how LTE could carry full-speed HD video at up to 96Mbps download and 86Mbps upload speeds.

That's right — after years of jockeying for position and billions of dollars spent to resign analogue TV to the dustbin of history, mobile customers can look forward to a whole new generation of mobile devices whose main purpose is to bring you ... wait for it ... handheld TV. I'm still not sure how anybody's going to make a portable TV big enough to make delivery of HD video worthwhile, but people questioned Copernicus too: who am I to cast aspersions?

One particularly interesting thing about the US auction is how Google, whose early bids were trumped by eventual victors Verizon Wireless and AT&T, was still being lauded as a victor because of its success in convincing the US government to mandate open access requirements for the spectrum if bidding passed the US$4.6 billion reserve — a move that would ensure that smaller service providers could still get in on the action if bidding got totally out of hand.

Verizon Wireless ended up paying US$4.75 billion for the spectrum, bringing the open-access provisions into effect. AT&T and Verizon have both indicated they're not too happy with this requirement, but they will have to grudgingly comply as the price for control over the airwaves in question.

Analysts are already weighing in on the open access conditions and whether it can deliver substantive freedom of choice for consumers. Some sceptics expect Verizon and AT&T to load down third-party providers with so much red tape that there will be no real change. Google, however, remains optimistic and is already talking about using the 700MHz spectrum for what Google chief telecoms lobbyist Richard Whitt calls "Wi-Fi 2.0".

In Google's vision, purpose-built devices could be getting access to the Internet and other data services over the 'white space' frequencies between channels — the bits where your TV shows nothing but static when running in auto-tune mode — by the end of next year. Success in delivering these services would provide a new mechanism for always-on Internet connections — using next-generation LTE devices or WiMax, for which the 700MHz spectrum's longer range would be a godsend.

That's the kind of thing OPEL, which has faced criticism of its proposed use of 5.8GHz WiMax spectrum, would seize with both hands. Moving these services to 700MHz would allow the venture to roll out viable high-speed wireless local loops over a frequency band that has been happily bringing us Neighbours and Dancing With the Stars for years. It would also provide new options for firms such as Hervey Bay ISP Buzz Broadband, whose apparently underprovisioned WiMax service led to a surprising polemic against the technology last week.

However, given that Australia's oft-delayed analogue shutdown now isn't likely before 2013, this is all speculative and irrelevant. As will be the third-generation iPhone that Apple launches in the US in time for Christmas 2009, which will feature LTE connectivity for decent connection speeds (and a shoulder-mounted battery pack to provide adequate juice).

Faster, better, bigger, more — these are all constants in the mobile innovation space. But my point is this: technologies such as LTE and WiMax are here now, and they'll chart the direction of mobile communications well past the time that Australia gets around to pulling the plug on analogue TV.

In next-generation mobile, it seems, where there is a will there is definitely a way. If a company like Google can bend the US government to its wishes and come out seemingly victorious, there seems to be hope yet for open access regimes that mandate availability of wholesale access even to proprietary networks.

Yet who, in Australia, will have the will or the way? Certainly not Telstra, which long ago made clear it would do things its own way, thank you. In the long term, although we have been among the world's leaders in deploying 3G technology, we will fall hopelessly behind when it comes to the next generation of mobile technology, which will be based around this long-range wireless spectrum — something that Australia, of all places, needs the most.

What do you think? Is the 700MHz band the key to Australia's next-generation local loop? Do you see value in streaming HD to your mobile? Want to start a grassroots movement to accelerate the analogue TV switchoff?

Topics: Google, AT&T


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Killer phone app invented 150 years ago

    The killer phone app was invented by Alexander Graham Bell 150 years ago. Nothing in the phone space has been as revolutionary since with some quite crummy ideas receiving millions of marketting dollars to prop them up.
  • 700MHz

    Does Australian TV broadcast on this same frequency as the US? I assume from your piece it does. There is I have read a potential 3G move to 800MHz mooted by some telcos which may achieve a similar result - still as per usual lack of planning and vested interest again ensure we remain stuck in the noodle net mire
  • umm..

    3rd gen iphone is speculation, the 2nd gen one isn't even released
  • LTE

    We'll eventually see all our carriers deploy LTE at 850, 900, 1800 and 2100 MHz where they own spectrum. The extra bandwidth and range at 700 MHz would be nice, but not having it from 2009 (as in the US) is certainly no showstopper for 4G.
  • Hell Yeah!

