How fast is Telstra’s new 5G network?

Alex Kidman 14 June 2019 NEWS

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G Speed Test

We've put Telstra's 5G network to the test across multiple states to separate the speed hype from the somewhat more variable reality.

We're in the middle of a 5G hype wave at the moment, with Telstra having launched a trio of new phones and an innovative 5G hotspot to feed the nation's desire for fast mobile broadband.

How fast is 5G, though? It's a question that Telstra is rather reluctant to answer, telling me at its 5G launch that its broad expectation was that 5G in its current iteration should be up to twice as fast as existing 4G.

That's a long way from the 5G hype that promised speeds hitting over 30Gbps, but it's not an entirely unfair call. Future 5G roadmaps call for use of millimetre wave spectrum, and nobody – not even Telstra – has legislated access to that as yet. The current Telstra 5G network is running on 2.4Ghz frequencies, and that means there are some hard limits on just how fast it might be.

Telstra's own demonstrations of how fast its new phones can get have certainly been impressive. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G hit 1.2Gbps in my presence at its launch in Telstra's Experience Centre in the middle of Sydney. The LG V50 ThinQ achieved similar speed results. Both were outdone by the Oppo Reno 5G, which peaked towards 2Gbps in the same location.

Telstra representatives have assured me that the network in use in those locations was the live Telstra 5G network, although it's got to be a rather concentrated pocket of coverage in that case.

Telstra doesn't list the location on its 5G coverage maps at all, and trying to access the 5G network at street level failed to work every time I tried. Australian 5G consumers aren't all going to want to cluster around Telstra's offices for a high speed data fix. Frankly, they're not going to let you upstairs to try, even if you ask really nicely.

The only way to resolve the question of real-world 5G speeds was to do some live testing.

Telstra does publish coverage maps for the currently live 5G locations that show pockets of coverage in most major capital cities, as well as selected locations in Queensland and Tasmania. It's not an extensive network just yet, although Telstra is quite keen to point out that it's working to rapidly expand its coverage zones.

Telstra 5G: The multi-city test

HTC 5G Hub
The first device to land in Finder's testing labs was the HTC 5G Hub. It's a hotspot product that's unlike any other hotspot Telstra has offered before, and not just because it's 5G compatible. It's also essentially a high-end Android device in its own right.

Angus Kidman, Finder's Editor in Chief, happened to be heading to Adelaide the day the HTC 5G Hub turned up. I passed the HTC 5G Hub to him to ensure we weren't just checking out Sydney's 5G coverage zones.

Telstra's blobby 5G coverage maps suggest that there should be spots of 5G coverage across much of Adelaide, from Elizabeth in the north and further south of Adelaide in Port Noarlunga.

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Telstra 5G Coverage 28 May 2019 Image: Telstra

Angus didn't have the time to trawl every last bit of coverage in South Australia, but he was landing at Adelaide Airport – a 5G coverage zone – and spending significant time in the Adelaide CBD, where there's also meant to be 5G coverage.

Angus' Adelaide 5G adventure drew very mixed results. Despite being on the coverage maps, there wasn't a single sniff of 5G to be seen throughout the Airport or its environs. Your odds of quickly downloading a series to binge-watch before boarding your flight right now seem low as a result.

In the Adelaide CBD, he had more luck in finding a signal and grabbing a few speed tests. On average, the HTC 5G Hub hit 182Mbps downstream and 44.2Mbps for uploads in the Adelaide CBD.

Telstra Sydney 5G coverage May 2019

Telstra 5G Coverage 28 May 2019 Image: Telstra

Sydney also has 5G coverage, including around Sydney Airport, although again frustratingly, the HTC 5G Hub would find and connect to 4G without trouble, but without a sniff of any 5G signals.

On his return, Angus also checked out the coverage area around Milsons Point. Just under the north end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Telstra's maps suggest there should be 5G coverage, and he was able to hit an average of 198Mbps down and 24.2Mbps up. Impressively, this was on a moving train, although that did mean it's an average of only two tests before the HTC 5G Hub jumped back to 4G coverage only.

Unusually, while waiting on the platform at Wynyard station, the HTC 5G Hub rather randomly decided to latch onto 5G coverage that doesn't appear on Telstra's coverage maps. The HTC 5G Hub can be a little laggy when it comes to telling you that it's switched network types, but this was reported as 5G both on the splash screen and by the underlying Android UI. Standing still on a station in an area that actually doesn't appear to have 5G coverage, he hit an impressive average of 218.66Mbps down and a less stellar 10.4Mbps up.

