Optus 4G

Early this morning, Jason Murray and I attended an Optus network briefing in Sydney, presented by Guenther Ottendorfer, Optus’ Managing Director of Networks and Andrew Smith, Vice President of Mobile Radio Engineering. The focus of Optus’ briefing was to discuss the improvements to Optus’ network over the last twelve months, to look at what’s coming in the next few months and further down the road.

Given that I get a lunch break, I thought we’d share the highlights with you.

Optus network, today

Optus has been spending a fair bit of time and money (upwards of $2bn) on expanding its network in the last couple of years, and the results have paid off. Optus now claims a reach of 98% of the Australian population, using ‘real world’ measures. Unlike Telstra, which measures coverage using external antennae, Optus conducts this measure using a range of handsets to determine coverage that the average person can see.

If Optus were to include the extra coverage that is attainable with an external antenna, this figure would increase to 98.5%. This might not sound like much, but it is a huge amount of actual land coverage, given our sparse population.

This coverage includes 4G and 3GPlus (i.e. 2100 MHz + 900 MHz), though of course the 4G footprint isn’t as large.

Ottendorfer said:

Reaching these milestones is just the beginning. Our focus over the coming year is to continue strengthening our 3G network, growing our 4G network, and expanding our 4G technologies to include TD-LTE, starting with the launch [of TD-LTE] in Canberra.

Optus’ network, tomorrow

Optus today announced that it’s switched on a 4G network in Canberra, but unfortunately for Optus customers in Canberra, you probably won’t be able to use it for a while. The coverage maps look good — as well as you could expect them to look with 12 base stations in an initial rollout — but coverage isn’t the issue. Rather, this network doesn’t run on Optus 1800 MHz network that it uses for 4G elsewhere, but rather a 2300 MHz network using a different technology – Time Division LTE instead of Frequency Division LTE which Australia’s current 4G networks use.

For those not familiar with the difference, FD-LTE essentially uses two separate frequency channels, one for downstream and one for upstream. TD-LTE on the other hand uses a single frequency which is split up into a number of time-slots. This allows variable use for downstream and upstream and can readily be changed on the carrier end. At present, the Canberra roll-out is using a 3 to 1 ratio, meaning 3 downstream slots for every 1 upstream.

With this in place, Optus has seen network performance of upwards of 60 mbps, while acknowledging that the average customer probably won’t notice nor care about this metric. Optus is keen to expand this network more widely, says Smith:

Optus will be the first Australian carrier to take its network to the next level with a combined TD/FD-LTE 4G network. Our aim is to expand coverage for both types of 4G in the coming year to reach over 70% of the metro population by mid 2014.

While the TD-LTE footprint is largely restricted to Canberra (there are two test-sites in Sydney which you can’t really use), this should rapidly expand in the next twelve months. At present, access to this network will largely be restricted to dongle-type devices, with handset manufacturers expecting to take some time to incorporate these new frequencies and network flavours into their offerings. USB dongles and WiFi modems which can access this new 4G network should be available from next month.

Optus’ network, beyond tomorrow

Following the recent spectrum auctions, Optus plans to spread its 4G footprint significantly using its 700 MHz and 2500 MHz holdings. Optus will use its 700 MHz footprint for coverage, while using the higher frequency (and lower propagation) 2500 MHz network for extra capacity in higher density areas.

This really should come as no surprise, as we know that lower frequencies are great for super-long distance coverage, with the catch that the bandwidth itself doesn’t lend itself to the fastest speeds. In CBD areas, where cell towers are far more densely packed, the signal propagation properties of 700 MHz aren’t needed, and the 2500 MHz network will enable really quick data speeds for those that need them.

Jason and I spoke to Smith after the briefing and questioned him on handset support for these new networks. Observing that there’d be some four or five LTE frequencies operating in Australia, and many more worldwide, we asked Smith how he saw handset manufacturers supporting the unique combination of frequencies that are, or will be, in use in Australia.

Smith told us that these days, chip manufacturers (using the example of Qualcomm) can easily support all these frequencies, and more, in their chipsets today. The only limiting features is the OEMs being required to cater for those frequencies in their handset designs, in terms of form factor, antenna design and power consumption. What this should mean is that, unlike the days when Telstra introduced its Next G network and there were very few compatible handsets available, we should see — and quite quickly — the release of handsets that will support four, five or even six different LTE frequencies and interfaces (FD and TD LTE).

This means that the customer will not notice the transition from one network to another, and can easily move between carriers as well without concern for frequency support. It’s an ambitious goal, but one we hope that Optus is right about; the last thing we want to see is further fragmentation of the smartphone market on something as technical (and confusing to the customer) as different frequencies and technologies.

Wrap

Optus is well aware that it has, in the past, played second fiddle to Telstra and it has burned a lot of money, time, blood, sweat and tears in closing the gap. From their presentation today, it’s easy to concede that the gap between Optus and Telstra is extremely narrow, and in some places, Optus has probably pulled ahead.

Our experience has varied, but Optus’ network does beat out Telstra’s in metro performance, but Telstra still (colloquially) has the coverage advantage. It’s probably time for another Ausdroid road test, to take three identical handsets with SIMs from each of the major carriers across the country and see what performance we can see where. A project for another day.

What are your thoughts on all this? We know it’s rather technical, but if you take nothing else away from this, it certainly looks like Optus is spending big on its network, and it does (or will) present a real alternative for those sick of the incumbent.

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  • http://twitter.com/darkhorse166 Norman Ma

    There are reasons to be more concerned than optimistic about Optus’ move of deploying TD-LTE in the spectrum they’re using.

