Lifehacker's Total Guide To Telstra's New 4G LTE Network

It was promised back in February and trials began in August, but Telstra's 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) network officially launches today, promising speeds up to three times faster than Telstra's current network. But what equipment do you need to access it, does it cost more, where does it work and how well does it actually perform? We've got all the answers.

I'm testing out Telstra's 4G USB dongle right now, and some of the discussion here is based on that testing. Otherwise, this information comes straight from the horse's mouth: more specifically, from a media briefing held by Telstra to launch the new options in Sydney yesterday.

So what has Telstra done this time exactly? Telstra has officially launched its LTE (Long Term Evolution) network, designed to offer higher-speed data connections using 1800MHz wireless spectrum. That spectrum was previously used for 2G services, but demand for those has dropped rapidly. The older spectrum can be used for higher-speed LTE services, but that requires new equipment to be installed in towers — something the carrier has been doing since February this year. Trials for a limited group of users were launched in late August, but today represents the first time general consumers can buy gear to access the service. Note that the new option is designed to enhance data rather than voice calls; if all you do is make calls and send texts, it won't make much practical difference to you.

We see a lot about so-called 4G networks, but the terminology seems confusing. Is this new network really 4G? We've covered the question of what 4G really means in an in-depth article as part of our Lifehacker 101 series, and you should check that out for all the detail. The short answer goes like this: a standard LTE network should actually run faster than the LTE network Telstra has deployed, but most carriers have adopted the 4G label for networks which use the basic versions of LTE. Many have also used it for entirely different networks (such as Vividwireless' WIMAX-based 4G service), and some US carriers have used it for technologies like DC-HSPA which in Australia are sold as 3G. In practice, numerical labels like "3G" don't mean much except as marketing hype; what counts is the data download and upload speeds that are available.

So what speeds does the new network claim to offer? Obviously mindful of the fact that mobile networks rarely reach anything like their theoretical speed maximum, and also that the ACCC often comes down like a tonne of bricks on companies that claim performance or options they can't deliver, Telstra is talking in terms of "ranges" rather than outright claims. Download speeds are said to be double current options, with typical ranges from 2Mbps to 40Mbps. Upload speeds could triple, with speeds between 1Mbps and 10Mbps.

My own not insubstantial experience testing mobile broadband suggests that there will be performance improvements, but that very few users will experience the higher end of the claimed range of speeds. Inevitably, as more people use the network, the available speeds will also shrink — the 2000 people who got to test the devices initially might be in for something of a rude shock over the next few weeks.

Why does Telstra need to build another network? The existing Next G option already has much better speeds than its rivals. The problem with being successful with mobile networks is that success eventually punishes you. There's only a limited amount of capacity available, and if you attract a large number of customers, performance can often degrade.

We've seen that phenomenon with companies selling large numbers of iPhones (Optus in Australia and AT&T in the States), and we've also recently seen evidence that Telstra's own network is slowing down as usage grows. Telstra itself calculates that demand for data connectivity is doubling every year.

LTE helps Telstra address that problem, offering an alternative option for bandwidth-heavy users but without needing to make voice-centric changes. Shifting those customers to a different network should also improve performance for more casual users, since there will be less competition for available bandwidth.

So is this a replacement for Next G?

No. For the foreseeable future, Telstra intends to maintain both its networks — the existing collection of systems collectively labelled 'Next G' (along with speed qualifying descriptions such as Turbo and Ultimate), and the new LTE/4G option. Users with LTE-enabled devices will be able to switch between 3G and 4G (moving automatically onto the slower network when LTE isn't available), and I suspect that many people will eventually not notice the difference. On a practical level, it should act as one network, but users on mobile broadband will see the connection branded as '4G' rather than 'Next G' if they're accessing the service via LTE.

As director of network and commercial planning at Telstra Operations Anthony Goonan put it at the media launch: "It's not a new network as such, but it's an addition to the existing Telstra mobile network. This is not so much about outright speed improvements; it's about adding capacity to the network so that more customers can use broadband at the same time."

So will the LTE option be available everywhere? No — it's going to be rolled out in areas of high demand for data services, with additional rollout sites determined by current usage. Right now, the option is available in capital city CBD areas (generally within 5km of the GPO), and at capital city airports. It is also on offer in 30 regional locations (again usually centred on the CBD), and will be rolled out an additional 50 or so regional centres by the end of the year.

