Opinion: Australia vs the world, and why our 5G isn’t winning

I’ve been following 5G for a while now, since it was first talked about at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. This feels like a decade ago (but actually wasn’t that far back). 5G has come around quickly – much faster than previous generations of mobile technology.

Since that time, I – like many of you, I’d wager – have watched the conversation evolve from aspirational goals for the next mobile connection technology, through to more concrete (but yet still somewhat vague) discussions of what 5G will do for our society as a whole.

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Unfortunately, the conversation has stalled around this point for many countries around the world, while others have continued the conversation and made the change from just talking about 5G to actually doing 5G. The sad news, for us in Australia, is that I think we’re still stuck in the conversation point – and sometimes not even that – without real progress being made.

It’s not as if our carriers are unable to make progress – they’ve done it elsewhere.

Over the last couple of years Australia has completed the 2G switch-off ahead of many other countries, and re-sold that spectrum (under the Digital Dividend auctions) for use by more advanced 4G technologies. However, that’s 4G, and the conversation has moved on. We’re reaching the upper limits of what 4G technology can actually deliver, and it’s widely acknowledged that 4G is now established technology; the bleeding edge has long since moved on.

While our carriers have made progress in some areas, in others they’ve dropped the ball, and instead of leading the conversation about 5G – and delivering concrete services and solutions to customers today – our carriers are stuck behind and seemingly happily so.

I also understand that 5G is a far more complex beast than 3G and 4G, and that this has – until relatively recently – held up widespread deployment of 5G networks, because standards weren’t ratified, and going ahead of standards is rarely (if ever) a good idea.

5G standards have been ratified, though, and carriers around the world are racing ahead.

Carriers internationally are delivering real-world 5G services today that rival their 4G bases

One of the things that stood out so clearly at the GSMA Mobile Broadband Forum in Zurich this week is that carriers in markets around the world – and not small ones, either – are making huge progress in delivering real-world 5G for customers today.

Huawei deputy chairman Ken Hu told us that 5G is supercharging user experience. Referring to South Korea, the first market to launch a commercial 5G network, local carriers have signed up more than 3.5 million 5G subscribers in less than six months. Much of this growth in this market can be attributed to new services like 5G-powered AR/VR and live 360 HD sports broadcasting. With these services alone, data consumption among early 5G adopters has increased by a factor of three, up to 1.3 gigabytes per month.

I also heard from Sunrise – a national telco in Switzerland – about its current network which delivers real alternatives to traditional fixed-line broadband, but not just in a fixed wireless architecture, but in a truly mobile application. Sunrise delivers fixed-line telephone replacement services, broadband and mobile services over its 5G network which reaches across some 262 towns and cities across the country.

Just take a quick look at this coverage map and see what I mean:

It’s not localised to a couple of sites in a major city. It’s (just about) everywhere in built-up areas.

I saw a technology demo with some horn players up in the mountains some 15 miles away where 8K video was streamed over Sunrise’s consumer 5G network to the conference venue, and mixed – in real time, mind you – with a second 8K video stream produced on site. While the content of the demo was a bit cliched – Swiss long horns played at a conference in Switzerland, come on – what it showed was something that customers can do, today, with consumer grade equipment.

Sunrise’s 5G network delivers downlink speeds of up to 1.5Gbps, and uplink speeds well over 100Mbps. For those playing along at home, our 5G network can deliver this too, but in remarkably few places. These speeds thoroughly trump the other failed infrastructure project in our country, where the fastest consumer NBN plans – delivered over fibre, mind you – top out at just 40 Mbps.

It’s ridiculous. Australia has much to be embarrassed about in other spheres, but we should be rightly embarrassed by its lack of thought leadership in 5G. For all the contributions that Australian carriers made to the 3G and 4G standards – and unique solutions to our challenging environment which we came up with – we’re nowhere to be seen on the 5G main stage.

Sunrise’s 5G might not be solving the aspirational problems that 5G vendors want to solve, at least not yet. Things like automated farming, mining, autonomous vehicles and the like.

