CES 2019: Telstra CEO Andy Penn talks 5G smartphones

Speaking with ZDNet at CES 2019 in Las Vegas, Telstra CEO Andy Penn discussed 5G devices, possible pricing, download speeds, and what 5G will mean for IoT.

Telstra customers in Australia will have first access to 5G smartphones, CEO Andy Penn told ZDNet at CES 2019 in Las Vegas as the telco announced signing a swathe of agreements with device makers this week.

The chief executive hinted that while Telstra signed "a number of deals" with some of the biggest smartphone brands in the world -- to which he declined to comment on whether he got hands-on experience with the Samsung 5G smartphone prototype at CES -- there are still other brands to work with. 

"This week's been an important week for us, because we've had a number of discussions," he told ZDNet.

"We've come to a number of agreements with a number of providers that's going to give us access to devices, but there's still others -- the timing of their delivery of devices is not yet clear."

Speaking on the pricing of 5G devices, Penn said the device manufacturers are still working through this, but that "there are some characteristics of 5G that do add more cost into the devices".

The chipset and antenna components are more costly in 5G devices than in current smartphones, he explained, adding that he has no other information yet on pricing.

In terms of data pricing for users on Telstra's 5G network, Penn said Telstra has no go-to-market strategy as yet but is continuing to move to 20 core connectivity plans.

Penn said Telstra is not likely to see or test the exact devices on its network until a few weeks prior to them going on sale, but added that the carrier's team is working on their development.

"We're working with them behind the scenes, so our engineers are working together to test the devices. [By the time] we actually get to run them live in our commercial network, they're usually pretty well advanced," he told ZDNet.

"The device manufacturers themselves, they run to pretty tight timelines; Apple is an example, it runs an annual cycle, so they're up against themselves in terms of they're doing a lot of work to try and do the innovation that's necessary to bring the new experiences within their phone set, so their ability to then give those new phones to operators substantially in advance is not there."

Telstra exceeded its goal of switching on 200 5G sites in 2018, with Penn saying it reached 207 by the end of December, including across Canberra, Adelaide, Perth, the Gold Coast, Toowoomba, Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.

The telco has yet to disclose its goal for 2019.

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 "We wanted to make sure that we got national coverage, and regional and metro coverage, and now it really is a function of how quickly the device ecosystem moves forward, and that's quite dynamic at the moment," he said.

Penn said it is likely to take another two years before millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum is available for Australian mobile carriers, with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) considering the second half of 2020 due to issues with satellite industry usage in the 26GHz band that need to be resolved.

Adding in mmWave will increase capacity and provide theoretically higher speeds, Penn said -- mainly because by the time it arrives, more advancements in 5G will have been made.

The telco is currently demoing download speeds of 3Gbps, but Penn said once mmWave has been added in, he believes it will be more like 10Gbps.

On the Internet of Things (IoT) side, 5G will mean Telstra can add more devices and sensors to its cellular-based IoT networks.

"Currently within the 4G network, it's constrained with how many devices you can add to a single tower, essentially at a practical level, and that's got nothing to do with the amount of data you can push through; it's just the physical number of connections that you can have," he said.

"5G is 100 or a 1,000 times more capacity in terms of the number of devices that you can add."

Penn said Telstra is "absolutely" still pushing into the smart home space, with half a million Google Mini devices now on its network.

On the smart cities side, he pointed to trials in Launceston and Victoria alongside Lexus, Ericsson, and Qualcomm across use cases like smart metering and autonomous vehicles.

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