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5G in Australia: the future of mobile networks
Vastly increased speed and reliability will be available from 2019 with the 5G rollout.
What we know so far
- 5G is the next big thing in mobile network standards
- It will be much, much faster than current 3G and 4G speeds (up to 20Gbps, maybe more)
- Optus and Telstra have announced 5G availability early in 2019
- Phone manufacturers will release the first 5G compatible phones in mid-2019.
If you've purchased a mobile handset in the past couple of years, you'll have seen terms like 3G and 4G. Most phone plans these days operate on Australia's 4G networks, though 3G remains in use in some areas or for some high-data quota plans. The last of Australia's . 2G networks were switched off by 2018. The next big evolution in mobile networks is just around the corner in the fifth generation, usually referred to as 5G.
What is 5G?
- The next generation in mobile networks is for mass connectivity
- It'll be much faster than 4G, and should limit peak time congestion too
At an exceptionally basic level, 5G networks will be the fifth generation of mobile network standards used worldwide. The initial generation of mobile networks was purely focused on calls, while 2G services added enough capacity to handle phone-to-phone text messaging.
The introduction of 3G networks improved data capabilities to handle internet usage, something that was greatly expanded with the birth of 4G networks, and especially the LTE (Long Term Evolution) and LTE-A (Long Term Evolution Advanced) enhancements of the basic 4G specification. Those specifications top out at a theoretical download rate of 1Gbps, which is part of where 5G comes in.
One of the key aspects of 5G connectivity that the new networks should bring is a radical upswing in data rates, both for download and upload. We’re never likely to see identical download and upload rates, but then the vast majority of usage online is in a download scenario (watching videos, installing apps).
5G networks should be able to handle data rates of up to 20Gbps down, possibly more as networks evolve. The current standards suggest that the minimum data rate for a 5G network should start at 100Mbps, which is seriously fast. Bear in mind that this is the lowest rate you should get, and you can see why so many people are excited about what 5G could bring to consumers.
With the standards yet to be finalised, you could ask a dozen different network operators what their speed expectations for 5G are likely to be and get a dozen different answers.
Here in Australia, we’re sitting at the forefront of mobile network technologies and speed expectations, and as such, on the speed front, we’re quite likely to be cutting edge. We’re expecting to see networks that will start at 10Gbps download rates, and scale up markedly from there. As it has done with 4G networks, we can expect to see an evolution in 5G throughput as networks are optimised and new devices (both at a network and consumer end) come to market.
However, it’s not just about speeds. One factor that has led to a lot of consumer dissatisfaction with 4G networks has been the issues around congestion during peak times. 4G networks can handle huge quantities of data compared to their 3G predecessors, but even they have their limits.
The underlying design of 5G networks is for mass scale device connectivity, to also tie into an expected sharp rise in the number of connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This is everything from smart door sensors to fully intelligent home appliances, security services and monitoring stations, as well as more traditional networked IT equipment.
The core idea here is that every device, and especially those that require consistent connectivity, will be able to get it from 5G networks. In order to effectively handle thousands of clients from a single cell, radical network re-engineering is required from all three of Australia’s networks.
When can I get 5G?
- Limited access in 2019, and more in 2020
- Access will depend largely on where you live
- Telstra and Optus are both talking up their regional 5G plans.
- Optus has launched its 5G Home Broadband plans
The precise time when you'll be able to hook into 5G networks in Australia will depend in a large part on where you live, and then on how you actually want to connect. In short, if you're keen, be in or near the CBD of Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane (and possibly also Queensland's Gold Coast), but don't plan on being particularly mobile with your 5G connection.
With the auction for 3.8GHz spectrum concluded, we've now got a wider picture of likely 5G availability.
While it's expected that capital cities will see 5G action first -- if only because that's where a lot of Australia's population actually works and lives -- both Telstra and Optus have indicated plans to stretch out to regional areas as rapidly as possible. Optus' spin on its 3.8GHz spectrum buy was entirely around how it plans to use it to service regional areas, with its existing 3.4GHz spectrum holdings doing the heavy lifting for metropolitan users.
Early estimates for 5G network availability tended to rest on the idea that they would be available in 2020, but here in Australia we'll see at least two 5G networks available in 2019.
Optus came out early stating that it would . commence 5G services in "early 2019", and it followed up with this by launching its 5G Home Broadband services... sort of.