    Specifically, I wonder how effective their 2500MHz spectrum in metro areas will be, especially in dense building areas and indoors. Sprint in the US had serious reception issues indoors with their WiMAX 4G deployment on that frequency; I’m not sure on the technical specifics between the radio technologies that might make TD-LTE viable here where WiMAX failed, but it’s something to be wary of before committing to a contract with their service.

    I’d also wait to see what Telstra or Vodafone’s mobile deployment strategy is before committing. Remember Telstra CDMA?

    • Darkam

      You have to remember that both Telstra and TPG bought some of the 2500MHz spectrum as well. 2500MHz will probably be more of an “on street” frequency, that being said, most shopping centres and other buildings will probably ahve this on the DAS for inside covereage, no that it is always that good.

  • derp

    I often see the people who claim that voda/optus are as good have to pop outside to make a call or have no access data at all when at a concert or something. Im not saying telstras perfect either but its just the little things like that which make me appreciate being with them.

    All these coverage percentages, what frequency band they use and theoretical speeds dont really matter much to me. Minimal blackspots and inconvenience is my priority.

  • http://twitter.com/gregmcph Greg McPherson

    Faster is nice. Now, supply the data at an affordable price.
    No point having one gig of 4G.

    At the moment my family is moving to Kogan as contracts expire. It’s just 3G, but I have to pay four phone bills and everyone wants data. I just can’t afford to pay 4 x $80 a month. I have no choice but to sign up to Kogan or Amaysim or some other 3G SIM Only plan.

    • Tim Anderson

      you could go with someone like Vaya or Live Connected. I know that Vaya has data packs for $7 per GB.

  • James Bryant

    This LTE mess is annoying, get a standard, stick to it, and try to use the same bands that are used internationally. The carriers have a vested interest in using a unique band as then it requires us to purchase a handset off the carriers. This direction could be the biggest enemy to the Nexus line up of phones and generally doesn’t serve the end user’s best interest. If anything it pushes us towards a system similar to the USA, which is NOT a good thing. In general the end users are held captive to insane prices and contracts in order to get the most out of the networks coverage and data speeds.

    I am glad that Optus is providing competition to Telstra, but the future is definitely cloudy and it would be easy to build a case that this fragmentation of the networks and their bands spells an expensive future for end consumers.

  • Advertising in Disguise

    98% coverage? Yeah right… I barely get one bar 3g (usually 0 bars) in my friend’s houses in Melbourne (Canterbury and Kew). And it’s been like that ever since I knew him 10+ years ago when I was on Optus 2g!

    • http://ausdroid.net/ Chris

      I’ve always had mixed experiences with Optus myself. Sometimes their network really is better.. for example, in the CBD their LTE is much, much faster than Telstra’s. Vodafone’s is faster again still, surprisingly.

      However, this shouldn’t be construed as ‘advertising’. It’s a media release, accompanied by a meet ‘n’ greet with Optus management, nothing more, nothing less.

    • James Bryant

      Strangely enough, I switched to Telstra and was on their awesome family and friends plan – but I had to switch to Amaysim (Optus) because the only network that I cannot use to make phone calls inside my house happens to be Telstra!!! Not only that, but I live within 3km of the CBD in Perth!!!

      It drove me insane to have to go outside to make phone calls when at home and even worse I can SEE the Telstra tower from my house. I switched handsets, SIM, everything and still couldn’t make calls. It was always the same problem too, the other person could never hear me, I could hear them, but they couldn’t hear me. I used blue tick phones and everything.

      Amaysim have been nothing but awesome!! If Telstra ever get there crap together in my house, I will switch to Boost.

  • SlightlyHippocriticalComment

    You seem really biased. This entire website seems biased actually. Considering you’re into tech, and I ABSOLUTELY LOVE ANDROID AND DON’T LIKE, {HATE}, APPLE, and we can both admit there is some degree of elitism ( don’t deny it) in why we have chosen Android, and I’m so surprised to see that elitism hasn’t transferred over to your preference of networks.

    It’s like saying you’ll settle for the HTC ONE S or the Samsung Galaxy Y over their full fledged counter-parts. Sure they’re cheaper…

    Anyway, i’m going to go download an entire movie in 4 minutes. Or maybe head out to the bush and enjoy some HD streaming TV over my 3G/HSDPA connection.

    • http://ausdroid.net/ Chris

      I use Telstra for my personal phone and my Ausdroid phone, and I’ve done so for years. Why? Because their service is faster and better in more places, and I do travel to odd places quite a lot.

      As I’ve said in response to another comment though, this is news. It’s not an endorsement, and it’s not an advertisement. Nowhere in the article have I said I’ll use Optus in preference to anything… or in fact made any such personal comments at all.

      • Bob Peterson

        Chris, when Optus can give coverage in suburbs, in any G, to places like Baulkham Hills Sydney, 30 minutes from the CBD, they can start blowing there own trumpet. Optus is not up to the mark, never has been, and now 4G in Canberra that no one can access, what a joke.

  • http://ausdroid.net/ Daniel Tyson

    Still leaves current Optus 4G customers in Canberra out in the cold.

    • Alexei Watson

      So they are installing 4G towers, using a frequency that 4G phones can’t use?

      one handed clap.

      • http://twitter.com/Mi7k Mick

        Optus does not own any 1800Mhz Spectrum in Canberra so they can’t roll out 1800Mhz LTE there. The only carriers that do are Telstra and VHA. There will be Handsets soon and considering Optus owns 93Mhz of spectrum in the 2300Mhz band, the network should fly!

  • http://www.twitter.com/DarkRyoushii Adrian Mace

    I don’t like leaving the carrier support up to the OEMs of devices. I agree with you when saying that it’s a very ambitious goal to say the least..