Telstra has long been the go-to provider for rural Australians due to its larger network footprint. However, new research shows Optus 4G mobile connections are faster and more available in regional and remote Australia. But Telstra says the numbers don't tell the whole story. So who is telling the truth?
Telstra has hit back at 4G research showing Australian regional phone users would get better coverage from Optus if both telcos killed off their ageing 3G networks today.
As Telstra prepares to shut down its 3G network in 2024, the telco's 4G regional speeds and availability have slipped behind rival Optus in a survey of Australian coverage by independent mobile analytics company Opensignal.
While Telstra is the clear winner in "major cities" in terms of 4G download speeds and availability, Optus comes out slightly ahead in regional and remote Australia.
In Australia’s largest cities, Telstra users experience a significantly faster average download speed of 51.6 Mbps, compared with Optus (39.2 Mbps) and Vodafone (36 Mbps). Telstra also comes out in front in terms of availability, slightly ahead of Optus and then Vodafone.
Moving further away from densely populated areas, Telstra's average download speeds and availability drop away more quickly, leaving Optus slightly ahead.
"This difference reflects the business and technology strategies of Australia’s major operators," according to the Opensignal report.
"Telstra aspires to offer national service focused on geographic reach, while Vodafone has historically focused on covering population centres — not the greatest number of square kilometres served — but Vodafone has been investing greatly to improve the reach of its service, and Optus’s approach has fallen somewhere in between."
The results appear to reveal how much Telstra still relies on its 3G network to reach regional and remote customers, highlighting the work required to improve its 4G footprint before it shuts down 3G. Meanwhile, Optus is yet to declare a shutdown date for its 3G network.
Opensignal’s findings are "another reminder that Telstra’s network supremacy is a myth," according to Optus vice president of regulatory and public affairs Andrew Sheridan.
"For too long regional Australia was held to ransom by the incumbent carrier so Optus committed to expand our footprint, improve coverage and provide real choice and competition," he says.
"We are confident in the strength and breadth of network coverage nationally and recently announced regional customers in more than 1400 locations nationally could receive three months free on plans on selected new mobile services."
Opensignal's classifications of regional and remote Australia are defined using Australian Bureau of Statistics data and the University of Adelaide's Accessibility and Remoteness Index of Australia.
Rather than dispute Opensignal's definitions of regional and remote Australia, Telstra instead challenges the way Opensignal gathers and collates data.
Telstra's average speed and availability figures are distorted by the extent of its 4G footprint, according to a Telstra spokesperson, with the speed and availability numbers from Telstra customers in remote areas — where the signal is weaker but rival networks offer no coverage — dragging down the average.
"Because Telstra has much greater coverage in remote areas we attract more customers in these areas regardless of whether they live on the edge, or outside coverage, or travelling through areas of no coverage," the spokesperson says.
"Opensignal measure this as a lower 4G availability compared to a carrier with a smaller coverage in population centres only, where their customers generally stay put inside that coverage footprint."
Only 0.3 per cent of the population has 3G-only service, and Telstra is working towards expanding its 4G coverage to "a similar size and reach" of its 3G network before it turns 3G off.
"When you look across the various reports on Australia’s mobile networks the results are clear," the Telstra spokesperson says. "Independent studies and our own investigations have Telstra as consistently rated the best, highest quality, or fastest mobile network in Australia. We are confident this will continue."
Opensignal declined to comment on Telstra's concerns, although a spokesperson said the research company stands by its analysis.