Optus early 5G lab tests hit a claimed 35Gbps, although those speeds will almost certainly drop in real-world usage. However, Optus' early plans for 5G are all around providing fixed wireless broadband services to devices in a fixed location, rather than a 5G network for mobile devices.
Optus 5G Home Broadband services are, as at January 2019 only available as an expression of interest in a service to actually launch around mid-2019, and only in selected suburbs of NSW, QLD, SA, ACT and WA. Sorry Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. No Optus 5G Home broadband for you, at least not yet. We've written up the full details of the Optus 5G Home Broadband service here if you're keen.
Telstra CEO Andy Penn has indicated that it intends to be "amongst the world's first" to launch a 5G network, and it likewise plans to launch services on its 5G network in early 2019.
Telstra doesn't want to give Optus any head start in 5G, although its focus appears to be a on a mix of fixed broadband 5G and mobile 5G, having secured exclusives on some of the first 5G smartphone models likely to hit the market. Telstra's statements about 5G networks do suggest that it plans to aggressively roll out to more regional areas rapidly, a strategy it also used for the rollout of its 4G networks.
Telstra announced in late 2018 that it had already been granted access to its 3.6GHz spectrum holdings to roll out its 5G network, which at a technical level meant it was "live" at that point. That's largely a technical observation, however, as at that time nobody had access to actual 5G consumer devices anyway.
Vodafone hasn't made any official statements around 5G network availability recently, but having lagged significantly on its own rollout of 4G services compared to Optus and particularly Telstra, it's unlikely to hang around to implement its own 5G network services. Vodafone has undertaken trials with 5G technologies hitting an impressive 5Gbps, so it's clearly working hard in this space. It's expected that we'll see Vodafone 5G by or in 2020.
The announcement that Vodafone and TPG are set to merge has implications for its 5G rollout as well.
One significant part of that merger announcement was that TPG and Vodafone would join together to bid on the vital spectrum holdings for 5G networks. Even if the actual merger falls over for logistical reasons, they're committed to sharing that spectrum once bid on, which means that any given 5G network that emerges will be (effectively) a TPG/Vodafone hybrid network. TPG/Vodafone spent up big in the 5G 3.6GHz network auction, giving it significant scope to roll out its 5G network.
What if you're on a smaller mobile provider? Historically speaking, Telstra's not keen on sharing its higher speed network goodies with its MVNO partners, so if you're with ALDI Mobile or Woolworths Mobile for example, 5G could be some time away.
Optus has been significantly more forward in opening its network up over time, and it currently has the widest swathe of mobile network partners in Australia. It's conceivable that Optus network based carriers could offer 5G sooner rather than later.
Vodafone doesn't actually have all that many MVNOs on its books, although it does provide the network services for Kogan Mobile, and if you're a customer there, it may be some time before you see 5G.
Will 5G be better than NBN?
- Theoretically, 5G is slated to be capable of faster speeds than the NBN
- However, it's unlikely that it'll be a competitor due to congestion, interference & overall cost
At a strictly technical level, both 5G and the various technologies that make up Australia's National Broadband Network perform the same task. They're both intended for high speed data transport, with most of the NBN's footprint in fixed line technologies such as fibre to the node (FTTN) and fibre to the premises (FTTP). 5G is, of course, an entirely wireless data broadcast medium.
Right now for consumers, the fastest NBN plan tops out at speeds up to 100Mbps, while the top end of 5G is expected to hit 20GBps, some 200x faster at peak. Easy victory for 5G, right?
Not so fast -- quite literally. Even the telcos rolling out 5G see it as a "complimentary" product to fixed line NBN services, because any broadband service that relies on over-the-air transmission is subject to significant variation in network speeds due to interference factors. Wireless networks are by definition shared spectrum, so if you're trying to do some fast data work on a heavily used 5G network, you'll have to struggle through everyone else's congestion too.
The current bands being rolled out (and the spectrum being sold) for 5G networks has some significant challenges in travelling over larger distances, where a fixed line connection only has concerns over the quality of the actual physical cable used. Some telcos have talked about using their NBN points of connection as routing points for 5G services, due to the greater reliability of the NBN network for data transfer.
