Will Australia's 4G pass the iPhone 5 test?

Just how will Australian 4G networks cope with the incoming tsunami of iPhone users?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Judging by the internet's breathless reception of Apple's iPhone 5 launch, there is still much to be said and written about a product that we pretty much knew everything about already.

Whether or not you think Apple's latest device is a cutting-edge epiphany or a pale compromise that provides just enough to come close to its rivals, odds are that it's going to fly out of the stores in Australia, since history has shown we love our iPhones something chronic.

After so many pre-launch leaks took all the surprise out of the actual launch, the only thing remaining to be seen is how long it takes for Australia's fledgling 4G networks to buckle under the additional load they face.

It's an interesting field test for a telecoms technology that was still very much in-the-wings last year and has quickly become priority number one for Telstra and Optus — and could, unless Vodafone gets its act together, be the death of our number-three player.

I don't mean that literally, of course, but time has shown that any carrier without a convincing iPhone offering is going to be ignored by consumers; witness the stampede towards Optus after Telstra dropped the ball on the iPhone 3G launch back in 2008.

Vodafone isn't expected to have any kind of real 4G story to sell until next year, by which time, its two rivals will have locked millions of Australians into two-year contracts that few will be ready to break to port to an untested network from a carrier whose brand — let's face it — hasn't exactly been associated with reliability.

Yes: for now the iPhone 5 is a two-horse race. But Telstra and Optus could face their own reliability problems if the iPhone repeats history and takes the telecoms infrastructure utterly by surprise.

When the iPhone 4S bowed last year, I warned that it represented an escalation in Apple's potential to turn the tap towards data oblivion; the iPhone 5 will do the same, as consumers use new features like streaming music, heavier use of iCloud syncing, use of bandwidth-sucking wideband audio, and other iOS 6 eye candy, such as Apple's graphically-intensive Maps, 28-megapixel panoramas and so on.

Don't forget the people that use the iPhone 5 as a broadband modem, and who are bound to start downloading massive, erm, Linux ISOs to their laptops over their data connections.

This all means data. Lots of it — and that translates into a great big test of our emergent 4G networks. Though 4G is certainly faster than 3G, it will be stress-tested like never before, because ordinary, average consumers will be expecting them to just work.

Talk about how Android phones are better, and how they've had 4G and other new iPhone 5 features for over a year, for as long as you want: 4G only really exists now that Apple has endorsed it for real (as opposed to its poorly contrived iPad 3 marketing).

In Optus' case, 4G has only existed in Sydney, Newcastle and Perth for about a week (a month, technically, if you count its early business plans), and will only flip the switch in Melbourne this Saturday.

That gives Optus just a week before iPhone 5s start flying out of stores, to sort out any issues with its 4G network. And if that network is still suffering the usual teething pains, can't keep up with an explosion of data downloads or consumers complain because they quickly discover they live in what are still quite-large 4G blackspots — well, to borrow a phrase, we may as well say "God save the iPhone". But nothing will save Telstra and Optus.

What do you think? Were you underwhelmed over overwhelmed by the iPhone 5 announcement? And, if you already have a 4G phone, how have your data usage habits changed? Any network congestion issues?

Editorial standards