Telstra was first to market with a product it’s calling “4G” late last year, but it’s just recently been joined by Optus — sort of. That’s a horribly qualified statement, but then there’s little about 4G in Australia that’s all that clear.
For the moment, every carrier that wants to run at 4G service is limited by the spectrum that’s available to them. Telstra (and now Optus) opted to deploy LTE (Long Term Evolution) services over spectrum in the 1800Mhz waveband, because it was available to them. This has led to certain issues, the most pertinent of which has been that virtually nobody else on the planet was using 1800Mhz for the provision of 4G LTE services! That having been said, it’s not as though there’s wide agreement on 4G anyway; there’s a variety of different spectrum setups that are sold worldwide as “4G”, up to and including the 850MHZ 3G services sold in Australia by Telstra (as Next-G) and Vodafone. Ultimately there’s no clear definition of what 4G “is”, beyond being a marketing term, although a few high-speed LTE services may end up being “officially” recognised as 4G, but not just yet.
The issue with 1800Mhz — aside from the fact that it’s not quite as solid for things like building penetration as lower frequencies — is that there aren’t many chipsets that support it. Apple’s “iPad 4G+WiFi” hit a snag with the ACCC recently, as the commission wasn’t impressed with Apple’s use of the 4G term for a tablet that can’t connect at 1800Mhz — and thus couldn’t connect to any Australian 4G network. That one’s still playing itself out in the courts, although Apple has said it’ll offer refunds to anyone who bought a new iPad on the basis of 4G connectivity.
That iPad will connect to 4G LTE services operating on the 700Mhz band, but that frequency is currently being used across Australia for analogue television signals. They’re scheduled to be switched off gradually across the country, freeing up the frequency, which should be auctioned off some time this year; at best we’ll see 700Mhz services (depending on who buys the licences) sometime in late 2013 — at an optimistic estimate.
Which brings us back to the issue of what 4G actually is. For now, it should define a network with faster data speeds than existing third generation (3G) networks, but that could come from a couple of different technologies. Voice as yet isn’t part of the 4G package, but a 4G phone still acts as a phone; it just uses older technology to deliver your voice and text messages.
Optus’ implementation is the same 1800Mhz LTE as Telstra’s, but as mentioned above it’s both here and not quite here yet. When Optus first announced it was working towards a 4G network, it said it would launch 4G in the Newcastle NSW region in April, and then across capital cities mid-year. It’s just squeaked in the first part with a 4G Newcastle network, but not as a full commercial product; instead selected users will be given free 4G devices to test the network out with. Presumably you had to already be an Optus customer; there certainly wasn’t a signup process.
What then of the third network, Vodafone? It had initially said that it would launch a 4G network by the end of 2011, but that certainly didn’t happen. Its most recent communications have centered around it improving its existing network, especially with the rollout of 850Mhz services; 4G is still on the radar but with no stated public timeline.
So should you buy 4G? Telstra’s implementation is still the (theoretically) most widespread, and it was no coincidence that in the week Optus announced its soft launch, Telstra announced it was expanding its Newcastle coverage. All 4G devices launched to date do drop down to 3G where 4G isn’t available, so in one sense there’s relatively little risk. Likewise, though, I’ve seen some wildly varying 4G speeds, even within coverage zones. If you’re in need of a new phone or wireless dongle 4G isn’t too much of a risk, but it’s probably not worth upgrading yet if your existing kit is still humming along nicely.