Telstra's site offers further coverage details for current availability, but if you want to know exactly which areas are due to be covered by the end of the year (outside of the capital city and airport options), here's a fuller list: NSW: Albury/Wodonga, Armidale, Bathurst, Coffs Harbour, Dubbo, Gosford, Goulburn, Lismore, Maitland, Newcastle, Nowra, Orange, Parramatta, Penrith, Port Macquarie, Singleton, Tamworth, Wagga Wagga, Wollongong, Wyong Victoria: Bairnsdale, Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Echuca, Geelong, Horsham, Mildura, Morwell, Shepperton, Swan Hill, Wangaratta, Warragul, Warrnambool, Werribee Queensland: Bundaberg, Caboolture, Cairns, Emerald, Gladstone, Gold Coast (Surfers Paradise, Coolangatta, Nerang), Gympie, Hervey Bay, Ipswich, Mackay, Maryborough, Mt Isa, Rockhampton, Sunshine Coast (Caloundra, Maroochydore, Nambour, Noosa Heads), Toowoomba, Townsville, Yeppoon WA: Albany, Broome, Bunbury, Busselton, Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Karratha SA Clare, Gawler, Mt Barker, Mt Gambier, Port Lincoln, Stirling, Victor Harbor, Whyalla Tasmania: Burnie, Devonport, Launceston, Ulverstone NT: Casuarina, Palmerston. Phew!

So how do I access the LTE network?

Initially, the only way to access the LTE network will be via a USB dongle sold through Telstra, for use on Windows and Mac machines. (I'm sure there'll be a Linux hack pretty smartly, but it's not an officially supported option.)

This is being offered on 24-month broadband contracts, starting from $49.95 for a plan with 4GB of data each month. (As usual with Telstra, there are discounts if you sign up for other services, but we're quoting the standalone price.)

Is LTE going to cost more? Oddly enough, no. There's no separate pricing for LTE — so if you were going to sign up for a new dongle on a contract, you might as well get this one for maximum speed. As we reported last week, it has also expanded its data allowances on mobile broadband and those expansions were launched in anticipation of the new plans; existing mobile broadband customers can get that expansion without extending their contract, but the only way to upgrade and get the hardware is to sign a new contract.

Will there be other device options in the future? Telstra is promising a 4G-enabled Android handset (the HTC 4G) in the first half of 2012, as well as unspecified tablet offerings due in the same time frame. It also expects other 4G handsets from its existing carrier partners, and will eventually launch a Wi-Fi hotspot model. But for 2011, the only way to take advantage of LTE will be via the USB dongle. (Telstra's internal data suggests dongles account for far more data usage than smartphones, so in commercial terms this seems like a smart choice.)

A side note for travellers: right now, there are no LTE roaming options in place, so if you head overseas and use the device on a roaming deal, you'll only get the lower speeds. (You'll also pay a fortune and probably should hunt down some Wi-Fi instead, but that's a separate issue.)

How fast does it perform?

In demonstrations at its Sydney HQ, Telstra showed the network offering ping times of 33ms, download speeds of 33.48Mbps and uploads at 18.13Mbps.

As usual with mobile broadband, performance will vary widely. When I tested it in Allure Media's Sydney HQ, which is also in the 4G signal area, the performance was slower: ping time 45ms, downloads at 17.37Mbps and uploads at 11.05Mbps. Both those results show upload speeds higher than Telstra's claimed maximums, but I'll personally be surprised if that remains the case.

Outside LTE areas, the device falls back to standard Next G performance, which is generally good but can suffer, like all mobile networks, from black spots, dropouts and other performance issues.

Can I buy the USB dongle as a standalone device and use it with a prepaid Telstra SIM? Right now, the answer is no — Telstra is maximising its profits by only offering the device on a 24-month contract. Based on past history, we can expect Telstra to eventually sell standalone devices, but given the slow predicted speeds for other LTE gear, that's probably going to take a while.

Any other questions? Pop them in the comments and we'll do our best to answer them. We'll be testing the USB device more extensively (and, as is Lifehacker's tendency, in multiple airports) over the next few weeks, and we'll report those results too. We're also looking forward to testing the rival service from Optus when it eventually appears, and seeing if Vodafone's network improvements finally make a difference.



Comments

    If I source a 1800 mhz lte modem / phone from overseas, can I just plug in my telstra sim to get on 4g?

    Is access to lte based off sim?

      In theory, yes... However, if it doesn't work, it is unsupported and you wont receive any support for any non-Telstra retailed device (Ie: Hardware you don't purchase through Telstra).

        Notice the website's title with "hacker" in it. Support from Telstra would be akin to stabbing myself in the eye.

      Prepaid - yes just change the iph
      bigpond - no. They only allow their own products
      Telstra Business Mobile Broadband - yes you can use any device that will run on their LTE network.

    "Users with LTE-enabled devices will be able to switch between 3G and 4G (moving automatically onto the slower network when LTE is available)".
    so..It only runs on LTE when LTE isn't available?

