With 4G competition heating up around Australia, telcos are keen to stamp their mark on the technology.
Telstra, the number one telco in Australia, has clearly led the race in the 4G war and was the first company to announce 4G plans.
Over the next two years, Telstra will invest $500 million in developing its 4G network and adding another 1000 sites to its portfolio by June next year, growing the network as more 4G compatible handsets are released. The upgrade to 4G has already been a major contributor of the telco's $3.6 billion spend in fiscal-year 2012.
How Telstra has rolled out 4G
Michael Wright, executive director of Telstra operations/network and access technologies, says the decision to refarm Telstra's 1800MHz spectrum, which it was previously using for 2G services, allowed the company to offer a 4G service earlier than it could have otherwise.
With the spectrum secured for the technology, Wright says Telstra has tried to reuse existing mobile base stations. By reusing the 2G spectrum, the telco has also been able to reuse a large amount of its infrastructure for that 1800MHz frequency.
"Sometimes we wire up tunnels and buildings and shopping centres and sporting complexes so it means it makes it a bit easier to put the new technology on them," he says.
"So effectively we go to all of our existing towers or infrastructure, [such as that] in building coverage systems and we fit a new radio transmitter and technology that's based on the 4G standard. That's a radio bit of hardware -- it can be the size of a suitcase or a bit bigger, depending on the equipment we use."
4G upgrades could also mean using an existing antenna or installing a new antenna. A connection also needs to be created back to the core of the network, which Telstra runs on a high-speed fibre optic cable to its towers.
"When you add all that up you get yourself a radio signal coming out of the towers that operates on the 4G frequency and with 4G speeds and characteristics," Wright says.
Depending on the tower and whether structural work needs to be carried out on it, Wright says the process could take from one day to a few days.
"Sometimes you've got to weld some new brackets [on] and get some planning approvals, so the physical time at site typically is only, including if you had to get up the tower, anything from a day to a few days. But months ahead of that is planning and consultation and getting structural designs done, so the actual process probably starts a year before," he says.
With more than 7500 towers across Australia, manual labour at the site of mobile base stations can play a role in how quick the telco can roll out its 4G coverage, with Wright saying one of the main challenges of upgrading to 4G is co-ordination.
"Really, it's about just making sure that you co-ordinate this very complex series of events well ahead of time. If you miss a step, you've just got to make sure all of your planning [and] all of your designs are right and that the program flows," he says.
"But once you get that bit right, it really is just a case of getting the technology deployed in the right spot and in the right order. If you get it out of order, obviously you get missing bits of coverage."
Wright says the optimal spectrum bands for operating 4G in are two-fold -- high and low ranges, with Telstra currently operating its 4G technology in the 1800MHz spectrum. For rural and regional areas, he says Telstra will opt for lower frequencies -- and the telco has made no secret of the fact that it wants to acquire some of the 700MHz spectrum in the Digital Dividend.
"We're certainly interested in acquiring spectrum in the next generation Digital Dividend spectrum ... next year because we see that as important for the longer term future," Wright says.
Wright says Telstra would use the 700MHz spectrum to act as a "complementary" band for 4G to add coverage and capacity to its network.
"The NextG network today -- or the 3G network -- uses 850MHz and 2100MHz..." Wright says. "Those frequencies need to be rearranged. Once that's completed then you can actually go and build a network and operate in that frequency band."
Telstra currently has spectrum across five bands -- 850MHz; 900MHz; 1800MHz; 1900MHz; and 2100MHz.
The 4G future for Telstra
Wright says take-up to Telstra's 4G network has been rapid and expects to see an even quicker shift to the technology in the next 12 months as handsets with high definition voice filter into the market.
"...you'll not only get this continuous 4G footprint that we're currently building, you'll start to see wherever the traffic is in highest demand where people want to use the network the most ... So over time the network will naturally fill up with more and more 4G coverage wherever people want to use it," Wright says.
Traffic on Telstra's 4G network is now growing at around 14 per cent per month, according to Wright, and says Telstra will release another five 4G devices by the end of this year.
"I would say that, in all my career, I don't think I've seen a new wireless technology emerge so quickly and so strongly..." he says.
"All around the world we're seeing 4G networks emerge very, very rapidly and I think a lot of operators and customers are saying 'that's what I want'. That's the thing about competition -- it's up to us to respond to it."