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4G – who's got it and when can I have it?

  • Telstra 4G already up and running
  • Optus and Vodafone to follow soon
  • Just how useful will 4G actually be?
Written by Mikaella Clements
05/07/2012

The world of Australian telecommunications in 2012 is dominated by two small acronyms – NBN and 4G. Sometimes they're held up as opponents of each other; more often, we can see them as best buddies, the two connections that are going to leave the days of 3G and ADSL2+ choking on dust.

4GNBN Co

4G is the fourth generation of mobile connections, providing internet speeds that climb well above even the best ADSL2+ connection – in, of course, the ideal circumstances. So far in Australia, only Telstra provides it, but there's been a burst of excitement over the past few weeks about other providers getting in on the game. The importance of 4G in Australia will be fully realised as the new mobile network while allow customers to access speeds on their mobile devices that were previously off-limits to all connections that weren't fixed-line. Particularly, consumers will notice that streaming video, downloading, and operating high-bandwidth-intensive apps will all be easier with 4G.

Here we'll discuss exactly who's getting it, when we can expect it to be available for customers, and where the best plans are likely to be found.

Telstra

Telstra were the first to get into the 4G game, and they're the only ones currently selling it. They've even put out phones, like the HTC Velocity 4G, which can take particular advantage of the 4G network. Providing speeds twice as fast as 3G and offering fast downloads on a mobile network for the first time, Telstra's 4G set up is pretty impressive.

They're expanding it now, too, with Mike Wright, Telstra's executive director of network and access technologies, talking to the Australian Financial Review about pushing the 4G network further and moving into an ultra-fast "LTE advanced" technology. These fast connections could – again, ideally, and we'll talk about the drawbacks of 4G later – eclipse some of the incredible speeds that will be offered on the NBN, such as 100Mbps. Telstra is considering upgrading their 900MHZ and 1800MHz bands to incorporate an advanced LTE offering.

Wright said: "We would like to take advantage of that spectrum and use it for an advanced configuration. I have just visited South Korea and they have had huge growth in LTE there in the same frequencies we use. If we can get some alignment, to take advantage of emerging trends, we would consider it."

He also addressed some of the concerns around mobile broadband connections, saying: "We have had a very strong belief in the value of wireless broadband, we always thought it would drive a data tsunami and we have always made sure we have the capacity to deliver the type of speeds and coverage Australians want. Our focus now is consistency and certainty of speeds and that requires a combination of technology, backhaul and network design."

Telstra 4G plans are available now. Click here to check out Telstra's mobile plans.

Optus

Optus were the first company to announce their own 4G intentions last year, and they haven't wasted any time: their 4G network is now active in Newcastle, and Optus plans for it to be extended to Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth in the coming weeks.

The fast moving provider has been helped along by its $230 million purchase of vividwireless, a Perth-based mobile wireless broadband operator. It has promised a network that will be more than twice as fast as Telstra's, offering speeds of up to 87Mbps (Telstra is currently not able to offer more than 40-45Mbps).

Perhaps even more important than their speedy rollout is the fact that Optus will open their 4G network to wholesale. This means that all of the providers who currently use the Optus network – like Virgin, Amaysim, Dodo, and more – will have the option to provide mobile connections on Optus's 4G network as well.

Virgin Mobile has already stressed the importance it puts on this upcoming 4G network, refuting the notion that they will enter the NBN and instead highlighting its focus on forever expanding its mobile customer base and capabilities.

Virgin Mobile Australia marketing director David Scribner said: "We are focused as a mobile carrier on mobility, so we're looking at the next generation of 4G and how that plays into what we're doing."

How soon will Optus and its wholesale cohorts be offering 4G? There's no way to be entirely sure, but it's likely to be weeks, not months.

Vodafone

Vodafone have announced their own 4G network will begin to be built in the next few months. They expect to be able to deliver 4G plans to customers from mid to late 2013, though industry analysts have speculated that it could be a lot longer. Vodafone are necessarily behind the other big players because they have been busy upgrading an unsatisfactory 3G network that has received a lot of complaints.

Vodafone has made a big effort to turn their image around, and are now in the process of upgrading to "3G+", which they say will be up to eight times faster than 3G and will be rolling out from this September. 4G will have to wait until Vodafone has assuaged some of the concerns of their current 3G customers.

In a Vodafone memo, the telco said: "In 2013, we will begin to rollout our new 4G network to deliver even faster download speeds of up to 15x faster than our current 3G download speeds."

We can look forward to 4G on Vodafone, as they're famed for their low prices and great bargains, and bringing out phones for much cheaper deals than providers like Telstra and Optus. However, the wait time with Vodafone is an issue – waiting a few months for Optus to get their 4G up and running seems fine, but waiting for what could potentially be years for Vodafone seems overkill on brand loyalty.

