4G wars: Can Optus and Vodafone compete with Telstra?

A look at the technical side of telcos' 4G network rollouts – how it’s done, how long it takes and what role spectrum frequencies play in 4G performance.

With 4G competition heating up around Australia, telcos are keen to stamp their mark on the technology.

So far, Telstra and Optus have opened up their 4G network to consumers, with Vodafone due to launch its 4G offering in early 2013. Other telcos and ISPs have also announced they will resell 4G access on Optus’ network, including Virgin Mobile, Amaysim and Boost Mobile.

ISPs Exetel and iiNet will also offer 4G services to customers.

However, rolling out a 4G network is far from simple. According to Mark Gregory, senior lecturer at RMIT University, telcos typically subcontract 4G installation procedures to a company which interacts with their equipment supplier.

However, telcos remain an integral part of the design of the 4G upgrades to mobile base stations and cell design, such as where cells will be located, the number of cells and whether new base stations will needed to be built.

“Wherever possible they will try and reuse base stations,” Gregory says.

“There are two steps involved in the process where you’re using the existing infrastructure like the towers. They might be removing a former system, so they would first of all have to decommission that [and] take any antennas or cables and systems in the wiring cabinet away. They would then fit the new antenna cables and systems in the wiring cabinet.”

Upgrades also need to be made to regional management centres, according to Gregory, which manage and interoperate with mobile phone systems. This could mean new systems are required, such as security, management, operations and authentication.

Gregory estimates it would typically take one day per base station to install new systems on an existing mobile base station to fit equipment and test it. Where antennas need to be replaced, this would slow the process, according to Gregory.

Changing frequencies

Gregory says higher spectrum frequencies can be affected by issues such as high-rise buildings, which is why telcos prefer to operate around the 1800MHz or 700Mhz spectrum.

“If you’re up into the 2100MHz or higher frequencies, which some of them still are with their systems, you’re going to be affected by things like buildings and you’re not going to get the same outcomes if you were previously on 1800MHz,” Gregory says.

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“There’s frequency reshuffling going on because they’re going to want to use as much of the 1800MHz band as possible for the 4G until they can get their hands on the 700MHz.”

Optus, Telstra and Vodafone have all taken different approaches when it comes to 4G frequencies.

“Telstra has access to more bands – more frequency bands – than others like Optus, so Optus is really desperate to get its hands on 700MHz because it’s really giving Telstra a free run,” Gregory says.

With the 700MHz spectrum not expected to be operational until 2015, following the Digital Dividend auction in April next year, some telcos are shifting network frequencies, according to Gregory.

“[That] means that Telstra’s going to have a three-year window of opportunity to be able to say ‘look, we can provide 4G all around Australia'", Gregory says. Optus' 4G coverage is currently confined to around 10-15km from the Melbourne, Perth and Sydney CBDs, as well as coverage in the greater Newcastle area and Hunter regions. Optus customers in Adelaide and Brisbane will also have to wait until next year to access 4G services with the telco.

Over the long-term, spectrum will play a critical role in the roll out of 4G by telcos, Gregory says, and could also have an impact on non-4G users.

“That’s part of where this effect is going to be. You’re going to get detrimental effect in terms of old systems being turned off, frequencies being shuffled and older systems being shuffled onto less advantageous frequencies.”

However, this can result in service degradation on some older mobile phones which cannot access some frequencies, Gregory says, with one telco issuing letters to customers on older phones recommending they update their handset in order to access changed spectrum frequencies.

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Telco competition

While Telstra and Vodafone have announced limited 4G connectivity in some metropolitan areas, Vodafone is still yet to launch 4G services, stating it plans to offer 4G to its customers in early 2013.

“The problem for Vodafone, and it’s been written in the press many times, is that they’re just trying to stabilise and improve their 3G offering at a time when the other two are going to 4G,” Gregory says.

He says Optus and Vodafone will struggle in the 4G race against Telstra, despite Optus and Vodafone signing an agreement in May this year to pool their resources to improve network coverage and cute costs.

“The new agreement will also allow us to deploy 3G on our existing low frequency 900MHz spectrum on over 3,800 sites in the extended site sharing joint venture,” an internal Optus email said.

The agreement will also allow the two telcos to more aggressively pursue the rollout of 3.5G (HSPA+) and 4G services, with the telcos to jointly build 500 new base stations across shared sites over the next four years.

However, Gregory says spectrum access could prove problematic for Optus and Vodafone in the 4G market and won’t be enough to compete with Telstra.

“Optus and Vodafone are both guilty, if you like, of trying to minimise the number of base stations. Part of their problem is that they also have a lot less spectrum than Telstra has. Telstra has been very careful to ensure that they have enough spectrum for systems moving forward and that availability of spectrum has always been Telstra’s trump card,” he says.

“As far as the mobile phone towers are concerned, it’s quite true that Telstra really leads the way in terms of the placement of mobile phone towers, but also picocells and macro cells within places like supermarkets and train stations and other places. Their network is, overall, much more consistent, if you like, than the other two companies.”

This will mean while Telstra can continue to roll out its 4G technology, Optus has already hit a brick wall and will be unable to sufficiently carry out its 4G rollout until it can gain access to 700MHz, Gregory says.

Telstra will also “piggy back” on new handsets which are released with 4G connectivity, such as the iPhone 5, according to Gregory, which will help increase the telco's marketshare of 4G customers.

“That is something that the other two [telcos] just can’t overcome at this stage. It’s really been good forward thinking, if you like, by Telstra to make sure that they’ve got access to the bands that they need for what they want to do and to make sure that they’ve got access to those bands not only in the city but also in the regional areas,” Gregory says.

He says 4G take-up could also be high in the initial stages of the technology rollout, but customers will notice performance changes as more customers join the technology.

"I think the key issue with 4G could be the up-take will be strong and people will find performance will degrade quickly. The other issue that has been raised is the rapid increase in demand for downloads and this will have a great effect on 4G. It will also lead to bill shock over the next six months until new protocols to protect customers kick in," Gregory says.

"I have recently written a couple of times that anything less than 3GB per month is a recipe for disaster."

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