Optus 4G tests begin – step in the right direction, but only just that

  • Optus 4G network will be wholesaled
  • Telstra's 4G network already in place, covering most CBDs
  • What's beyond 4G, and can it really replace fixed-line broadband?

Optus, Australia’s 2nd largest telco, has launched a test 4G network in Newcastle ahead of a planned rollout to capital cities due to begin mid 2012. The test network is limited to selected residents who will be trialing the overall performance of the service, and reporting bugs.

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                      optus 4g trials

Optus first announced their intentions to launch a 4G network in late 2011, to compete with a rollout by Telstra which now covers a 5km radius of most capital city CBD areas. Optus has already confirmed that like their 3G network, the 4G network will be available for wholesale right from the get-go.

What is 4G?

4G (4th generation) is often conflated with LTE (Long Term Evolution) as the next step for mobile communications. In this context, 1G refers to digital mobile. 2G refers to the inclusion of text and picture messaging, and some very lo-speed, lo-fi internet data standards (anyone remember the pain of WAP and GPRS?). 3G refers to full blooded mobile broadband speeds of 384 kbps and up.

Further amendments to the 3G standard have allowed for a steady increase in speed, all the way up to theoretical maximums of 42 Mbps – though speeds of 3 – 8 Mbps are the norm in the real world. 4G is intended to be a mobile standard that properly competes with fixed-line fibre broadband, and technically refers to mobile speeds of 1Gbps. LTE is used in a similar context, to refer to speeds of 100Mbps.

Of course, no-one is anywhere near that type of speed, anywhere in the world. But the term 3G has been around for a while, and it seems like everyone has gotten fed up. The standards used are all set by Americans, and once American telcos started releasing “4G” networks capable of big speeds, everyone else kinda went “Ok”.

Bottom line, the real difference between 3G and 4G is about which part of the radio spectrum is used, and the different properties at different frequencies. Typical 3G networks use either the 2100Mhz network (long range, needs fewer towers), or 850 Mhz (short range, much faster, requires more towers). Telstra’s use of 850 Mhz, combined with their far denser network of towers, have given them a distinct edge in the 3G sphere. Telstra and Optus’ 4G network will use 1800 Mhz – making it incompatible with the new iPad and a couple of other devices.

Just read back over the last few paragraphs. 4G = very fast mobile internet. Done.

Why Optus 4G is good news

There are really only three providers of mobile networks in Australia – Optus, Telstra and VHA (a combined company of Vodafone and the extinct 3 network). Everyone else is essentially Optus, who are the only real wholesale provider. Vodafone resells through TransACT, but that's about it.

Telstra’s superior NextG 3G network has been up for wholesale since February, but no-one has started selling competitive prices against it. What’s the hold up? One suspects that Telstra sets some onerous conditions and prices on resellers, well above the wholesale price they get from Optus, and that the speed and coverage boosts aren’t yet worth it. More to the point, many resellers, like Dodo, TPG, Internode and every other internet service provider, resells mobile network coverage as a means to entice people towards their bread-and-butter: fixed-line broadband.

Optus’ wholesale position has been far less restrictive, allowing wholesale buyers to provide retail prices that smash Optus’ own. 4G pricing may be different, seeing as how they will want to quickly recoup costs incurred building the network in the first place. But with the might of SingTel behind Optus, there’s good cause to think that they’ll be in a position to be generous to their wholesale buyers. With the introduction of the NBN, Optus may be ramping up a re-emergence into fixed line broadband, and willing to let mobile chug along in a strong 2nd to Telstra. With Telstra’s network experiencing some failures here and there, people are sure to start getting fed up with the premium (SUPER premium) price they pay. The attitude may be “networks are garbage whomever I go with, I may as well go with the cheapest”.

Will 4G replaced fixed-line broadband?

Even with the NBN years away, and in danger of never being completed depending on how the political dice may roll, there are plenty left wondering if 4G data will be fast enough to replace fixed line for the foreseeable future. The answer is yes for a few, and no for most.

The entire issue of speed, regardless of how you get your broadband service, is based on how far away you are from the Point of Interconnect (POI), which is fancy-speak “where a big internet connection comes from”. All forms of transmission experience some loss over distance, so it’s a matter of

a) how much loss over how much distance

b) the rate of loss

c) the original speed

d) bandwidth contention (how many people are sharing a single feed)

So ADSL, which is broadband over copper lines, starts at a max speed of 24Mbps, and drops dramatically after 800 metres or so. Most people live within 4.5km of their telephone exchange, which is the limit of ADSL. People beyond that get no connection (in most cases).

With 4G mobile broadband, the connection can start at 100Mbps at the tower, but drops immediately when it starts to transmit. By the time it hits the 5-6 feet in the air that most people hold their phones at, it can drop by 30% - and that’s if the person is right under the tower and is the only person using their phone to collect their email. As you can imagine, this means that real-world speeds are far, far lower. But arguably, this won’t matter for most people – most current applications don’t need more than 10Mbps to work optimally.

But the other issue with 4G, or any type of mobile broadband, is that it’s open to anyone walking by with an appropriate SIM card. Over time it will degrade in quality, and require either more powerful transmission, or more towers.

Meanwhile, fixed line broadband, particularly if transmitted by optical fibre rather than copper, is infinitely more ‘scalable’, meaning its speed can be upped as the network requires, for a longer time. Moreover, fibre delivers 100Mbps with ease, as a fraction of its maximum capacity.

So what will 5G be?

True LTE will come from a similar place as fibre optics. The reason fibre is so much better than copper is because copper transmits electrical signals, while fibre transmits light signals. Electricity travels at 95% the speed of light, carries far less data and degrades quicker. It also requires more power.

Light signals, naturally, travel at the speed of light, carry almost infinite amounts of data, and barely degrades, because the material used to transmit the signal (fibre optic glass) is far less resistive. Even a gold wire wouldn’t stand up to fibre optic glass.

Similarly, real long term evolution for mobile transmission will require a light solution. And what’s a light signal at home, when it’s not travelling on a piece of glass? That’s right! LASERS! Pew Pew!

Yes, lasers. Laser data transmission will replace radio (the current means of mobile data transmission) in a way that’s even bigger than the difference between glass and copper.

Why don’t we use this now? Because it’s lasers. Lasers require line of sight to a greater degree than radio- radio can penetrate buildings (with a lot of loss), lasers cannot unless they’re set to ‘kill’. Radio can broadcast, lasers can’t. Lasers can’t really ‘network’ the same way radio can, at least not without blinding pilots, civilians and animals. But once harnessed, airborne laser signals will provide the next real stage of communications. 4G, or more accurately, ‘4G’, is a small step, not a leap. But at least with Optus, it'll be a leap we can all afford to make.