    If this meant that I can get affordable broadband ad decent speeds and usage, AND totally bypassing Telstra, I'd be rallying to have the analogue broadcasting system shut down tomorrow!!!
  • Don't Confuse the services with the frequencies that deliver them.

    The term 4G refers to a set of services delivered from a network to a terminal (handpiece).

    The radio frequency on which it is delivered is not tied to the service it delivers. It could be 400MHz or 10GHz.

    Just because other parts of the world use a particular frequency - deosn't make the use of it in Australia mandatory - the Telstra 3G deployment shows us that.

    We have large spaces and lots of areas that challenge the higher frequency systems. Our poulation density does not even come close to other parts of the world. To overcome these challenges using higher frequencies will require many many more base stations - a cost which is passed directly to the consumer.

    I acknowledge that it will require specific handsets and base station systems to cater for this and we are a very small market in world terms. But there are many other parts of the woprld where this approach will also be necssary - China, India, Africa, Russia and oh my gosh - most of the USA - ever tried to get mobile coverage along Route 66?? At least we can say our major highway (1) has 90% coverage.

    And I do agree that TV on mobile is hadly the platform for HD.
  • Yes, yes, I know

    There is a consensus that the 2G iPhone, which will have 3G connectivity, will be released this year -- so it follows logically that the 3G iPhone, with 4G connectivity, would debut at Macworld in January 2010 for use over AT&T's newly operational 700MHz spectrum.

    Still with me? Yes, it is rampant speculation and when it is proved correct please remember where you read it first :-)
  • Very true

    My main point is about distance and, therefore, coverage -- lower-frequency radio waves travel longer distances so the assumption here is that the 700MHz spectrum would allow the 4G services to be rolled out in a way that's actually viable -- recall the same issues with 3G, which was patchier than my grandmother's quilting when it first emerged. The use of high-frequency WiMAX was also a reason it was slammed in that review last year, because multi-GHz signals just won't travel as far and therefore will require a much larger capital investment to achieve usable penetration. Hopefully, with five years to plan their rollout, potential WISPs will be able to save up for a buildout that will do justice to the speed this technology offers!
  • 700MHz still used extensively in oz

    700MHz band spectrum is currently occupied by UHF TV channels 53 and up. Those channels are used extensively for coverage blackspots in the main lower channel transmissions throughout Australia. The move to digital DVB-T transmissions allows single frequency networks where the blackspot re-transmissions can use the same frequency, rather than with analogue TV which must be on an entirely different frequency to avoid interference.
    Also there is no possibility of using the cellular 800 band in Australia, only the 850 band which Telstra has most of and the only other holder is Hutchison which is reluctant to do anything with their allocation.
  • Apple won't have LTE handsets by Jan 2010

    The LTE standard (3GPP Release 8) won't be ready with working base station hardware ready for deployment until well into 2010.
    The first global carrier to commit to it - Verizon, isn't expecting to deploy it until 2011.
    Also, technically LTE is a 3.9G technology and only primarily improves the radio link efficiency, to have a true 4G network requires all communications to be over an IP layer which 3GPP Release 8 won't provide for all data transmissions within the network.
    We're still waiting for a UMTS(W-CDMA) version of the iPhone long after the networks have been operational. An LTE iPhone has zero chance of being the first LTE phone released.
    To achieve the compact size and maximum battery life that Apple requires will require extensive optimisation of LTE chipsets for power efficiency, plus given that LTE can use up to 20MHz of spectrum and ALL handsets must be able to receive all of that spectrum simultaneously there will be a massive hit to power consumption. First gen LTE handsets will need huge batteries.
  • lack of spectrum

    The problem is the main carriers don't have spectrum and those that do don't have the capital or the motivation to use it (like Hutchison and it's 850 band spectrum).
    Optus and Vodafone have made a poor decision in implementing UMTS 900 since that will prevent them from deploying LTE 900 given that UMTS 900 wil gobble up most of their precious and useful 900 band spectrum leaving only less useful 1800 and 2100 band spectrum to use for LTE.
  • I thought...

    ...PhD's were supposed to be smart.

    You, my friend, are not the sharpest tool.