OK, 4G is faster for data than 3G, but just how much faster? And what's the difference between the 4G networks for Telstra, Optus and Vodafone?
If you look at the advertising for any of the "big three" telecommunications networks in Australia, it's all about 4G and how much faster and better it is. Better is hard to argue with, but what does it actually mean in practical terms? To answer that, let's first examine what 4G actually is.
4G is the fourth generation of telecommunications networks deployed worldwide and is sometimes referred to as Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks. It uses radio frequencies to enable wireless communication between devices such as mobile phones and tablets, allowing them to connect to the Internet quickly and easily without being chained to a single location.
It's important to note that 4G is primarily an Internet technology: even if you're connected to a 4G network, making traditional phone calls or sending texts will most likely occur over 3G. That said, some phones support a technology known as VoLTE that enables voice and video calls over 4G, though this feature must be activated by your telco before you can use it.
As the successor to 3G, the 4G network is capable of delivering significantly faster speeds within its coverage areas. Where 4G coverage is unavailable, it simply falls back to the 3G network.
Wireless networks operate on bands of the radio spectrum. In Australia, 3G networks are typically confined to the 850MHz, 900MHz and 2,100MHz frequencies, whereas 4G adds 700MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,300MHz and 2,600MHz to the mix. Those additional spectrums are key to 4G's higher speeds, increasing typical download rates from the 550kbps – 20Mbps range of 3G to a zippier 2Mbps – 50Mbps.
Those higher speeds come at a cost, though. The 4G footprint is noticeably smaller than 3G, especially in rural areas of the country. Optus' 4G Plus network, for instance, covers 96.5% of the population while its 3G network reaches 98.5%. That might not seem like a significant difference, but it amounts to around half a million Aussies living outside the reach of 4G.
Hardware is another limiting factor for accessing the 4G network. Devices must be explicitly 4G-compatible to work with the faster network, meaning older smartphones and even some newer feature phones simply cannot connect to it. Compatibility isn't the only concern, either, as different 4G-friendly devices have different maximum network speeds denoted by their network category rating. This can lead to some phones experiencing a slower connection even in areas of strong 4G reception.
While the benefits of 4G are relatively clear-cut on paper, in reality 4G performance in Australia can vary significantly from provider to provider. Telcos like to throw around high numbers for their respective 4G networks, but it's important to take those claims with a grain of salt since they typically represent the maximum theoretical performance rather than a practical average.
These figures are often reached under optimal conditions in a laboratory or when there are no competing signals in the vicinity. Real life doesn't work like that, so you'll want to temper your expectations when comparing 4G speed claims.
As an example, Telstra says that its main CAT4 LTE 4G network offers "typical" speeds of 2–50Mbps, whereas its "4GX" 700Mhz LTE 4G network offers "typical" speeds of 2–100Mbps. You'll note how the maximum speeds there change, but the floor remains constant. By way of comparison, Telstra rates its older 3G network (including the eHSPA+ section sold as "Next G") as capable of download speeds between 550kbps and 42Mbps.
Issues such as network access, Internet congestion and interference can make wireless access a highly variable experience. In theory, 4G networks should be faster than 3G, but if you're on the 3G bands and one of the few users in a particular network location, you could get better speeds than those on a crowded 4G cell. However, the upper limit on 3G performance is still present.
The other factor to bear in mind for 4G data services is that they're asynchronous, which means you'll get much higher download speeds than upload speeds. If all you're doing is streaming video or downloading large files that might not matter so much, but if you're filming that video yourself and hoping to upload it to YouTube, you'll likely notice the lower upload speeds.
Telstra operates both 3G and 4G networks in Australia, as well as what it calls "4GX", although rather like the "NextG" branding it applies to its 3G network, it's purely a marketing term. In the 3G space, it operates networks that operate at the 850Mhz and 2,100Mhz bands. In terms of 4G, it has networks that operate at 900MHz, 1,800MHz and 2,100MHz frequencies, as well as 700Mhz – that's the faster 4GX network – and some minor 2,600Mhz frequency holdings, although so far there's no consumer-facing network using 2,600Mhz.
Telstra claims the widest network penetration of any Australian mobile network. You can check your precise location against Telstra's network map.
Telstra claims 99% population coverage for its 4G networks, although you've got to qualify that against the fact that the Australian population is largely centred on the coastlines and larger metropolitan areas. Telstra's 700Mhz 4GX network is a little more restricted. No network actually covers every square kilometre of Australia, but Telstra's regional coverage is a little wider than its competitors once you take its 3G networks into account.
Vodafone offers network access across 3 frequencies in the 3G space (850MHz, 900MHz and 2,100MHz) and 3 more for 4G networks (850Mhz, 1,800MHz and 2,100Mhz).
Vodafone's claim is that it covers more than 22 million Australians with its 4G network, but again that means most of its network is concentrated on the country's population centres. You can check Vodafone's coverage relative to where you live or work using Vodafone's coverage tool.
Optus' 3G networks operate at 900Mhz and 2,100Mhz, but in the 4G space it presents a very complex picture. It has 700Mhz and 1,800MHz 4G networks using frequency division duplex (FDD) technology, just like Telstra, but it also has 2,100Mhz and 2,600Mhz networks in some locations, as well as a 2,300Mhz time division duplex (TDD) network that operates in Canberra only.
Optus' claim is that it covers 96.5% of the Australian population with 4G and you can check your area's coverage using the Optus coverage tool .
Do I have to go with one of the big three?
For most Aussies, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone represent the only choices in the 4G space. Back in 2017, TPG announced it would be rolling out its own 4G mobile network to rival the big three sometime in 2018, but there's been little in the way of news on that front since.
In the meantime, you don't have to buy a 4G mobile plan directly through Optus, Telstra or Vodafone if you don't want to. All three companies also sell wholesale access to their networks to other companies that operate as mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). They're virtual because what you're actually doing is connecting to Telstra, Vodafone or Optus' networks, but they're branded differently.
Pricing for MVNOs is usually focused on budget offerings and they can actually be cheaper than the big providers. However, there are a few factors to keep in mind when assessing whether an MVNO is a better choice for you.
Telstra's wholesale arm does sell access to its network, but it doesn't typically offer the full 4GX Telstra network. This means that network coverage is often smaller than that of the "full" Telstra network and average speeds are a bit lower. Telstra only has a few MVNO partners, the most prominent being the supermarket brands ALDImobile and Woolworths Connect, as well as Boost.
Vodafone has dropped in and out of being an MVNO wholesaler, but recent expansions to its 4G network mean it's a much more competitive player. Its main MVNO partners are TPG and Kogan Mobile. Lebara, which focuses strongly on attracting callers who want to make extensive overseas calls, is also a partner. It also works with smaller providers CMobile and GoTalk.
As with any telecommunications product, the value of 4G depends heavily on how you plan to use it. If your mobile is there primarily for you to make and receive calls, you won't see much difference moving from 3G to 4G. That's because Australian telcos are still largely serving voice calls over 3G networks, with only a few offering 4G LTE voice services.
Where 4G really shines is in data services. If you're a heavy data user, especially for services that utilise large files such as video streaming, then 4G's speed benefits over 3G will have a greater impact on your usage and enjoyment of mobile networks.
Compare 4G plans from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone
If you're keen on a 4G contract with a moderate data offering, here is how the major carrier networks compare for 4G-enabled plans with at least 5GB of data.