Vodafone boosts 4G network with 850MHz spectrum refarm

Vodafone will be drawing from the low-band 850MHz spectrum holding that currents supports its 3G network to boost its 4G network coverage to aim at covering 95 percent of Australia's metropolitan population by the end of the year.

Vodafone has announced its next plans to expand its 4G network coverage by repurposing its existing low-band 850MHz spectrum holding, which is currently being used to support its 3G network.

Australia's Vodafone chief technology officer Benoit Hanssen said Vodafone 4G customers will immediately benefit from the switchover without having to make any changes to their handsets, settings, or plans.

"In mobile technology, the lower the frequency the better penetration you get of signals, and therefore the service. So this is quite a big boost to our 4G coverage in a very short period of time towards to the end of the year," he said.

The company said it plans to expand its reach with this new coverage to 95 percent of Australia's metropolitan population by the end of the year. However, the company was unable to identify how far the company has already come in reaching that target, but said it's "significant" and is "more than half" of the population already.

Hannssen reassured that existing 3G customers will not be affected, saying the company is "carefully managing the experience people are having on 3G".

The telco plans to rollout a 10Mhz band of the 850Mhz spectrum holding by firstly allocating half of it to the new 4G service, and leaving the remainder 5MHz of spectrum for 3G. It will also use the 900MHz spectrum holding, which was traditionally used to support it 2G services, to support its 3G as well.

"We've already got 1.5 million subscribers, and as we move forward more and more customers will take up these 4G services at some point in time. We will refarm the second 5MHz there as well, leaving the 900MHz band for 3G for the coming years," Hannssen said. 

In comparison to other telcos such as Telstra, Optus, and TPG that opted to expand their 4G coverage by picking up spectrum in 700MHz bands through last year's Australian Communications and Media Authority spectrum auctions, the 850MHz spectrum will be compatible with more handsets that are currently on the market, according to Vodafone. The only handsets that the 700MHz band is currently compatible with are the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8.

"Most phones at this point in time that we are aware of do not support the 700 MHZ spectrum. My anticipation is that vendors will come out with phones that do support it, but given that a large portion of the Australian population have just bought their fourth generation phone I can imagine they don't want to spend another $600 or $700 on their next investment," Hannssen said.

Although the idea of buying 700MHz is not completely off the table for Vodafone, with Hanssen saying the company remains "very keen" on the idea for the long term, and is most likely to be dependent on when, and if, the government will put the remainder of it up for sale.

"I can't say at this stage but we closely monitor the utilisation of that spectrum and we will closely monitor it in the coming years, so it depends really on the evolution of traffic, customer behaviour, and where traffic comes from," he said.

The announcement comes after the company completed a successful trial across greater Newcastle, NSW, during which it tested a wide range of 4G-compatible devices at more than 40 sites.

Vodafone, however, continue to report a decline in customer numbers . Last week, Vodafone's joint owner Hutchison reported that customer subscriber numbers for the first six months of 2013 dropped by 137,000.

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