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Telstra vs Optus vs Vodafone: What’s the difference?
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
Spectrum matters: What do the frequency numbers mean?
Carrier aggregation, FDD and TDD explained
Telstra vs Optus vs Vodafone at a glance
|4G coverage||Covers 1,600 Australian towns and communities||Covers 98.5% of the Australian population||Covers over 22 million Australians|
|5G launch||2019||Early 2019||2020|
- Frequencies used: 700Mhz, 850Mhz, 900Mhz, 1,800Mhz, 2,100MHz, 2,600MHz
- Connection technologies: 3G, 4G LTE
- Claimed coverage: 99.3% of Australian population
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
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
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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