Optus, Vodafone outline network expansion plans in preparation for 5G

Both telcos have said they are leveraging their spectrum holdings and rolling out VoWiFi and VoLTE in a bid to expand their networks in preparation for 5G and the IoT.

Optus and Vodafone are both eyeing a gradual transition to 5G in 2020 by continually expanding their current 3G and 4G capabilities and networks, including rolling out voice over LTE (VoLTE), voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi), and leveraging and combining spectrum bands.

Stuart MacIntyre, director of Network Strategy at Optus, said that although 4G+ and 5G are the way of the future, 3G is still vital to its customers, as they continue to rely on voice.

"3G is still critically important to so many of our customers, so we're upgrading our network in terms of 3G and 4G together," MacIntyre, speaking at the CommsDay Unwired conference in Sydney on Tuesday, explained.

"We've seen an improvement in rolling out HD voice now that it's well penetrated through devices. Voice is one of those services that doesn't excite customers, but is critically important, so we've seen a big help there now that many of our customers can experience that."

Vodafone's Technology Governance and Strategy general manager, Easwaren Siva, agreed, saying the customer experience and providing what consumers actually make use of is central to Vodafone's future plans rather than solely focusing on technological advancement and keeping up with trends in VoLTE, VoWiFi, and 5G.

"What's critical is not the technology advancement; it's what the customer gets, how their devices work with the network, and their performance, their experience -- that's critical," Siva said on Tuesday.

"That's been embedded in our network culture. We've got probes out there that are continually monitoring the performance of our network and the exercise of doing our own observation, our own trials, our own customer feedback."

In regards to voice services, MacIntyre referred to Optus' Wi-Fi-calling app, launched in August, as "an easy way to have personalised dedicated coverage in areas where the cellular wasn't reaching". He said the telco also intends to launch VoLTE in the future.

Similarly, Vodafone previously announced its plans to launch VoLTE before Christmas, initially with Samsung devices exclusively.

"Wi-Fi calling is definitely on the radar, we'll launch something next year," Siva added.

By comparison, rival telecommunications carrier Telstra launched VoLTE and VoWiFi in September.

Both Optus and Vodafone are also looking at leveraging their spectrum assets in order to improve coverage in regional areas and aggregate bands in metropolitan areas to increase speeds.

"We're turning on three layers of spectrum in the metropolitan markets and two layers out in the regional areas," said MacIntyre.

"So it's really just upgrades, building more base stations in both metro and regional Australia, as we continue to roll out that network."

MacIntyre said Optus' spectrum in the 700MHz band -- of which it secured 2x 10MHz during the auction in May 2013 -- is important to improve mobile coverage.

"Customers expect to have good experience of their wireless data and when they're out and about, and a low-band spectrum is critical to provide that experience. That's now penetrating well through our device range," he said.

However, he added that higher-band spectrum is now vital to being able to support the new smartphones being developed.

"The ability to unlock the potential of those high-band spectrums that we own -- where we have just short of 100MHz of the 2300MHz, and we also have 100MHz of the 3500MHz spectrum -- which is in chipset manufacturers' road maps, and you will start to see that appear on smartphones in the near future," he said.

Optus has previously accused the industry regulators the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), and the federal government of being at odds with each other, which is having the effect of inflexible, contradictory policy being developed that stymies innovation.

David Epstein, vice president of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs at Optus, last month pointed towards spectrum allocation as an example: With the ACMA setting out to ensure efficient allocation, the ACCC wanting to increase competition, and the government wishing to maximise auction revenue, their policies were at odds when developing rules.

"This conflict was evident in the digital dividend auction of 700MHz and 2.5GHz spectrum," Epstein said.

"A complex auction process designed to illicit true market value for the spectrum was undermined by a parallel decision to set high reserve prices."

In regards to supporting Category 11 devices, Optus is now continuing to work on its 4G+ network by combining three, four, and five spectrum bands and working with multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO). Rival Telstra, meanwhile, recently announced that it had attained speeds of up to 1Gbps during the world's first five-band carrier aggregation in partnership with Ericsson.

Vodafone is similarly looking at refarming its 850MHz LTE spectrum in regional areas to improve coverage there, which it said will "take us to the mid-90s in terms of LTE population coverage". Currently, Vodafone's 4G mobile network covers 96 percent of the metro population, Optus' nationwide 4G network covers 90 percent of the total population, and Telstra's 4G network provides coverage to 94 percent of the Australian population, although it plans to extend this to 99 percent by mid-2017.

Siva revealed that Vodafone has also just refarmed its 2,100MHz spectrum to active 4G LTE services in the Cairns area.

"We've just activated 2,100 LTE in the Cairns area, and that actually sets off a new chain of events of refarming exercise to facilitate three-carrier aggregation sometime next year. We're doing it in a progressive, very structured way," he said.

In taking the step towards 5G, Optus sees it as a gradual process rather than a sudden leap forward.

"I think Australia as a nation, as an economy, does drive at the forefront of these areas ... I think we see it as an evolution to 5G, and it's an augmentation on from 4G," MacIntyre said.

"We see it as coming over time, and a lot of work to do from a regulatory standpoint and also a spectrum availability standpoint to support services and getting all the standards right."

Siva, meanwhile, pointed towards dark fibre as being a building block for the next step of 5G so that the capacity is ready before the network switch-on.

"Within the mindset of looking at 5G, there are three elements: Really high bandwidth, critical services, and mass machine-type services with billions of connections around," Siva said, referring to the Internet of Things.

Ray Owen, Nokia Networks MD of Singapore, the Philippines, Australia, and NZ, agreed that the focus should be on the network, rather than devices.

"What we're putting in people's pockets today is a supercomputer, but ... the next step is a transformation in actually not necessarily the phone properties, but the network properties. So that we're not just providing a ubiquitous service, but a personalised network service to everybody," he said.

5G is expected to roll out globally by 2020.

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