    Actual info: Our telstra rep gave us a demo a few days after they turned on the perth LTE network. It was pulling some very impressive speeds, peaking around 40mb and getting over 20mb sustained. Early adopters will get some great speeds until everybody starts to use it.

    He didn't mention the rural areas that will be covered. We use NextG primarily for remote workers, so that makes it a lot more tempting.

      Actual typo fixed :)

    Don't let them fool you by using "speed test". Any ISP can easily throttle websites and add exceptions.

    I think these sentences summarises what will happen.

    "very few users will experience the higher end of the claimed range of speeds. Inevitably, as more people use the network, the available speeds will also shrink".

    The only benefit i can see of LTE is that 3G dongles (and plans) might drop in price.

    Timely article, was just researching this in anticipation of getting a Nexus Prime or whichever 720p Android phone looks the best by xmas (there are a few 720p devices coming!). My main worry is they won't support the 1800MHz band that Telstra is using because the yanks use 700. I want whatever I get to support NextG and 1800MHz LTE.

    Do any overseas LTE phones work on the same frequency, and if so would they work here by switching to the new network automatically using an existing NextG SIM?

      A lot of overseas LTE uses 700MHz. For the moment, I think you'd need a specific SIM.

    Is there any timeframe on the portable Wi-Fi hotspot option?

    Are there any pricing/data limits available?

      I just spoke with a Telstra rep today, and his quote "Wifi hotspot hardware will not be ready until _after_ Feb 2012"

    James, the data plans and pricing are staying the same as the existing (well, new last week or whenever it was) e.g. ones.

    So, should I buy one or wait?

    ahem... is there any coverage in SA, or are we left behind again?

      Definitely Adelaide. I need to double-check others!

        Now re-updated with SA locations which fell out due to a production glitch; sorry about that!

    Angus – I think you need to do a bit more research on the term 4G.

    Firstly, whilst 4G is used by the marketing folk, it is also a standard as defined by the International Telecommunication Union. Thus we should be able to define what does meet the specifications of 4G and what does not. The technologies that are true 4G are LTE-Advanced and WirelessMAN-Advanced – neither of which are available in Australia.

    The interesting part is the qualifier from the ITU – 3G technologies (LTE, WiMax, HSPA+) can be called 4G if they are forerunners to true 4G technologies and present "a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed." If you note the language used by Telstra, they talk about the new network being “25 times faster than the speeds available on the 3G network when it first launched”. That probably means it qualifies for the 4G notation, although in my opinion it may be misleading (3G services are today much faster than they were when they first launched, and the fastest 3G services from Telstra are operating at 42Mbps - the same speeds as Telstra’s LTE service).

      Andrew, that's pretty much all covered in the 101 piece I point people to for further background.

        Angus, your 101 article does cover some of these points, but doesn't get into the changes made to the definition of 4G by the ITU last December (which explains why Telstra and others may be permitted to use the 4G term for technologies that are not truly 4G). I would also suggest that a lot of those important details were lost in your summation given in this article.
        Given how confusing the situation is (and not helped by the marketing folk and their actions, alongside mainstream media dumbing down the details) can we at least try to get clarity in these technology publications?

          My view is that the ITU 'technical' definition has been pretty much subsumed by the reality of 4G being a confusing marketing term. No-one is seeking permission before using it.

    "Telstra is maximising its profits by only offering the device on a 24-month contract" - not true Gus; much like the Ultimate WiFi, you can get it outright if you ask nicely.
    You can get the Telstra 4G USB for $299 outright from Telstra stores... not sure if unlocked though, and the 'BigPond 4G' is sold differently, even though it's the same device with a different splash of branding.

      Interesting to know -- but I specifically asked Telstra if there would be outright buy options and the response was 'no'. As the device wasn't on sale at that point, I had to go with that info!

    It’s not 4G it’s Telstra FakeG created by them Ericsson retards.

    The LTE-Basic frequency used in Europe and the USA is 700Mhz.

      True, but here in OZ the 700MHz band is/was used by analog TV. The AMCA will start auctions for this band in Feb 2012. If you have a spare billion $ or so you could buy some and start your own 4G service!

    FYI, Telstra has had a 4G compatible Android handset on the market since July 2011 - The Motorola Atrix! I bought one when they first came out and Telstra has confirmed that it will work just fine with their LTE/4G network. I don't even have to change my sim.

      No it's not. Hardware in Atrix won't work on LTE.

    Pre paid 3G sim does work in the 4G modems, telstra are typically just trying to get 2year contracts up.
    it will be overloaded in less than 12 months so contracts will be an expensive pain, Go the casual plans or Pre-paid.

