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Australia's 4G LTE journey: Where are we now?

Tracing Australia's path to 4G, the key players and the state of the network

Telstra recently made its highly anticipated 4G LTE network widely available in capital cities and various regional centres across Australia.

With demand for wireless broadband at an all time high, 4G LTE is now spruiked as a provider of faster mobile Internet speeds over longer distances.

It is a successor of 3G networks, which in recent times, have been struggling to cope with the large volumes of data consumed by Australian mobile devices on a daily basis.

4G LTE networks have already been deployed in a number of countries abroad for some time and Telstra isn't the first telco to bring forth this type of high-speed network.

It is worth retracing Australia's 4G LTE journey to find out where it began and how local telcos have played into this story.

vividwireless got the 4G ball rolling in March 2010, when the ISP launched what it claimed to be Australia's first 4G wireless broadband network in Perth, Western Australia.

The network used WiMAX and LTE hardware from Chinese vendor, Huawei. Vividwireless plans to switch on its TD-LTE network by the end of the year.

Click here to find out the difference between TD-LTE and FD-LTE

Subsequently, Telstra and Optus both began running trials in LTE technology. Both companies are focused on using FD-LTE.

At the time of vividwireless' network launch, there were still questions about whether WiMAX and LTE were actually considered to be truly '4G'. After all, up until December 2010, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) which helps establish standards for telco technologies, still considered LTE and WiMAX to be encompassed under 3G.

Nonetheless, vividwireless stuck to its guns and a year later it announced the expansion of its 4G network to Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra in March. By that time, the ITU had decided to include LTE, WiMAX and even HSPA+ under the 4G umbrella.

But a month before that, Telstra revealed its own ambitions to rollout a 4G LTE network by the end of the year. It would refarm its existing 1800MHz spectrum -- traditionally used for 2G -- for the new network which would be integrated with its 850MHz HSPA+ service.

This truly brought 4G to the fore. Being the biggest telco in Australia, the news made consumers more aware of the potential advantages of 4G and spurred competitors to start thinking about their own future LTE networks.

Exactly a week later, Vodafone Hutchison Australia (VHA) made a public apology to customers regarding its lingering network coverage issues and committed $1 billion on upgrading its mobile infrastructure.

The telco also said it will gradually move its 3G network to 4G LTE as part of the upgrade. VHA partnered with Huawei, which will be fitting out the telco's 5800 2G base stations with 3G equipment that can eventually be upgraded to LTE. The vendor will also work on over 2200 new VHA base stations by the end of 2012.

Upgrade work commenced in April in parts of the Central Coast, Newcastle and the Hunter region.

VHA said the new equipment will improve its existing network performance but has yet to decide when to officially switch on its 4G LTE network.

By June, there was still no word from Optus regarding solid plans for a 4G network though the telco did strike a "multimillion dollar" deal with Nokia Siemens to provide LTE compatible packet core technology.

That month NBN Co appointed Ericsson to deploy a 4G LTE fixed-wireless network as part of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

The NBN plan is to deliver broadband through fibre for 93 per cent of Australians. The remainder, mainly in rural and remote locations, will be serviced by fixed-wireless or satellite.

With the LTE network, NBN Co is looking to provide maximum download speeds of up 12Mbps although the company has later said it will attempt to ramp up the speeds. Theoretically, LTE is capable of faster downloading and uploading speeds but wireless is still a shared medium. NBN Co will only explore the possibility of boosting speeds if it is able to do so for everybody covered by the 4G network.

Commercial pilots

In August, Telstra was running commercial pilots of its 4G network which was isolated to 2000 business customers only. The trial was conducted in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

So far, there has been a lot of talk about how 4G LTE would be beneficial to the customer experience, but what's really in it for the telcos involved?

Telstra shed some light on that topic.

A 4G LTE network will not only improve mobile data download speeds but it can bring down operational costs as well.

At least that is what Telstra CEO, David Thodey said during a full financial year results meeting in August.

"On LTE, cost per bit is significantly lower than HSPA+ networks so it's all about efficiency of carrying data on the network," he said at the time. "LTE is just far more efficient technology in terms of your cost base.

"... For us to be able to maintain margins in the market, we need to be driving cost down on our network."

By mid-September, Optus, which had been holding its LTE cards very close to its chest, finally unveiled plans for its 4G LTE network.

Like Telstra, Optus will be deploying its network on the 1800MHz spectrum with phase one to begin in Newcastle, Port Stephens, the Hunter Valley and Lake Macquarie.

Services to those areas are expected to be available from April 2012.

Sydney, Melbourne and Perth should get a taste of Optus LTE by mid-next year. Work to upgrade base stations and hardware are already underway.

The telco also signed Huawei on as the equipment supplier for a licenced LTE services trial in the 700MHz spectrum band in Bendigo, Victoria.

The 700MHz spectrum is highly sought after since it is perfect for 4G LTE use. It has caused a considerable amount of tension between public safety organisations and commercial telco operators.

Public safety organisations want part of the 700MHz, which will be auctioned off by ACMA as part of the digital dividend, reserved for an emergency services data network.

Being such a lucrative spectrum, commercial operators have blasted this idea since it would mean less of the pie would go to telcos for 4G LTE network purposes.

But by the looks of things, it is likely the commercial sector would win this round as the Government is now exploring options of allocating part of the 800MHz for public safety purposes instead.

Australia still has a long way to go in its 4G LTE journey. The major telcos all have plans which will take a few more years to complete. Who knows? By then maybe a new, shinier and faster wireless broadband technology will be in vogue


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