4G in Australia
As you would expect with the rollout of new networks, progress is a fast-moving target, and Telstra and Optus are progressively rolling out 4G networks in the 1800MHz spectrum band across the country at a rate of knots, while Vodafone is busy getting its own network ready for a 4G launch in 2013.
Since launching the network in September last year, Telstra has now reached 40 percent of the population with its 4G network, and is aiming to get this to 66.6 percent by the end of June 2013. The company aims to achieve this through the installation of over 1,000 new base stations to add to the more than 1,000 that are 4G capable today. The network currently reaches every capital city and over 100 regional centres.
As the network expands across the country, Telstra's director of networks Mike Wright said that each stage has to be managed carefully, but that Telstra is now in a ramp-up phase.
"Like any big project rollout, we [were] in the organisation stage to get these things to work, [and] there's a lot of preparation," he told ZDNet.
"Getting the plans right, getting the designs right, doing any approvals, getting steel made, getting troops organised. [Then] usually, you're adding something to the tower top. It might be a bit of electronics, because a lot of our 4G technology nowadays uses the latest radio tower-mounted base-station hardware."
Wright said that Telstra's plan is now to expand the network from its existing coverage areas, driven by where there is demand for 4G, but he also said that the company has begun to notice that there are hotspots in the 3G network where there are many customers using 4G devices. He said that Telstra will look to target those places, too.
"We've got parts of the network that are seeing strong traffic growth and take-up, and in some of those areas we're starting to put LTE into a particular hotspot almost separately to the footprint growth," he said.
"One customer wouldn't make the difference, but you might find one part of the network where, for whatever reason, there is a population of users in the area using 4G devices, even though it is not 4G enabled. We say, next time we do a capacity upgrade, we'll actually increase the capacity with 4G, rather than 3G."
"We've got parts of the network that are seeing strong traffic growth and take-up, and in some of those areas we're starting to put LTE into a particular hotspot almost separately to the footprint growth." - Mike Wright
Telstra has also been on an aggressive campaign to get 3G customers to switch to 4G, even if they don't currently live in a 4G coverage area.
"If they migrate to the latest technology, it gives us more flexibility to more efficiently load the network up," Wright said.
"4G is somewhat unique in that the latest devices have not only come on very quickly, they are not only the best 4G device; they are the most efficient 3G device, because they are DC-HSPA enabled."
At a recent investor day briefing in October, Telstra's head of mobile Warwick Bray revealed that Telstra is driving customers onto 4G because the cost per user to run customers on 4G is less than it is on the 3G network.
Telstra has approximately 1 million devices on the 4G network, including over 405,000 handsets, with 100,000 iPhone 5s. The company has a total of 17 devices in the market and will have 23 by Christmas. Two thirds of the devices launched in the next year are expected to be 4G compatible.
Devices available through Telstra include: HTC Velocity, Galaxy S2, Galaxy S3, HTC One XL, Motorola RAZR HD, RAZR M, iPhone 5, EasyTouch, Telstra 4G tablet, Galaxy Tab 8.9, Telstra USB 4G, Telstra Mobile Wi-Fi, Telstra Pre-Paid USB 4G and Telstra Pre-Paid Mobile Wi-Fi.
Optus has now launched services in Sydney, Newcastle, Melbourne, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and Perth. It has installed 4G radios in 1,000 towers, and plans to launch services in Adelaide and the ACT in early 2013.
The company began trialling the 4G technology in Newcastle, because it represents a cross-section of the types of areas that the network would have to cover in Australia, from suburbs to cities to coastal areas to rural locations.
Optus' managing director of networks Günther Ottendorfer told ZDNet that Optus specifically conducted the trials of 4G in Newcastle in order to prepare for the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III. The lessons learned from the Newcastle trial have allowed Optus to roll out its network faster than expected, he said.
"That was why we could accelerate the rollout a little bit," he said. "We could only do that because of all the preparation on sites and transmission is running to plan, or in some cases even better than planned."
Ottendorfer said that Optus is beginning to see the traffic impact on its network, but that there is a long way to go.
"What we're seeing is that the bulk of our traffic is on the 3G network, but we have a good LTE network, and we see the customers using that."
After launching the networks in Adelaide and the ACT early next year, Optus plans to expand its coverage from those areas progressively, and then also target hotspots.
At the same time, Optus will be launching a second LTE network in the 2.3GHz spectrum band, which it obtained when it bought Vividwireless in February this year for AU$230 million.
Optus will shut down the existing Unwired network at the end of February 2013, and then launch a time-division duplex (TDD) LTE network to complement the existing frequency-division duplex (FDD) LTE network operating in the 1800MHz spectrum band.
Ottendorfer said that the company will focus on rolling out this network in metro areas first off, where traffic is the highest.
"These networks are complementing each other very nicely. Customers who at that moment in time buy a multi-mode device can then use both networks. It will be very good for the customer, because it will open up another road to travel on."
Unlike Telstra, Optus has made its 4G network available to wholesale customers, and iiNet has already begun offering 4G mobile services through Optus' 4G network.
Optus has thus far not revealed how many 4G devices it has sold but to date has eight devices on sale today including the iPhone 5, Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note 2, HTC One SV, Nokia Lumia 820, 4th Gen iPad, iPad Mini and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Both Optus and Telstra have priced their 4G plans in line with their existing 3G plans, while in other areas of the world, such as the UK with EE's network, 4G has been charged at a premium rate.
Optus' CEO of consumer, Kevin Russell, explained this recently by saying that it's about keeping plans simple for customers. But he didn't rule out premium pricing in the future.
"This is a question of simplicity and clarity from a customer standpoint. We obviously have quite different footprints in terms of initial 4G coverage to 3G," he said. "It is very different from a customer standpoint to understand the different pricing for different footprints.
"We will review that decision as and when 4G is universal across core coverage areas," he said.
Vodafone, which has lost over 1 million customers in the last 18 months, and has reported massive financial losses due to under-investment in its 3G network, has been overhauling its network with Huawei SingleRAN network equipment to provide not only dual-channel HSPA (DC-HSPA) 3G coverage, but also allow the company to switch on 4G coverage later down the track.
When ZDNet approached Vodafone for an interview on the state of its 4G rollout, the company said it had recently completed trials of 4G, and plans to launch its network in the 1800MHz spectrum band early next year, but had no further comment to make.
Read on to see how Australia is leading the world on 4G.