If you're in the footprint of the NBN that uses fixed wireless, you're currently (effectively) using a 4G connection, and while it hasn't announced specific plans just yet, it's expected over time that NBN Co may transition those plans over to 5G technologies to give fixed wireless NBN consumers greater speeds.
Then there's the question of ongoing data costs. While we've seen the first unlimited data mobile plans emerge in Australia in 2018, these typically work off data quotas and speed shaping once those quotas are exhausted. Unlimited plans are still the minority, with most mobile broadband and mobile phone plans attracting excess data charges that can quickly rack up if you're not careful.
The majority of NBN plans work off a simple unlimited data construct that can keep your overall data costs much lower. While it's likely that we'll see ever increasing data inclusions on mobile phone and mobile broadband plans as 5G rolls out, for now, economically speaking NBN connections are likely to be much cheaper for heavy data users.
Which 5G phones are available?
Right now, absolutely none. The first 5G devices you'll be able to buy will be fixed broadband modems, and it's fairly likely that the next devices will be mobile broadband 5G hotspots.
Which isn't to say that the major phone manufacturers aren't working at a frantic pace to bring 5G compatible handsets to market. Samsung announced its first 5G handset ahead of Mobile World Congress 2019, revealing the appropriately-named Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G. This was swiftly followed by Huawei announcing the Huawei Mate X and LG unveiling the LG V50 ThinQ, both high-end handsets that will support 5G when they release later in 2019.
Even low-cost handset maker Alcatel is said to be working on 5G handsets for release in 2019 or 2020 as the market matures. Most will, or are expected to use Qualcomm's X50 5G modem as the base of their 5G phones.
If you're an Apple fan, however, the picture is much less distinct. None of Apple's 2018 output of iPhones feature 5G connectivity, and its switch over to using Intel's 8161 5G modem chips for its phone lines may see it further behind the rest of the phone pack, with current rumours suggesting we won't see a 5G-enabled iPhone until 2020 at the earliest.
Will I be able to update my 4G handset to 5G?
If you’re talking about a handset you’re currently holding, almost certainly not. It’s feasible that handsets that come to market in 2019 or 2020 may include the relevant radios and specifications for 5G upgrades via software, but for existing mobiles, the differences in the way 5G is proposed to work make a software upgrade path all but impossible.
While manufacturers have experimented with modular phones, whether it’s LG’s G5 or Google’s now-defunct Project ARA, it’s feasible that such a handset approach could include swappable radio modules that made some future handset hardware upgradeable. In the US, Motorola does sell a 5G Moto Mod for its Moto Mod compatible handsets (like the Motorola Moto Z3 Play), that's for US network Verizon only, with no planned Australian compatibility. It's feasible down the track that Motorola might offer a 5G mod of some kind for Australian audiences, but there's nothing like that announced just yet.
As a result, when 5G comes around, the most likely scenario is that you’re going to have to get a new handset to access the network if that's what you want.
However, you might want to hold off on that that plan. It’s entirely likely that your existing 4G handset will conk out long before 4G networks themselves are decommissioned.
Any handset you’ve got right now that connects to Australian 4G networks should be just fine through the early implementation phase of 5G. The telcos are in no way interested in dumping a huge swathe of customers simply because there’s a new technology in town. The frequencies for full 5G networks differ from existing 4G technology, and there will eventually be some reassigning of network resources over time. Nobody is likely to rush into that scenario if it means losing customers.
Consider, for example, that the first 3G phones started hitting Australia in 2003, but that wasn’t the death knell for 2G phones in any real way.
That’s an effective 15 year gap between the new networks moving in and the old ones being decommissioned. The odds of your 4G phone lasting for 15 years alone seem low, and as such, the co-existence of 4G and 5G should see you through to a point where 5G phones are considerably more common at all price points.
Need a cheap phone to get you by until the 5G network rolls out?
Alex Kidman is the tech and telco editor at Finder. He's written about technology for more than 20 years and makes regular TV and radio appearances to discuss tech issues across the nation. His previous roles include editor for Gizmodo Australia, editor for PC Magazine Australia, editor at CNET Australia and reviews editor at Australian Personal Computer. In addition, he's written for numerous publications including the Australian Financial Review, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Courier Mail, ZDNet Australia, PC World, Good Gear Guide, Macworld Australia, GameSpot, Kotaku and many more. Alex has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New England and a serious passion for retro gaming.
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