Understanding 4G Networks
Telstra’s made a big splash recently with the launch of its first ‘4G’ product — although depending on whose definition you adopt, it might not be 4G at all. Fourth generation wireless networks, and 4G specifically as a term have been used in varying ways by different groups overseas, so much so that some of what passes for overseas ‘4G’ — especially in the US — is currently sold in Australia as 3G!
That having been said, I’ve been testing Telstra’s 4G USB modem for a number of weeks now. Telstra’s currently using an 1800Mhz LTE broadcast network for its 4G product, which promises download speeds of between 2-40Mbps. That’s an immense range, but then if you’ve used any kind of mobile broadband product ever, you’d be well aware that variability is the name of the game.
At the moment, Telstra’s 4G footprint isn’t that massive, focused around capital city centres — within 5km of the post office typically speaking — and selected regional centres, where the footprint shrinks down to a smaller 3km radius. Step outside those areas and the USB 4G modem flicks over to Next-G coverage, where the bandwidth is smaller, but the footprint much larger.
Telstra won’t be alone in the 4G game for all that long, however. Vodafone’s been testing 4G services for some time now. Its last pronouncement on this was that we’d see 4G products by year’s end, although they’re running out of time to fulfil that promise. Optus meanwhile is testing 700Mhz 4G in Albury; depending on whose definition you adopt that’s more like “true” 4G, but requires the 700Mhz spectrum to operate, and that’s only available in areas where the analogue tv signal has been switched off. Optus’ timeframe for commercial availability of 4G products starts in limited rollout in April next year.
So what’s it like to use? Telstra’s only currently got one 4G product; a USB modem that comes with its own drivers installed on the modem. They’ll tell you how to connect, and whether you’re currently within the 4G network or Next-G coverage instead. In my own tests in Sydney’s CBD I’ve averaged anywhere from 4-50Mbps, but there have equally been times where it’s stubbornly sat on Next-G rather than 4G, even though I should have been under Telstra’s 4G cloud at the time. Telstra’s not charging for 4G any differently than it does regular data, however; it’ll be interesting to see what happens with data prices — considering 4G is essentially a pure data network, and the telcos will continue to use existing 2/3G infrastructure to service our call and texting needs — once Vodafone and Optus are also offering 4G services.