Vodafone asked its customers and staff to "stay tuned for more information on when these speeds will become available in your area" – but by the time they do, we may already be on a 24 month contract with another provider who got 4G earlier. It's definitely a plus that Vodafone are doing it, and perhaps once those initial contracts are over they will see customers moving over to them, but for now it may be too little too late.

At the very least, Vodafone shouldn't be expecting to see a great immediate return on their investment into 4G technology.

How soon will Vodafone be offering 4G?
It could be six-nine months, if we're to believe Vodafone's optimism, but more likely it will be a year or two – maybe even three. Hopefully Vodafone will go slow and not open up their 4G network to customers too soon, and so avoid a repeat of the somewhat disastrous history they've had with their 3G plans.

Should you wait for the others to play catch up to Telstra?

It may seem pointless to wait for other providers to get around to offering 4G, when Telstra are able to offer 4G now. However, you needn't necessarily be in a hurry to go and get 4G, for several reasons.

First off, 4G is still a work in progress. Telstra has not yet expanded their network much beyond the CBD of Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, and in certain airports. It's unlikely that you'd be able to access the 4G network yet outside of those areas, and even in those areas some users have reported that the coverage is spotty.

Keeping that in mind, it's also worth remembering that at the moment, Telstra being the only 4G provider along with their standard business model means that Telstra's prices are pretty high. Their cap plans start at $60 a month and that's not including handset charges if you pick a pricier phone – 4G-specialised phones particularly will be expensive.

You'll be with Telstra for 24 months if you sign up with them, so it's worth taking a couple of months before you decide to sign up with them, and in those months you might see some better plans come out as other providers expand their 4G network. Vodafone may not be competitive anytime soon, but Optus could be up and running as well or better than Telstra by the end of this year – maybe waiting a few months could find you a much better deal.

Is 4G really as amazing as promised?

4G is an issue that tends to confuse a lot of people. It seems to promise such amazing speeds and capacity that some people wonder why we even bother with something like the NBN, when mobile networks may be able to exceed fibre-optic speeds. However, there are still two crucial downfalls to 4G that need to be taken into consideration.

Reliability

Mobile broadband connections, whether they're on your phone or through a dongle device on a laptop, work via connection to a mobile phone tower, rather than through a fixed line in the ground (whether that's copper or fibre optic) like ADSL2+. As a result, mobile connections can be temperamental to say the least. This is less noticeable when doing less-data-heavy activities, like making a call, where the worst may be drop outs and static and often it just involves crossing to the other side of the street.

However, accessing the internet requires a bit more juice. "Bad reception" doesn't just mean that you might have to raise your voice on the phone; it might mean that you can't access the internet at all. No matter how good the technology behind it is, in the end mobile connections can still be influenced by an irritating breadth of factors: the time of day, however many other people are online, what the environment is like (are there tall buildings? Are there trees?), even the weather.

As more and more people get onto 4G, too, we'll see speeds slow as the connection is shared between many users. The 87Mbps that Optus boasts might not be quite as impressive during rush hour in the city.

Unlike a fixed line connection, there is simply no way to guarantee when and how well your 4G mobile connection will actually work.

Data limitation

This is something that we may see change, but at the moment, most mobile broadband connections are unable to support a lot of data. The most you'll see on a dongle broadband plan is usually around 20GB; on a phone, it's much lower, not usually higher than 5GB per month as part of your plan.

The result of this is that even though your mobile speed may be able to support heavy downloads, your data quota won't. It could be an easy way to blow through a whole plan in a couple of days, and you could even run the risk of downloading too much and coming up against heavy excess usage charges.

Despite the capability of 4G for them, it's probably best to leave heavy downloads for home, where you can have a fixed line connection supporting anything up to unlimited downloads every month. As well as this, a fixed line connection is unlikely to drop out in the middle of a download, leaving you with a broken file and the need to start the whole thing again.

Ultimately, it's important to stress that a mobile connection – no matter how fast it is – is no replacement for a fixed line connection.

So what's 4G good for?

Let's not fall into the political trap of decrying one form of connection in favour of another. 4G mobile connections are going to be great; so is the NBN. Both are necessary for Australia's current technological climate, and both play their part. But for the moment, perhaps it's better to sit quiet and wait before rushing out to get a 4G plan: there's a lot more about to arrive just over the horizon.

Check out some of the best 0-month contracts from Amaysim, or Dodo's Unlimited Magic SIM with no contract and a massive 5GB of data! Or call us on 1300 850 518 for more information about handsets and plans.

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