Vodafone 4G Delayed to June – But Do I Need 4G?

  • Faster than even Telstra and Optus
  • Could still be this month, but unlikely
  • What good is 4G with only 1GB of data?

If you’re trying to buy a mobile phone or mobile broadband service right now, your options are limitless. And confusing. But most people have managed to grasp the narrative that Telstra’s network is miles ahead of Optus, while Optus is miles ahead of Vodafone. Even people who aren’t aware that Vodafone had a well-publicized network breakdown about 2 years ago that they’re barely recovered from, have at least heard from clued in friends and relatives that they should stay away at all costs. That popular story is due for a change, but not quite as soon as most of us thought- Vodafone have started moving their projected rollout date for 4G services from ‘April’ to ‘soon’, with most believing this translates to ‘June’.

4g

 
Who is Better, and Why?
 
What makes Telstra ‘better’ than the other two is pretty simple. They have more mobile towers, packed in denser configurations in more places around the country. This means that their network blankets a wider area with few gaps. More than that – more and more of their towers communicate back to the core network via a fibre-optic link at the base of the tower, while Optus and Vodafone still rely heavily on what we call Microwave Relay – where the wireless signal from your phone to the tower is communicated back to the network by yet another wireless signal. As in all things with communications, the more air time, the worse off you are. Can-and-string still beats radio.

Telstra has also upgraded a larger swathe of their network to the next generation of high speed wireless data technology, known as 4th Generation (or 4G). This term is roughly equivalent to another term that confuses the issue, Long Term Evolution (LTE). LTE can refer to a range of different wireless solutions that includes (but is not limited to) 4G. Right now, here in Oz, 4G is LTE.
 
Official figures for the extent of Telstra and Optus’ 4G rollouts are not easy to get, but estimates have it that Telstra has about 4000 4G base stations, with Optus sporting around 1500. That number will swell as competition heats up, and eventually, 4G should completely replace 3G (or 3G might be a backup).
 
Vodafone meanwhile has been busy upgrading its network to a standard that Telstra had going 3 years ago, let alone jumping on the 4G bandwagon. That upgrade has brought their network up to a decent level; coverage is still not great outside of major cities, but at least within cities the quality of calls and data has improved. Their inevitable 4G rollout has been fraught with controversy, delays and speculation. But they’re definitely planning on a big splash, with newer tech than either Telstra or Optus (wider bandwidth to generate more speed) and a wider initial rollout than either at first launch. But several Vodafone spokespeople on forums such as Whirlpool, have indicated that this launch will be more like June than this month, as was previously suspected. At any rate, Vodafone is pushing sales of 4G capable hardware, like the iPhone 5 and the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4.
 
Is It Worth It?

                                     
 
3G speeds on the Telsstra network can get above 20 Mbps, which is super fast. Optus rarely gets above 7 Mbps. Same with Vodafone. 4G on all networks can easily exceed 50 Mbps. Those are all speeds that leave even most wired broadband connections in the dust, and even compete with the National Broadband Network.
 
But it really doesn’t matter how fast your wireless network is if you aren’t allowed to use it. Before Vodafone hit the wall in late 2010, they were busily bulking up their data plans and lowering prices across the board. They offered the iPhone 3G at a lower price than any other telco, and whammo – those generous data plans were suddenly actually getting used. The result was a severely crippled network.
 
Since then, data demands have increased as data allowances have stayed relatively stagnant, and have even begun recently dropping. This goes for both mobile broadband and mobile phone services. All three carriers are being very cautious to not overload their networks and repeat Vodafone’s folly. So the question is – why introduce faster speeds, and then tell people they can’t use it? Even worse – introduce faster speeds, keep the same old conditions in place, and see more people than ever get huge bills for overusage?
 
The problem with mobile data is poor connectivity, not speed per se. Speed helps – it means that applications which just need to hop on and hop off the link will work faster and better. That could mean downloading a map or song, or loading a webpage. But turn-by-turn maps (using aGPS), Skype, Streaming video and other popular web applications won’t improve dramatically from more speed, if connection issues aren’t also addressed. And since all of those things eat data, they won’t be terribly practical to use on plans with next-to-nothing in the way of Gigabytes.
 
MVNOs

 
 
A Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) is anyone who sells mobile broadband or mobile phone service who isn’t Optus, Telstra or Vodafone – in other words, not a wholesale network owner. So that’s Amaysim, Kogan, Red Bull, Woolworths, TPG, iiNet, Vaya, LiveConnected – even Virgin belongs to Optus and uses their hardware.
 
MVNOs have been the smart choice for a while – so long as you don’t need a new phone and just want a SIM card. Amaysim created a new class of value by offering an Unlimited call, text and 4GB of data for $39. They use the Optus network, as do most MVNOs. Red Bull uses Vodafone, and recent entrants Kogan and Aldi use Telstra Wholesale (througha  complex two-tier system that is showing signs of distress).
 
The Big Three are starting to shed their 3G network off to these firms, and reserving 4G for their own customers. 4G access has been granted to some MVNOs, but only from Optus, and the plans are not yet competitive. Even so, the 3G plans will suit most customers. Speeds are adequate for the types of applications you should be doing wirelessly- such as quick browsing, email, maps and a little bit of multimedia. The faster 4G speeds won’t offer anything more than that, because anything more would quickly exhaust your data. Most of that speed advantage is wasted.
 
The Future

 

100 Mbps! Wasted on a single hi-def YouTube trailer for Back to The Future Part IV!

 
Analogue TV used to run on a radio band that was specifically reserved for high speed transmission that was powerful enough to cover large distances and still penetrate walls and buildings well. Witht he shift to Digital TV, this radio band is now open for other applications – such as better high speed mobile broadband and phone service.
 
The band in question is between 680 and 800 MHz, and known as the 700 MHz band. The government gets to decide who gets what, and will do so with an auction. It’s one of the ways a government can generate cash, apart from taxes- selling off assets owned by the state. This slice of radio wave is considered a Holy Grail for communications. Unfortunately, this auction has been delayed time and again, and are currently scheduled for April 23. But even then, towers won’t start going up until 2015, and services might not get switched on until 2017.
 
So in the meantime, stronger (rather than faster) mobile comms will be off in the distance, failing to improve the bigger issues – coverage and data allowance.
 
Conclusion
 
The problem with your current mobile phone or mobile broadband service isn’t really speed – so more speed won’t fix it. Stick with a well priced 3G plan, and wait-and-see on 4G unless you desperately need the speed for a specific application. Vodafone knows this, which is why they’re probably not too concerned about more delays.