Will Telstra's 900MHz 4G Mean Everyone Needs New Devices?

Telstra is planning to introduce a 900MHz version of Next G to help it expand its 4G network in regional areas. Will that be enough to help it maintain decent 4G speeds, and will you need a new device to use it? The short answer: probably yes for your phone, possibly no for your mobile broadband.

The current Telstra 4G network, which was introduced in September 2011, uses 1800MHz spectrum. It has 1.5 million customers, which is good commercially for Telstra but does mean that speeds for most customers are gradually falling. Hence the need for change.

Telstra COO Brendon Riley announced the plans for the new 900MHz extension in Sydney this morning, ahead of an official launch at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week. To cope with increasing data demand, Telstra plans to refarm 900MHz spectrum currently being used for its older 2G network. That won’t happen on a nationwide basis, with the first targets being city and regional areas which currently don’t have solid coverage.

Initial testing of the 900MHz network has taken place north of Brisbane at Redcliffe, Bribie and Woodford. Kalgoorlie, Alice Springs, Warrnambool, Mount Isa and Nowra are expected to be amongst the first to see the 900MHz service when it rolls out later this year. “This isn’t necessarily a mass deployment; it’s a deployment where it makes sense for those users,” said Mike Wright, Telstra executive director, networks and access technologies.

To access that 900MHz service, you’ll need a compatible device. Right now, only the Nokia 920 is ready to access that network out of the box. It will also be an option with the Sony Xperia Z and the BlackBerry Z10, which Telstra will launch in the first half of this year.

The news is a little better for mobile broadband. Telstra is working on firmware upgrades for its “most popular” hotspots and dongles to enable 900MHz access, and aims to release those by mid-year. Postpaid devices are likely to receive upgrades faster than cheaper prepaid ones, and not every single device will receive an upgrade. The forthcoming Cat 4 broadband devices which Telstra announced last week will also support the 900MHz frequency.

Right now, Telstra’s 4G network covers around 40 per cent of the Australian population. By mid-year, that figure will rise to two-thirds. According to Telstra, it expects as much data to be consumed on its networks in 2013 as in 2012 and 2011 combined. “This year we’re going to erect an additional 1000 4G base stations which will help us underpin what we need to do with LTE with more to come next year,” Riley said.

Telstra is also running trials of LTE-Advanced (which combines 900MHz and 1800MHz spectrum) and LTE-Broadcast, which enables more efficient broadcasting of video content when multiple phone users are watching the same live stream. However, those are unlikely to be seen in actual products available to customers until at least the end of the year.

The refarming doesn’t mean the 2G network itself is disappearing. Telstra doesn’t sell any 2G devices itself and says 2G access is only a small percentage of customers, but it has no announced timeframe for switching the network off.

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