UPDATED: 4G in Australia: The state of the nation

Updated 9 December 2014: The top three Australian carriers are spending billions upgrading their networks to high-speed 4G LTE services. Here is the latest information on each telco's progress.

Also see:
Australian MVNOs: 3G or 4G?
How fast are HSPA+ and LTE in Australia?
Australian government misses $1 billion in Digital Dividend auction

Telstra 4G

Telstra has stated plans to cover 90 per cent of the Australian population with 4G service by the end of January 2015. As of 27 August, Telstra had 5.2 million 4G customers.

In addition to the capital cities, the Telstra 4G network covers more than 300 regional towns.

The No. 1 telco has a large head start on 4G rollout, having launched LTE services in September 2011.

Telstra operates frequency-division (FD) LTE on the 1800MHz spectrum band. It currently has 20MHz of contiguous spectrum in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and 15MHz in Sydney and Melbourne. By comparison, Vodafone Hutchison Australia has 20MHz in all five cities, but its coverage is limited to those cities.

Telstra spent $1.3 billion in the April 2013 Digital Dividend auction, taking most of the 700MHz and 2.5GHz spectrum available. It bought 2x20MHz of the 700MHz spectrum and 2x40MHz of the 2.5GHz. The spectrum is expected to increase the carrier's 4G coverage and capacity.

Telstra will invest an additional $1 billion its mobile network in 2014, CEO David Thodey said in August.

Telstra is upgrading the network to even faster LTE-Advanced technology and deploying new spectrum to add more capacity, speed and reliability.

Telstra has branded the new speed tier "4GX." The network, combines 700MHz and 1800MHz spectrum bands, will be available first in Hobart and parts of Brisbane. 4GX services will cover all capital CBDs and 50 regional locations by 1 January 2015.

In a test of the 700MHz spectrum in Perth, Telstra reached 235Mbps download speeds on a Category 6 (Cat 6) device.

On 21 July 2014, Telstra announced a commercial pilot of its 700MHz spectrum in Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales. Telstra plans to turn on its 700MHz network in more locations starting January 2015.

Telstra has also announced plans to refarm low-frequency 900MHz spectrum for 4G. The telco is testing that first in north Brisbane and considering deployments in other regional areas. When they are released in the future, 4G devices supporting LTE Advanced will be able to combine the 900MHz and 1800MHz bands for extra capacity.

Telstra is also currently testing LTE Broadcast technology, which would allow the telco to broadcast one video stream to multiple people at the same time. That approach would be more efficient than the current method in which video is streamed separately to each customer.

Some analysts say Telstra’s early rollout of LTE likely will keep the telco ahead of the competition.

“With accelerated investment in the LTE network, we believe Telstra’s mobile rivals will find it difficult to challenge Telstra’s network superiority,” Ovum analyst David Kennedy has said. “They will need to pursue strategies as `alternative’ providers to Telstra.”

Next page: Optus and Vodafone 4G

Page Break

Optus 4G

Optus has 4G FD-LTE coverage in five state capitals—Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, and Brisbane—as well as popular regional tourist destinations including Byron Bay, Coffs Harbour, the Gold Coast and the Central Coast.

Optus added 4G TD-LTE networks for Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in September following a pilot in Canberra.

As of 30 September 2014, Optus has 2.75 million customers on its 4G network.

Most of the Optus 4G network currently runs on FD-LTE technology and operates in the 1800MHz spectrum band. The TD-LTE network, which uses 2.3GHz spectrum, provides higher throughput than FD-LTE, but currently has a fewer number of compatible handsets. Optus does not offer FD-LTE in Canberra, and 4G smartphones made for FD-LTE revert to 3G when used there.

Optus reportedly plans to spend $2 billion over two years on 4G services in an effort to take on Telstra. Also, a $230 million acquisition of the Vividwireless Group from Seven Group Holdings gave Optus access to 98MHz of spectrum in the 2.3GHz band for its TD LTE network.

Optus spent $649 million at the Digital Dividend auction, half of what Telstra paid. It took 2x10MHz of the 700MHz spectrum and 2x20MHz of the 2.5GHz spectrum. While less than what Telstra took, Optus executives have said they were satisfied with the outcome.

On 21 July 2014, Optus announced a commercial pilot of its 700MHz spectrum in Perth and Darwin. On 3 November, Optus expanded the Darwin pilot beyond the Northern Territory city’s central business district. On 8 December, Optus expanded the pilot to Canberra.

Optus is expected to turn on its 700MHz network in more locations starting January 2015.

Optus has also announced a large regional expansion of 4G using 2600MHz and 700MHz spectrum. Between October 2014 and April 2015, Optus plans to roll out 4G to 200 regional locations across the country, including parts of Cairns, Ballarat, Darwin, Alice Springs, Hobart and Launceston.

On 17 November 2014, Optus said it had switched on 4G 2600MHz service in sites across 40 regional centres. Also, the first 700MHz sites are now live in Toowoomba, Ballarat, Bendigo, Coffs Harbour, Dubbo, Nowra, Port Macquarie, Urunga, Bundaberg and Murray Bridge.

Meanwhile, several other companies have rolled out 4G plans riding on the Optus network, including Virgin Mobile, Exetel, iiNet, Vaya and Yatango.

Amaysim has said 4G services are on the way, but CEO Rolf Hansen has said he's not sure 4G is a commercial quot;slam dunk.quot;.

Vodafone 4G

Vodafone launched its 4G network in major metropolitan areas in June 2013 and opened the service to new customers on 10 July 2013. There are nearly 2 million devices connected to the Vodafone 4G network.

Vodafone has 4G coverage in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra and Hobart.

In October 2014, Vodafone announced upgrades for Adelaide to increase 4G coverage using its 850MHz spectrum. The low-frequency band is said to provide greater indoor and outdoor coverage than the 1800MHz band that has commonly been used for 4G up to this point.

With hopes to reverse a customer exodus, Vodafone is investing $1 billion over two years on network upgrades.

While relatively late to the 4G game, Vodafone will deploy LTE over its existing 1800MHz channel and potentially have higher speeds than other carriers because it has 20MHz of spectrum in that band. The telco did not participate in the Digital Dividend auction.

On 17 November 2014, Vodafone announced it had switched on its faster LTE-A network in Melbourne. The so-called "4G+" network is comparable to Telstra's "4GX" network.

For information on the networks of MVNOs including Amaysim, Boost Mobile and Lebara, check out our feature: Australian MVNOs: 3G or 4G?

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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