    I have just brought the 4G usb stick through telstra. Heres the problem .. I want to use this to play my playstation.. MY question is how Can i do this???

    Can I create a wifi from it?
    CAn I plug the dongle straight into my playstation?
    Lastly I have a bigpond home gateway network, can I some how put my simcar in that?

    Hope u can help cheers mate

      Tricky for the Playstation. The ideal solution would be a Wi-Fi hotspot, but Telstra aren't selling a 4G-specific one yet. (You could use the SIM from the 4G in a 3G hotspot but that negates the point.)

      You can't connect the dongle directly AFAIK. Best solution I can think of: You can connect it to your laptop and share that connection wirelessly and then connect the PS3 to that.

        It won't make no difference and next g sim cards in a 4g lte modem will get lte speeds except for prepaid sim cards and i have spoken to telstra shop staff and a customer has broght a telstra lte modem and put a prepaid sim and said why don't i get 4g lte speeds and they say the sim will allow only umts speeds only. I would recamend the bigpond 4g lte modem at least if you go over you won't get charged excess data but they are incredablely fast and try it with iTunes and it is quite something to watch and i am on 15 gb per month for $79 with telstra bulk billing. If you haven't had bigpond before you can go up and down with data usage on the bigpond websight and bigpond don't have mobile numbers for the modems and you can't send text messages unless you go on the bigpond web sight and setup your telstra mobile phone number and like other modems you can send text messages strait from the software that comes with the modem and telstra versions do from the modem number its good if you don't want to give out your mobile number for someone to send you a text so they can't call you and the number won't take incoming calls you can ask at the shop to activate for phone call but it is very expensive.

          My IQ just went down 40 points from reading that. Please learn where the 'full-stop' key is on your keyboard.

            ...................................................................................................

    I currently have a bigpond ultimate USB stick on a contract but want to get on to this "4g" getup. I'm using a Huawei E856 MiFi device at the moment which supports the 1800mhz band, will I automatically get this new network or do I need a new sim?

    Will a standard contract Telstra next G sim card be able to access this LTE network in a Huawei E586 MiFi device?

    I picked up the Bigpond version of the LTE modem and i have been very happy with the speeds it can do and i have clocked 101 mbps download and 85 mbps in one of Brisbane's Queen street mall's shopping centre's up on the top floor. and i have got 85 mbps when on the bus on the way home and i was in the suburbs and the 1.8 ghz can go quite a distance from the tower and i can't wait when LTE gets onto the 700 mhz band and 2.6 ghz and then we will start seeing real speed and the 320u modem will run on the 2.6 ghz and 1.8 ghz. you should try download a movie off iTunes and it quite impressive to watch.

      Sean, it's clear that you work for Telstra.

    Hi. I'm in the Philippines now about to study in Sydney by Feb 2012. Motorola Droid Razr 4G is already available here. Will it work there in Australia?

      EL, depends on the specs of the handset from Philippines. To be compatible with Telstra in Oz it will need - 2G/EDGE on 900MHz, 3G/UTMS/HDSPA 850/2100MHZ and 4G/LTE(4x4MIMO) on 1800MHz. Hope this helped, good luck with your studies.

      PS - Telstra service is pricey, hope you can afford it. (Optus will start 4G in 2012, should be cheaper, their 3G is on 900/2100MHz) Note you will need 3G as back up as 4G will not have coverage everywhere.

    Operating System Support Windows 7 SP1
    Windows Vista
    Windows XP
    Mac OS X
    Linux Ubuntu 9.04

    I have a Telstra Turbo Next G usb dongle on a pay as you go. Now my work has given me a 4G. Can I rotate my sim cards to utilise the 4G dongle for my personal use or wont the 4G accept my prepaid sim card?

    I have this particular device up in Townsville Nth Qld. Using speedtest.net I could not even manage 1Mbs at home, on 2 different laptops. Later that morning in the local Telstra shop the same test managed 10.3Mbs! I have 3 of 5 bars of service. Any suggestions, please??

    Does anyone know if it is possible to use a vodafone sim in a telstra dongle? Telstra is such a rip off and I'd rather only use it as a last resort. However, it seems silly to need a different dongle for every sim...

    I have a client that has a Telstra Sierra USB 4G device. He is in Sarina (30Km out of Mackay) and has an external aerial which he was sold (it is a 3G aerial @ 850mHz) but doesn't seem to improve his signal (he gets 2 bars with or without the aerial). Do you have any suggestions to improve his signal strength? (He works at the mines and 300Km west of Mackay he gets 5 bars on his phone)
    Mark

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