'Small cell' mobile internet coming to Australian country towns

Telstra is rolling out 'small cell' 4G data infrastructure to 16 towns in eastern Australia by Christmas, with another 34 set to get coverage in early 2015.

Fifty Australian country towns will get 4G mobile internet for the first time as Telstra rolls out a technology more commonly used to boost coverage in suburban shopping centres.

The telco plans to roll out "small cells" to 16 towns in eastern Australia by Christmas, after a successful trial at the 400-strong town of Yangan in Queensland.

A further 34 towns will get them in early 2015.

The cells, which are slightly bigger than a washing machine, are used now to boost coverage inside heavily trafficked areas such as shopping centres and office blocks.

However, their small size and short range also makes them ideal to service isolated towns, where big base stations aren't economically feasible, said Telstra's head of wireless network engineering Channa Seneviratne.

"In some cases, this will be the first time residents will be able to access mobile broadband services," he said.

The plan is to hook the cells into fibre cables at Telstra exchanges.

Users won't be able to make voice calls, which run on the 3G network, but Telstra is testing technology that will allow people to make voice calls on 4G.

"At this time, the small cell rollout will only provide 4G data services, with no change to voice services in the rollout areas," said Seneviratne in a blog post.

"In some cases, the data services provided by the small cell will extend past the local voice coverage area. A customer's device may indicate that coverage exists, but that will be 4G data coverage only that does not currently provide voice-calling capability. This includes contacting Triple Zero in case of an emergency.

"We will be working with local communities to educate them on the technology, expected coverage, and possible voice limitations. We will also be implementing an SMS solution to advise customers when they are travelling through a 4G-only area," he said.

If all goes well, the technology is expected to roll out in 2015.

The rollout comes as Telstra kicks off the free trial of its national public Wi-Fi network, with 150 sites around Australia set to come online by Christmas.