Angus was using the HTC 5G Hub as a mobile hotspot, which is very much its purpose. However, that does involve a certain amount of inevitable data loss, because packets have to get from the Hub itself to a connected laptop, tablet or phone. Along the way, they're fighting for space with every other Wi-Fi device, so there's potential for some serious speed loss.

It's quite feasible that testing on-device could yield better speeds. So that's what I set out to do.

Telstra 5G: The multi-device test part 1

Oppo Reno 5G signal indicator
With the Oppo Reno 5G, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and HTC 5G Hub in hand, I set out to Milsons Point to sit in the heart of one of Telstra's 5G zones and let its network wash all that fast 5G data over me.

As 5G test environments go, this one has a pretty spectacular view.

As 5G test environments go, this one has a pretty spectacular view.

Mobile networks are by their nature quite variable, and it took me some walking around to find a position where all 3 devices could "see" a 5G network.

To Telstra's credit, I hit full bars of 5G coverage on every device, and they connected quickly to the network, even when I rebooted them.

However, that's really where the good news for Telstra largely stops, because the 5G experience I got over an hour's testing was wildly variable. The HTC 5G Hub recorded the highest download/upload speeds at an average of 136/35.1Mbps, but that included several tests that I threw out because the Hub all too often refused to connect to a compatible server.

The same issue hit the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which peaked at 111/14.1Mbps for download/upload speeds, but nowhere to the same extent as the Oppo Reno 5G.

The Oppo Reno 5G connected rapidly to the Telstra 5G network, and it was the fastest in Telstra's 5G demonstrations, so my hopes were high for its overall performance figures. However, despite reporting a full 5G connection to the network, this didn't mean it was happy to serve data down to the phone for speed tests in any way. Over an hour, multiple reboots and many failed tests, it completely refused to work on 5G at all in any way.

Annoyingly, if I forced to drop to 4G, it was entirely happy to work and test. That did show speeds lower than I was getting on the other 5G devices, at around 70/10Mbps, so Telstra's claims about 5G speeds being higher may prove to be true – but that only works if there's an active and live data feed to use!

Telstra 5G: The multi-device test part 2

Telstra 5G speed test on Oppo Reno 5G
There was still one device missing from my round-up, because a review model of the LG V50 ThinQ hadn't landed in Finder's test labs at the time of testing. Once that arrived, I headed back to Milson's Point for a little more 5G testing, and to give 5G a chance to redeem itself.

Mostly, it did, especially in the case of the Oppo Reno 5G. In my first test, it wouldn't talk to 5G data at all, but in the second it kept pace with the pack and utterly obliterated it for upload speeds. Telstra says that it's not only building 5G in new locations, but also working to expand its coverage in areas where it's already rolled out, and this seems to be playing out, albeit still in quite limited areas.

They are still much slower speeds than I've seen in Telstra's labs, but plenty for most current mobile uses. For a point of contrast, I also tested a Huawei P30 Pro on Telstra 4G at the same location, to see how the 4G network compared.

As chance would have it, I wasn't the only person testing 5G at that time; Telstra has provided devices to a range of tech publications and many of them were in the same location. This meant that the 5G network was (in theory) being even more stressed by usage than it might otherwise expect. Still, it handled the strain fairly well for an open-air location.

Telstra 5G: Full comparative results

Telstra 5G: Early conclusions

Telstra 5G Wall display
It is very early days in the evolution of 5G, and even Telstra admits this. At its 5G launch, it talked of the software being live but in "beta" form, and that's pretty clear from my own 5G experiences to date. There's a lot of promise in 5G in terms of speed and access, but right now it seems somewhat elusive.

That's certainly not just my conclusion, either; John Davidson at the AFR writes of very similar experiences trying to get 5G to work chasing it across Sydney.

Does that mean it's not worth buying the new generation of 5G devices? Not entirely. While 5G as a network access technology needs improvement, there's quite a lot to like about these premium devices, whether you're talking the full-screen effort of the Oppo Reno 5G, the dual-screen appeal of the LG V50 ThinQ or the premium package and high-end camera of the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

The HTC 5G Hub is unlike any other hotspot I've ever tested, and our full reviews of all 4 devices are coming soon. However, right now there doesn't seem to be a huge impetus to rush into 5G just for the speed, because you're probably going to struggle to find any.

We'll continue to test 5G as much as possible to provide more comparative data for Telstra's 5G coverage zones, as well as Optus and Vodafone when they come online.

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