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.