When can I get 5G in Australia?

Alex Kidman 5 February 2019 NEWS

The major networks are rolling out 5G connectivity across the nation, but when will it actually arrive for you?

This is a rolling guide, which we'll be updating as fresh 5G network availability news surfaces.

The hype around 5G has been constant these past few years, but in 2019, it's time for the telcos to actually provide that sweet, high-speed 5G connectivity we've all been clamouring for.

Confused about the whole 5G story? Check out our comprehensive guide to 5G in Australia here.

But when can you expect to actually see access to 5G networks and devices? Just like the pinning down of the 5G specification, it turns out that this is quite the complicated question. Here's what you need to know about the evolving 5G rollout picture across Australia.

Will it be like the 4G rollout?

Not particularly.

To cast the calendar back a few years, Telstra was the first to launch with consumer-facing 4G services in Australia in early 2011 in capital cities and selected regional areas.

It took Optus until 2012 to launch with 4G, and then only slowly rolling out from the capital city centres. Vodafone took until 2013 to offer the public access to its 4G network.

Over time, we've seen network access to 4G improve on all three networks to the point where they've all got more than 90% of the population covered. Don't confuse that with Australia's landmass, though. Australia is a huge place, and there's plenty of unoccupied land where you'd be lucky to see a 3G signal, let alone anything in the 4G spectrum.

You might expect history to repeat itself, with Telstra having the first available 5G connections for consumers, but at the time of writing, that's not been the case.

For a start, the actual rollout of 5G networks isn't quite as simple as running a different network box up to every 4G tower and connection point across the land. The different spectrum at play with Australia's 5G networks, and particularly the wavelengths used mean that 5G signals typically travel much less distance than their 4G counterparts. That means you either need more towers or need to get seriously strategic about where you roll out 5G over time to minimise costs of what is already expensive new equipment.

At this point, Optus looks the most likely to connect an actual paying customer to 5G by mid-2019, with Telstra still only loosely saying that it intends to launch a range of services on its 5G network in 2019. Meanwhile, the story with Vodafone's 5G network is somewhat complicated by its ongoing merger with TPG. So let's have a look at what we know about each network's rollout plans.

Optus: Probably first, but with fixed 5G

Optus wasn't first to market in Australia with 4G, but it's been rather determined not to let the 5G first mover advantage slip past it, aggressively stating in 2018 that it would launch 5G services in Australia "in early 2019".

Optus has launched its first 5G plans... sort of. In late January 2019, it announced its Optus 5G Home Broadband 24-month plans, priced at $70 per month with unlimited downloads and a 50Mbps "Satisfaction Guarantee".

So, Optus is first, right? Well, maybe, but then the "launch" of its 5G services was more of an "announcement" of them, and even then only on a trial basis. Optus is seeking expressions of interest in consumers keen to sign up in selected suburbs in NSW, QLD, ACT, SA and WA only, with the promise that selected consumers may be offered devices by mid-2019.

Or in other words, if you don't live in any of those suburbs, or you happen to live in Victoria, Tasmania or the Northern Territory, you'll have to wait until Optus spreads its fixed 5G services wider. That could be later in 2019 or early 2020, with the company committing to having 1,200 5G-capable sites up and running by March 2020.

As a result, Optus might be first in your area, but then there's always...

Telstra: Wants to be "amongst the world's first" 5G networks

Telstra's the other major network to have committed to a 2019 launch date for its 5G networks. Telstra CEO Andy Penn committed to that time frame back at Mobile World Congress 2018, and more recently at CES 2019, he doubled down on that statement, declaring that 2019 would be the "year of 5G".

Telstra hasn't announced its own fixed 5G home broadband plans although it did show off an HTC-produced 5G home hub late in 2018 that may form the centrepiece of its 5G NBN competitor product.

By late 2018, Telstra had more than 200 5G base stations live across Australia as well as access to the 5G spectrum it purchased in the 3.6Ghz spectrum. You've got to have a network to sell 5G, although that's rather moot if you can't actually get a device to run on it.

Telstra's also aggressively pursuing the mobile 5G market. Right now, there's precisely zero 5G phones available for you to buy, but Telstra has stated that it intends to deliver 5G smartphones locally before "any other Australian mobile operator".

What does that mean for its 5G time frame? It's expected that we'll see the first 5G handsets announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February/early March, with actual device availability predicted for mid-2019.

That makes the time frame for Telstra to launch its 5G network to consumers a very interesting prospect. Mid-year is about when Optus should deliver Nokia-built fixed 5G modems to select consumers, but it could also be when Telstra launches its first 5G mobile handsets as well. The race is well and truly on.

Vodafone/TPG: Spectrum acquired but few announced network plans

Vodafone's certainly been working on 5G for years now, with plenty of impressive lab test figures, but of late, it's been considerably less public about its precise 5G plans.

That's certainly at least in part because of the pending merger between Vodafone Australia and TPG, which is currently on ice pending ACCC approval.

Part of the ACCC's concern around the merger related to TPG's own mobile network rollout, but TPG has now cancelled that, citing the ban on use of Huawei equipment in Australian 5G networks as a factor.

Vodafone and TPG spent up big as a joint venture in the 3.6Ghz 5G spectrum auction, and those are holdings that they will share even if the ACCC puts the kibosh on the merger as a whole.

Vodafone's few public statements around its 5G rollout tend to point towards a 2020 launch date for its own 5G network, with the company stating it's more or less waiting for a full suite of available consumer devices anyway.

In a blog post on Vodafone's web site, Dan Lloyd, Vodafone's chief strategy officer is quoted as saying that "We're only going to start to see a significant number of 5G capable mobile devices in customers' hands towards the middle of 2020."

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