APR 15, 2024 / Mobile Phones

5G is here, and it’s fast — but don’t rush

Updated February 2020

The next generation of mobile connectivity has launched in Australia. 5G brings with it the promise of faster connection speeds, lower latency and all-new use cases for mobile data.

Well… sort of.

When is 5G coming to Australia?

At a technical level, the 5G networks of Telstra and Optus have customers accessing data on them. However this is only under very specific circumstances. It’s worth knowing the fine details before you rush towards 5G.

Optus technically — and it’s a very fine line — “launched” 5G first in Australia, with a range of fixed 5G broadband services with a 50Mbps download speed guarantee in place.

The Optus 5G plans are for folks who can’t (or won’t) get an NBN style service. Or where the NBN infrastructure can’t deliver speeds they need to their homes or businesses.

Optus made the announcement of its 5G plans back in January. To date it has very limited coverage in selected suburbs of major cities in NSW, QLD, ACT, SA and WA.

Optus says it’ll have more than 1,200 sites live by March 2020, but for now, it’s basically testing 5G with a small subset of customers. If you’re not in a coverage area, or even if you are but Optus figures it’s getting enough usage data for what is effectively a live “trial” of 5G, you won’t be able to sign up.

Then there’s Telstra, which has also launched 5G “first” — in a manner of speaking.

Telstra’s 5G services went live to consumers on 28 May. That’s when it first started shipping the first 5G handset, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. Since then, it’s been joined by an HTC 5G Hub hotspot device, as well as competing smartphones from Oppo and LG. Telstra won’t stop you from signing up on a contract for any of these devices, and in the case of the Samsung phone, currently it’s the only way you can score one at all.

Where is 5G available in Australia?

However, again, coverage is the issue, with 5G only available on Telstra at the time of writing in selected areas of Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, the Gold Coast, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney and Toowomba.

Telstra says it’s working to have 5G available across 35 cities in Australia in 2020, as well as expanding the coverage it has in those launch cities. If you’re not in a 5G coverage area, you won’t drop out of data. You’ll drop down to 4G speeds, the same as most hotspot and mobile devices you can buy these days anyway.

One of the key selling points for 5G is speed.

The ceiling for the 5G specification is massive, but at launch, Telstra’s playing it safe, simply stating that it expects speeds to be “around twice that of 4G” currently.

There are some solid technical reasons for that, to be fair. Telstra’s currently only operating 5G at the 2.4Ghz category while it waits for a fresh round of spectrum auctions to be held by the Federal Government next year to conclude. Once it can get its hands on the millimetre-wave spectrum that the 5G standard calls for, it should (in theory) be able to boost its 5G speeds substantially.

I’ve been testing out the new 5G devices that Telstra’s released to date in the small areas of 5G coverage already available in Sydney, and I’ve got to say that my reactions are quite mixed.

In demonstrations in its labs, I’ve seen Telstra hit speeds between 1.2Gbps-2Gbps (that’s 1,200Mbps-2,000Mbps), which is impressive on a mobile device. Out on the streets, however where there’s a lot more room for interference, I’ve been getting more around the 300-400Mbps mark, and often a lot lower.

Now, from a practical consumer standpoint that’s fine. There’s not too much you’re likely to be doing on just one phone that needs all that much speed yet.

It’s a very similar situation to the one we faced when 4G and even 3G came along, because nobody was making video calls or streaming content at that time. Give it time, and the use cases will emerge for both business and consumer cases.

However, it’s also not living up to the full potential of the network. As such, you don’t really need to run towards a 5G device at this time. The new phones and hotspot are nice devices in their own right, but they’ll be swiftly joined by other models, including more affordable phones.

Telstra will hopefully tweak and improve its network performance in the meantime, too. Right now, Telstra charges no premium at all for 5G, but it’s indicated that it’ll give consumers a 12-month “free” period for 5G add-on charges, after which it’ll ask for $15/month to access its 5G radio waves. If it’s going to go down that path, it’ll need to deliver more speed than it does right now.

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Justin Trevena