After completing its Hunter Valley trial, Optus officially launched its own 4G network in Sydney and Perth today for business customers. When will it hit your area? What will it cost? What gear does it support? And what exactly is '3G Plus'? We have all the answers.
Just as Telstra did last year, Optus is making its 4G network initially only available to business customers and only via 4G mobile broadband devices. We're told a consumer launch will follow soon and that launch will include handsets as well, but there's no fixed date for that right now. (You can get a business device if you have an ABN, but Optus is likely to prioritise its larger enterprise customers when allocating its initial batch of "a few thousand" 4G devices, though there's no official upper limit on how many customers can sign up.)
Where is the 4G service available? Initially, it will be available in the Sydney and Perth CBDs. You can see the range on the coverage maps below:
The Hunter Valley network remains in place, but Optus is changing the packet core software and its supported devices, so trial customers can't use that option anymore. The option to sign up for 4G should become available mid-August in the Hunter for business customers.
Melbourne is scheduled to begin activating 4G in CBD areas around the beginning of September, with Brisbane due at the end of the year and Adelaide at some point in 2013. Other areas will follow depending on demand.
How fast is it? At the launch event today, Optus claimed an average download speed of 47Mbps, with peaks of 60Mbps, and very low latency times of around 15ms, during its trial. If true, that would make the service faster than Telstra's 4G. Take those figures with a grain of salt; our own testing of the service in the Hunter didn't produce numbers anywhere near as high as that. The best download speed we saw all day was around 14Mbps, while Telstra peaked at 36Mbps.
What devices can you use? Right now, there are two options: a 4G USB dongle and a Wi-Fi hotspot, both manufactured by Huawei. (The pictured Sierra Wireless device that was used in the Hunter Valley trials is not being rolled out as a commercial product.)
How much does the service cost? Optus offers three plans. The cheapest is $34.95 a month with 10GB of data; $54.95 gets you 15GB a month; $74.95 gets you 20GB. Despite initially suggesting that month-to-month plans might be an option, Optus has now confirmed to Lifehacker that at this stage only contract deals will be available. On a 12-month contract, the USB dongle is an extra $11 a month, while the hotspot is $15 a month. On a 24-month contract, those prices drop to $5.50 and $7.50 respectively. All those allowances are more generous than Telstra's equivalent deals. Excess data is charged at $0.10 per megabyte.
Will there be an extra charge for accessing 4G? Not on the business plans. Optus declined to answer questions about whether the same arrangement would apply to consumer plans, saying that would be revealed at launch. Realistically, given that Telstra hasn't applied a 4G surcharge, it would be commercially foolhardy for it to try and impose a surcharge.
What happens outside of 4G areas? If you're outside 4G coverage areas (which is still most of the country), you'll fall back onto the 3G network. (During Optus' Newcastle trial, that wasn't an option, but that won't be the case for the main network?
Can I use an existing 4G phone on the network? The short answer: possibly, presuming you have a non-network-locked 4G phone that supports 1800MHz LTE and an Optus SIM. However, that might not work properly ahead of Optus' 4G launch.
What does Optus mean when it talks about 3G Plus? 3G Plus is the branding Optus is using for its reallocation of existing 2G towers to provide a 900MHz 3G service instead. That process, referred to as "refarming", improves network speed and coverage. Refarming has already been completed in Sydney and Perth, and is continuing in other areas. (Melbourne is due to finish at the end of August.)
Reallocating those services can make a significant difference, according to Optus' managing director network Gunther Ottendorfer. He pointed to the example of one pair of reallocated clusters: "We saw on the next day an increase of 12 per cent in data traffic, and it was not a one-off. Since then , we have seen a data traffic increase of those two clusters of about 30 per cent." In indoor areas, Optus claims the reallocated spectrum can improve performance by up to 25 per cent.
Will those network enhancements also work for other mobile companies that use the Optus network, such as Amaysim, Boost and Virgin Mobile? Optus declined to answer that question, saying it would be addressed when its consumer 4G service is launched. Note that neither its 3G or 4G plans immediately affect its partnership with Vodafone, which is largely about sharing tower sites rather than actual networks.
What is Optus doing with its other 4G spectrum? We already know that Optus is running tests with the LTE LDD spectrum it acquired when it purchased vividwireless earlier this year. Those tests continue, but there's no imminent prospect of getting to use the spectrum for everyday consumers yet.
Optus conducted a trial of 700MHz LTE in Bendigo last year, and plans to expand on that once that spectrum is sold off (something that will happen when digital TV rollout is concluded). As such, there's no firm timeframe attached, but Ottendorfer predicts that it will be important for coverage outside capital cities: "700MHz is a very good spectrum especially here in Australia for coverage in regional and rural areas."