Before you choose a mobile plan, it's worth knowing the difference between the three major Australian networks.
What you need to know
- All Australian mobile plans operate on either the Telstra, Optus or Vodafone networks.
- Telstra's network has the greatest coverage, but it's also typically the most expensive.
- Most smaller and cheaper telcos operate on the Optus network.
You can choose to sign up with dozens of different mobile carriers, but the practical reality is that your phone is only ever going to connect to one of three networks. Telstra's, Optus' and Vodafone’s mobile networks are the three essential back-end choices you’ve got for a mobile service.
Regardless of which carrier you decide to get a mobile plan from, understanding the differences between each of these three networks is a crucial part of knowing what you can expect from your provider. But before we start, here's a quick primer on the technical jargon that underlies all networks.
Understanding coverage maps
All of the carriers claim coverage figures well above 99%, which means that no matter where you are in Australia, you can get a mobile signal, right? Sadly, while you could read a claim of 99% coverage as seeming to indicate that nearly the entire Australian landmass is covered, what those figures actually relate to is the population of Australia.
As you're probably aware, while Australia is a vast continent, the majority of the population actually lives on a relatively thin strip of land hugging around the coastline, with actual population numbers declining sharply as you head inland.
This means that while telcos can accurately claim those figures, there are large areas that have little or no coverage at all. To be fair this does include some very significant desert areas where there would hopefully be few people anyway.
Larger regional centres have coverage, including 4G coverage depending on the network, but between towns and cities there can be significant coverage gaps.
The federal government's mobile blackspot program, currently being rolled out by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, is designed to address the areas most affected by poor mobile reception, but the size of the country and relatively small population makes this a difficult task.
If you're frequently in the most remote parts of Australia, a satellite phone may be the best solution for your needs, although it's worth noting that despite the fact telcos sell satellite phones, they don't actually run the networks these devices connect to.
All of the carriers are obliged to provide estimated coverage maps showing where they offer 3G and 4G services for mobiles, but these should always be taken with a certain grain of salt.
Spectrum matters: What do the frequency numbers mean?
All carriers operate their mobile networks on tightly regulated frequencies that they’re allocated to use, but not all carriers use the same frequencies. This relates to blocks of spectrum purchased by each telco from the Australian government, which regulates the use of public airwaves.
Which frequency you connect with will depend on the capabilities of your phone, as well as your proximity to a tower broadcasting at the relevant frequencies. It’s a delicate juggling act, because lower frequency signals have better travel characteristics for penetrating buildings or other obstacles that can impede mobile signals, but higher frequencies can carry more data.
For 4G LTE, carriers combine mobile frequencies to increase both the range and mobile speeds with what’s called "carrier aggregation", but this again depends on the capabilities of your given handset to determine how fast a connection you’ll be able to get.
The primary focus of mobile networks these days revolves around data, but that doesn’t mean that talk or text is going anywhere any time soon.
In fact, up until recently most smartphones had to use 3G networks to make phone calls, despite connecting to 4G LTE networks for data. But today the big three players all offer a technology called Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which allows call connections to be made on a 4G network, using the stronger data connections to improve voice quality on calls.
Carrier aggregation, FDD and TDD explained
The three telcos all operate on the quantities of available spectrum licensed to them by the federal government, but in order to deliver ever-increasing 4G LTE (4G Long Term Evolution) speeds, those spectrum blocks are sewn together to create even quicker and better travelling mobile signals.
This is a process called carrier aggregation, as individual spectrum holdings are combined when you’re in range of a compatible tower. Depending on where you are in Australia you won’t always be on a carrier aggregated network segment, but wherever you hit speeds higher than 150Mbps down, you’re using multiple spectrum streams.
Quite how you do this varies slightly by network, but essentially revolves around two different technical approaches. The most common approach is something called frequency division duplexing (FDD), which uses multiple network bands to boost performance.
The other primary approach, used currently only by Optus in Australia in limited areas is a technology called time division duplexing (TDD), which instead uses different time allotments on the same frequencies to achieve speed improvements on the network.
The device you use also plays an important part in the speeds you can achieve on a network, with the phone category speeds determined by the chip inside your smartphone.
- Frequencies used: 700Mhz, 850Mhz, 900Mhz, 1,800Mhz, 2,100MHz, 2,600MHz
- Connection technologies: 3G, 4G LTE
- Claimed coverage: 99.3% of Australian population
Telstra’s mobile network encompasses 3G and 4G frequencies, as well as 2G services, although those were decommissioned on 1 December 2016.
