4G wars: Can Vodafone make a 4G comeback?

Telstra and Optus have both begun delivering 4G services in Australia, but Vodafone, the number three telco, is yet to begin offering next-generation mobile technology.

However, the embattled telco has put the wheels in motion and will launch 4G early next year – but how long customers will have to wait is not yet known.

The telco has not been shy in investing in its network over recent years, spending $1 billion on it from mid-2009 to the end of 2011. It has spent another $700 million upgrading its network this year, with the telco to make “further announcements” in the new year on how much it will invest in 2013.

How Vodafone is upgrading to 4G

Peter Ryan, general manager of networks at Vodafone, says Vodafone does not need to build new towers to facilitate its 4G rollout.

“What [we’ve had] to do is over the last 18 months … we’ve deployed brand new Huawei radio access equipment across our whole network, which is a single radio technology,” he says.

“So in one cabinet we’ve got 2G, 3G and all the variations of 3G across 2100MHz and 850MHz spectrum. What that’s enabled us to do – because that equipment is LTE ready – it makes the jump for us to LTE quite a small step.”

Vodafone inserts new data cards at base stations to prepare them for LTE, with some base stations built with pre-installed data cards to make them 4G-ready.

“You’ve got a rack with vacant slots which take a cartridge of some sort, which is about the size of an A5 piece of paper…” Ryan says.

“It’s a couple of inches wide and … it’s got a number of contacts at the back and you just insert it into that slot, make some minor cabling adjustments at the back and then that’s it. You plug a PC into the front and you download the configurations specific to that site and you’re good to go.”

Some adjustments to antennas on base stations are also required, depending on the type of site.

Vodafone will replace around 5800 existing 2G and 3G base station sites with Huawei’s SingleRAN equipment. It will also install Huawei network equipment at more than 2200 new base station sites.

Currently all Vodafone base stations are 4G ready, with the second phase of its 4G rollout including ensuring all its sites have the right transmission and auxiliary equipment (antennas).

“What we also need to do is we’re in the process of quite an aggressive transmission upgrade program where we’re uplifting the bandwidth across all our sites. So in addition to installing cards on those base stations we also have to uplift the transmission.”

The insertion of the cards is a relatively straightforward process and typically takes one to two hours. Ryan says the most challenging aspect has been moving to Huawei network equipment.

“Having completed that, which was a substantial piece of work, the installation of the cards is a very basic straight-up activity for us. Then it’s really just the rollout of this additional bandwidth across our transmission network, which is underway,” he says.

Vodafone has also signed a joint venture agreement with Optus to share around 1000 mobile base stations. The telcos will also partner to build 500 new base stations around the country.

However, Ryan says the new base stations aren’t specifically to facilitate 4G and will be capable of supporting 2G and 3G as well.

“It’s all about enriching and increasing the depth and breadth of both our networks. It’s not a precursor for our initial deployment of LTE,” he says.

Like Telstra and Optus, Ryan says Vodafone plans to roll out 4G in metro areas first – areas with the greatest demand – and then expand to other areas where customers “have the greatest need”.

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Unlike Optus and Telstra, which are both keen to get their hands on the 700MHz spectrum in the Digital Dividend, Vodafone CEO, Bill Morrow, recently told Inside Business the telco does not need the spectrum.

Instead, he said the telco might sit at the table to see what prices are and what the details include, but the telco does not have an intention of bidding for the spectrum.

“The reality is Vodafone [is] blessed with a bit spectral position. We have multiple spectrum bands available to us [due to the merger between Vodafone and 3]…” he said on the program.

“So if you look at the evolution of [Vodafone and 3] from before, they've acquired spectrum in different areas. When you put them all together it is a very nice, healthy, deep position.”

Vodafone currently has access to 850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz and plans to deploy its 4G technology on the 1800MHz spectrum, which Morrow said the telco does not currently have traffic on.

In September last year the telco announced it had strengthened its 1800MHz holding by making arrangements with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to exchange and reallocate blocks of spectrum with state railway authorities in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia to support the rollout of LTE.

Vodafone carried out 4G trials in Newcastle at the end of 2010 on the 1800MHz spectrum, the frequency on which it intends to offer 4G services to customers.

Ryan says Newcastle was an ideal location as it was close to the company’s head office and replicates large city areas in Australia.

“So the beauty of Newcastle is it’s got a bit of a downtown, it’s got a bit of hills, it’s got a little bit of urban spread, we’ve got some in building systems. It’s a very small replica of what you find in any major capital city and that’s why we did it,” he says.

Ryan says speeds achieved in the trials reached the mid to high 70Mbps range, with the telco also testing for static and mobility.

In the future, however, Ryan says the telco is likely to need to use a lower band spectrum to provide 4G coverage.

“With 2G [all telcos have] done it in 900MHz low and we’ve all done it at 1800MHz high band. For 3G we do it at 850MHz low band and we do it at 2100MHz high band,” he says.

“I foresee LTE being exactly the same thing. You will do a high band capacity layer, which we’re all going at 1800MHz and therefore probably at some point we all need to do a low band LTE coverage layer, which may or may not be 700MHz.”

Vodafone's 4G future

Vodafone is pegged to launch its 4G services in early 2013, with the telco stating no specific date has yet been set.

However, it has published information on the speeds its 4G network will achieve.

It says download speeds will be between 2Mbps and 40Mbps, with an average download speed of 15Mbps. This compares to speeds of between 1Mbps and 16Mbps on the telco’s 3G+ network, according to Vodafone, with average download speeds of 8Mbps and speeds of 0.5Mbps and 5Mbps on its 3G network, with average download speeds of 1Mbps.

“Vodafone 3G+ and 4G (LTE) are very exciting technologies that will feature very strongly in our network improvements over the next two years,” Morrow has previously stated.

“As we now approach the completion of this phase of our national network roll out, we have mapped out a very clear path for the introduction of higher data speeds and enhanced coverage for the benefit of our smartphone, tablet and mobile broadband customers.”

The future of 4G in Australia

4G wars: Can Optus and Vodafone compete with Telstra?
4G wars: Telstra betting big on 4G
4G wars: The road to 4G for Telstra
4G wars: New spectrum key to Optus’ 4G future
4G wars: Optus’ road to 4G

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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