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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 for 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.
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
- Telstra's 5G goes live on 28 May 2019
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 depending on your choice of 5G carrier.
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 most of the 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.
Telstra for its part will launch its 5G services on 28 May 2019 in Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart and Perth, but it will also launch on the Gold Coast, Launceston and Toowomba.
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 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.
Telstra doesn't want to give Optus any head start in 5G, and has announced that it will launch both a wireless hotspot and the first 5G phone in Australia on 28 May 2019. That's the HTC 5G Hub and Samsung Galaxy S10 5G respectively .
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.
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.
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.
However, the ACCC's decision to block the merger leaves Vodafone -- and for that matter TPG's -- 5G ambitions somewhat in the dark.
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 only additional cost we know of for now comes via Telstra. It's indicated that 5G will be viewed as a "bolt-on" option for plans from the end of June 2019. It'll be a free inclusion for the first 12 months of any plan, but after that unless you're on the top two tiers of pricing for your device plan, it'll cost you an additional $15 a month to get access to 5G speeds.
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?
The first 5G phone that will hit Australia will be the Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G.
It'll be an exclusive to Telstra at launch, but it won't be alone for long. Telstra also has announced plans to grab Oppo's upcoming 5G Reno phone, as has Optus. Optus hasn't announced any 5G mobile plans just yet, however. Telstra's also going to offer the the LG V50 ThinQ when it comes to market.
Huawei has its own 5G play in the the Huawei Mate X although it's not clear when (or if) that device will launch down under.
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. Apple had flipped over to Intel for its modem chips as part of its legal spat with Qualcomm, but it's expected that now that this has been settled it'll be working quickly to bring 5G to market. That being said, most pundits tip 2020 as the earliest we'll see a 5G iPhone.
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.
Does 5G pose a health risk?
The increased quantity of towers and repeaters needed for 5G networks understandably has some worried about the health risks that 5G networks may pose. So far, however, the vast majority of the credible science suggests that there's no real risk in play. You can read more about 5G and health here.
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