It operates primarily at the 1,800Mhz and 700Mhz frequencies, as well as 2,600Mhz services in limited locations. It’s the combination of these three frequencies that allows Telstra to bind them together using FDD aggregation technology to deliver some blisteringly fast speeds, at least in theory, on what it calls its "4GX" network.
Telstra was the big spender and therefore big winner in the auction of 700Mhz frequencies that had previously been used for analog TV transmissions. This means that in both metropolitan and regional areas, Telstra has significant 700Mhz presence and as a result, a significantly wider field of 4G availability.
While all three networks are chasing more and more of the population, it’s Telstra in effect that they’re chasing in terms of overall coverage.
Telstra dubs its 4G network as "4GX", but rather like its use of "NextG" to describe its 3G network, this is a marketing term rather than a strict specification of any kind.
That being said, Telstra’s network has the advantage of being the most technologically advanced in the country, with its category 16 Nighthawk M1 Wi-Fi hotspot capable of Internet speeds of up to 1Gbps. Owners of recent smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the iPhone 8 can also enjoy the gigabit speeds of category 16 in select areas of the country.
Telstra does make its network available to mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) through its Telstra wholesale arm, but there are some significant limitations at play for any Telstra MVNO.
Telstra only provides what it refers to as "parts of" its 3G and 4G networks. What this means in real-world use is a slightly smaller network coverage map, although unless you’re in relatively remote areas of Australia you’re not likely to notice the difference between the wholesale and full retail Telstra networks.
However, where you would see a difference is in network speeds. Telstra wholesale does provide access to the carrier’s 700Mhz and 1,800Mhz networks, but with speeds capped at a hard 100Mbps down, usually stated as a realistic expectation of typical speeds between 2 and 50Mbps.
Depending on your location and device, you may experience significantly higher speeds on the full Telstra network, albeit at a premium price point.
- Frequencies used: 700MHz, 900Mhz (3G), 1,800Mhz, 2,100MHz, 2,300MHz, 2,600MHz
- Connection Technologies: 3G, 4G LTE
- Claimed coverage: 98.5% of Australian population
Optus is unique in that it offers a mix of FDD and TDD aggregation technologies, with TDD most significantly deployed in Canberra and FDD elsewhere. It has spectrum holdings in the 700Mhz band, albeit less than Telstra’s similar offerings, but a wider range of holdings elsewhere higher in the spectrum band.
Higher frequency spectrum can typically deliver more data than lower spectrum, but it’s always a balancing act between users, physical location and actual real-world speeds.
In most analysis Optus typically runs head-to-head with Vodafone in terms of achieved end-user speeds behind Telstra, but that’s also reflected in its pricing, which is often significantly lower than that of Telstra. Like Telstra, it recently retired its 2G network, switching it off on 1 April 2017.
Optus dubs its aggregated 4G network as "4G Plus", but rather like Telstra's "4GX" this is a pure marketing term rather than any kind of formal standard to speak of. Optus offers connectivity for devices up to category 9, but only in selected capital city CBD areas and Newcastle, where it conducts a lot of its mobile testing.
Optus is by far the carrier of choice for most MVNOs, offering access to its full Optus 4G network to all of its MVNO partners. In theory this should mean that the differences between being a "full" Optus customer or a customer of one of its MVNOs should be nil in pure network connectivity terms.
- Frequencies used: 850MHz (3G) 900Mhz, 1,800Mhz, 2,100MHz (3G)
- Connection Technologies: 3G, 4G LTE
- Claimed coverage: 96% of Australian population
Until recently, Vodafone didn't have its own spectrum holdings in the 700Mhz space, having declined to take part in the "digital dividend" auction back when analog TV services were decommissioned. However, in April 2017 it acquired additional bandwidth in the unused 700Mhz spectrum from the government, growing its coverage to better compete with Optus and Telstra.
Where Vodafone claims some level of advantage over Optus and Telstra is in having larger blocks of contiguous spectrum, which allows devices on the Vodafone network to take advantage of a wider bandwidth.
Vodafone famously suffered through the "Vodafail" debacle back in 2011 that saw large sections of its mobile network virtually collapse, but since then the telco has spent significantly on rebuilding its network.
Today, it now makes a point of difference both the quantity of work being done on its network, but also the improvements to overall coverage and average speeds. Vodafone switched off its 2G network on 30 June 2018.
Vodafone has somewhat dialled back its dealings with MVNO partners in recent years, although it does have some significant MVNO brands using its services. TPG and Kogan operate their mobile services on Vodafone's 4G network, while lower-cost services such as CMobile and KISS Mobile utilise Vodafone's 3G networks.
Compare Telstra vs Optus vs Vodafone mobile plans
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