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Optus And Vodafone To Share 3G And 4G Sites: What It Means For Consumers

Optus and Vodafone have signed an agreement to share more of their 3G and 4G infrastructure, allowing them to expand coverage more quickly and for Vodafone customers in regional areas to eventually roam onto Optus’ network where Vodafone coverage is weaker or non-existent. What will that mean for customers of both networks? Will it threaten performance and reception? What happens if you access those networks via another provider? We’ve got all the answers.

The joint venture agreement isn’t finalised yet, and still requires approval from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). But assuming it goes ahead, here’s what it will mean.

What are the two networks actually sharing? Access to existing mobile towers and sites, particularly in capital cities( Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Geelong, Central Coast, Gold Coast and Canberra), and the construction work on some new sites. Using existing sites speeds up rollout; Optus estimates that this will take 12-18 months off its plans to roll out 4G. Given that Telstra already has broad 4G coverage, both Optus and Vodafone will welcome any speed improvements.

The approach also cuts down on complaints from local residents over multiple tower rollouts: as a spokesperson told us, “Optus and VHA will be able to co-locate the majority of their new infrastructure on existing sites minimising the impact of a large infrastructure rollout on local communities.” (Conversely, it might make an easier single target for activists.)

I’m an Optus customer. Will I get poorer reception because all those Vodafone-using sops are gagging to get decent bandwidth? No. The sites are shared, but the infrastructure remains independent. You’ll get your connection from the provider you signed up with.

Will this help in regional areas? If you’re a Vodafone customer in a weaker reception area, you’ll be roamed onto Optus, which potentially will mean better reception. But that won’t happen until April 2013, and will be fixed for a five-year period.

Will I have to pay more? Right now, no. The changes are at the network level, and won’t alter individual customer agreements at this stage. (No word yet on the finer Vodafone’s roaming plans for next year, though.)

Will I benefit from this if I’m using a service from a mobile virtual network operator which uses Optus or Vodafone? These changes are being made at the network level, so they will offer the same improvements for other providers (such as Amaysim, Boost, iiNet and Virgin on Optus, or Crazy John’s and Red Bull on Vodafone) using those networks.

Will this change global roaming arrangements? No. It’s an Australia-only deal. When you head overseas, you’ll still need to make the right arrangement with your provider. (Optus has good deals for Asia via Bridge DataRoam; Vodafone has broad but variable coverage in Europe.

Can Vodafone customers latch onto Optus’ new 4G network? Not at this stage. Optus’ Central Coast trial is invitation-only, and this agreement won’t change things. Eventually (in theory), regional roaming onto 4G might be possible, but since Optus’ initial 4G rollout is aimed at capital cities, that’s not going to happen for a while.

While it would be easy to panic and see this as a potential bottleneck, it also means that Optus and Vodafone will be able to speed up their network building and improvement activities. Given that mobile networks inevitably deteriorate as they become more popular, that’s a welcome development.

This isn’t the first time mobile networks in Australia have shared infrastructure. Prior to its merger with Vodafone, the now all-but-defunct 3 used Telstra in areas where its own 3G network didn’t operate. However, 3 imposed extra charges on customers for the privilege, something that apparently won’t happen here.

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