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.
4G is the fourth generation of telecommunications networks deployed worldwide, and is sometimes referred to as Long Term Evolution networks, or LTE. It promises a lot, but the reality of 4G delivery in Australia varies significantly, depending on the provider and the device used to access the network.
As with any wireless technology, any claims made by any telco have to be taken with a grain of salt, because what's usually stated is the maximum performance of the network technology at use. That's normally the laboratory or single-user maximum, just to further muddy the waters. So your expectations of speed have to be moderated, and if you peer into the fine print of most telco contracts, they'll usually state a range of "expected" performance.
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 up to 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 won't matter so much to you, but if you're filming that video yourself and hoping to upload it to YouTube, the lower upload speeds will hit you.
Another consideration for 4G is that you've got to have a device that actually supports 4G technologies. There's no point signing up for a 4G contract if you're slipping the SIM into an early generation iPhone (which is anything older than the iPhone 5), for example. What you need to do for older devices, and just a few specific, generally very budget handsets still sold today, is match up the available 3G or 4G frequencies against the network of your choosing. If your device doesn't support the specific frequency used by the network, then it won't offer those higher speeds.
So what does each network offer?
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, there's no such technical specification. In the 3G space, it operates networks that operate at the 850Mhz and 2100Mhz bands. In terms of 4G, it has networks that operate at 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz frequencies, as well as 700Mhz – that's the faster 4GX network – and some minor 2600Mhz frequency holdings, although so far there's no consumer-facing network using 2600Mhz.
Telstra claims the widest network penetration of any Australian mobile network. You can check your precise location against Telstra's network map.
Telstra claims 96 per cent population coverage for its 4G networks, although you've got to qualify that against the fact that the Australian population is largely centred around the coastlines and especially in the 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.
Telstra is also the only network in Australia to offer Category 16 support for mobile devices, which is a complicated way of saying theoretical speeds of 1Gbps. In order to access those kinds of speeds though, you need to be within the relatively small footprint of that part of the network, and have a compatible device like the NightHawk M1 or the Samsung Galaxy S8.
And as mentioned above, the chances of you getting anywhere near those maximum speeds are remarkably low.
Vodafone offers network access across three frequencies in the 3G space (850MHz, 900MHz and 2100MHz) but only two for 4G networks (850Mhz and 2100Mhz). Vodafone opted not to bid in the so-called "digital dividend" auction in 2013 for what was analogue TV broadcast spectrum, so it's the only one of the big three networks not to offer a 700Mhz product. That will change in 2018, however, with Vodafone picking up 700Mhz spectrum in the final sell-off of unsold capacity by the ACMA.
Vodafone's claim is that it covers 96 per cent of the Australian population, but again that reflects concentrated the population centres are as anything else. You can check Vodafone's coverage relative to where you live or work using Vodafone's coverage tool.
Vodafone offers a "4G+" product again, that's a marketing term rather than an actual specification – in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. It utilises a technology known as "carrier aggregation" which combines networks to boost download speeds. Telstra also does this under its 4GX banner, while Optus uses similar technology but doesn't put a fancy marketing label on it.
Optus' 3G networks operate at 900Mhz and 2100Mhz, but in the 4G space it presents a very complex picture. It has 700Mhz and 1800MHz 4G networks using FDD (Frequency Division Duplex) technology, just like Telstra, but it also has 2100Mhz and 2600Mhz networks in some locations, as well as a 2300Mhz TDD (Time Division Duplex) network that operates in Canberra only.
Optus' claim is that it covers 98.5 per cent of the Australian population, and you can check your area's coverage using the Optus coverage tool .
Do I have to go with one of the big three?
In terms of the networks you use, there isn't much choice. While the big three jostle for market position, it's been a long while since anyone has been brave enough to stump up the cash to launch an entirely new mobile network. That is set to change in the next few years with TPG making the surprise move to launch its own mobile network, expected to be live sometime after 2018.
In the meantime, though, it doesn't mean you have to buy directly through Optus, Telstra or Vodafone. All three companies also sell wholesale access to their networks to other companies, who 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 not to the full 4GX Telstra network. This means that network coverage is smaller than that of the "full" Telstra network, and typical 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.
Will 4G make a difference to me?
As with any telecommunications product, it heavily depends on your own usage case. If your mobile is there primarily for you to take calls, you won't see much difference with 4G. That because all Australian telcos are still largely serving voice calls over 3G networks, although they have begun rolling out 4G LTE voice services.
What 4G is really all about is data. 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.