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Telstra ramps up 4G rollout as 3G scales down

Telstra will bring forward investment in 4G before new spectrum is available, ahead of investment in 3G.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Telstra has set the goal of expanding its 4G long-term evolution (LTE) network out to 85 percent of Australia's population by the end of 2013, in a move that will come close to doubling the number of 4G base stations.

Telstra's chief operations officer Brendon Riley told journalists in Sydney today that Telstra reached its June target of covering 66 percent of the Australian population with its 4G network, and the company will now look to expand its footprint to 85 percent of the population by the end of 2013.

This means that an additional 1,500 base stations will be 4G enabled, in addition to the 2,000 already active, with 200 new regional towns to get 4G coverage by the end of the year. Riley said that this would require building new towers in some locations, but he said that the company would go through the proper council process, and has not been in discussion with NBN Co about sharing its fixed-wireless towers.

The boost in the 4G network rollout will come at the expense of installing new 3G antennas, Riley said. 4G network traffic is currently growing by about 23 percent every month, with 2.1 million devices on the network as of March. 3G network traffic growth is slowing as customers begin to switch over to 4G, Riley said.

"Given the take-up we're seeing in 4G, we've made the decision to change our investment strategy. We're now going to be deploying 4G as a capacity play instead of 3G antennas. We're still seeing some 3G growth, but the rate of the 3G growth is slowing pretty rapidly as 4G starts to take off," he said.

"We're going to need to continue to invest in 3G just because of the size of the network, but increasingly, we'll be looking to emphasise the 4G investment, given the take-up rate and new devices."

One of the key components of this part of Telstra's ongoing 4G rollout will be to ensure that customers have continuous 4G coverage.

"As we continue to deploy 4G, we'll start to close up some of the coverage patches, and over time, we expect you'll have near-continuous 4G coverage," Riley said.

The upgrade comes just under 18 months before Telstra will get access to a significant amount of spectrum in the 700MHz and 2.5GHz bands for the delivery of 4G services, and Telstra will need to go back and upgrade each of those towers.

"We won't have access to that 700MHz spectrum until the beginning of 2015, and that's like a lifetime in mobile circles, so over the next 18 months, we're continuing to invest and expand," Telstra's director of network planning Anthony Goonan said.

"The equipment to enable 700MHz will be additional equipment, and that will be similar to what we would do for any ongoing capacity expansion anyway, so it's not as though it's throw out one and replace, it's just add on."

Riley also took aim at recent claims from Vodafone that it has better spectrum holdings than Telstra in the capital cities, allowing the company to offer faster 4G services.

"Earlier this month, the industry restacked 1800MHz, and we've now got expanded bandwidth in many of our key capital cities," he said.

Telstra now has 20MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 1800MHz band in Perth, Brisbane, and Adelaide, and 15MHz of contiguous spectrum in Sydney and Melbourne.

"We think customers will notice the change with that enhanced spectrum bandwidth."

He confirmed that Telstra has exchanged letters with Vodafone about the claim, but downplayed suggestions that Telstra would seek to take Vodafone to court over the advertising.

"Sometimes, we exchange letters between one another in the industry. I think that will continue. I think there's generally a good sense of collaboration between us when we want to raise issues or points," he said.

"We've got the fastest national 4G network."

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