However, Sunrise’s 5G is solving a genuine, real world problem in Switzerland at least. Shit internet. Sunrise’ CEO Olaf Swantee was quite clear in his assessment of the problem: so many places in Switzerland would be stuck in 20th century internet backwaters if not for the increasingly ubiquitous availability of high quality 5G services. Of course, those 5G services come with catches. Mobile 5G comes with a price premium, and the 5G broadband product isn’t suitable for totally mobile users. But, they’re still available.

Finnish mobile operator Elisa launched a commercial 5G network earlier this year. Elisa offers a unique pricing model where it differentiates on speed. Customers can get up to 600 Mbps speeds over 5G for 40 EUR per month, and for 55.90 EUR, customers can get full 1 Gbps 5G speeds.

In Spain, Telefonica is achieving similar goals. It has moved from “just delivering” 5G to looking at how to evolve to the next breakthrough in 5G. Telefonica is tackling the question of moving away from reliance on 4G networks to carry voice data (called 5G NSA) to the truly 5G-only networks of the future, called 5G SA (or StandAlone).

Granted, Telefonica’s roll-out isn’t quite as far advanced as Sunrise’s in Switzerland, but again, they’re ahead of the conversation in Australia. Equally, Orange – which services some 260+ million customers across Europe and Africa – is racing ahead with its preparations to get 5G ready to go, but it appears to be a few months away from commercial services.

So why is our 5G so bad in Australia?

In short, there’s just no commercial incentive to deliver what I’m seeing overseas. Of course, there are unique challenges presented by Australia – a population of some 25 million spread out over an area the size of Europe is a huge one – but there’s no reason why the two carriers actually offering 5G couldn’t be doing more.

As to why they aren’t, Australia has a number of interesting factors holding us back.

We have a marketing war between Telstra and Optus with a range of “firsts” that ultimately deliver nothing for the customer. First Live 5G Broadcasts, First 5G Smartphone, First 5G Device etc., and on it goes. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t translate into something that matters to the actual users of these networks – coverage.

Unlike many countries, we’ve locked certain vendors out of the local market. Vodafone and Optus already use Huawei gear in their 3G and 4G carrier networks, and being unable to use the same vendor for 5G networks means that building those networks may cost more.

We have challenges in built-up areas in delivering quality signal. The 5G frequencies are relatively higher than those used by 3G and 4G, making signal penetration in built-up environments much harder to achieve. This leads to a poor 5G experience in areas where it is supposedly available. Until we reach 3G switchoff, and realise some of the frequencies utilised there (particularly the 850 / 900 Mhz bands), this situation seems unlikely to significantly improve, and we’re a few years away from that.

Another problem is is the lack of competition. Telstra sells 5G access, but provides it in so few places that it might as well not bother. Outdoor 5G access in Sydney’s CBD is – from many reports – unreliable at best. Just look at Telstra’s claimed 5G coverage for Sydney:

Optus’ coverage map for Sydney’s surrounding areas is smaller still:

Not only do the carriers offer access in (mostly) different areas, but they don’t even offer the same product mix. Both Telstra and Optus do offer mobile plans, but given how few areas they can be realistically used in, you could almost forget that it was an offering at all. For example, Optus’ 5G mobile services struggle to work indoors in many places, I’ve heard. Telstra’s 5G struggles to even work outdoors in the city. It’s an inauspicious start.

In addition, Optus offers 5G Home Wireless Broadband in its coverage areas, but Telstra does not. While Optus’ pricing of these products is relatively sharp (I’ve written about them not long ago, in fact), there’s no competition driving further improvement, because Telstra’s not offering it, and Vodafone doesn’t even have 5G yet.

Australia also has world-leading 4G networks. I use Telstra 4G for my personal phone, and Optus 4G for my (day job) work phone, and both have exceptional signal quality just about everywhere I go. They are also incredibly fast. Both carriers routinely offer downlink speeds up to 200 Mbps, and in fewer places, the uplink speeds are equally much faster than what even fixed NBN services offer.

With such 4G capability, Australia certainly has less incentive to rush ahead on 5G. Travel internationally, and you can see just how poor 4G can be. I’ve had an exceptional 4G performance in just one place that comes to mind – Hong Kong – and everywhere else, I’ve missed Australia’s 4G. We’re lucky in that regard.

In a market that’s not really driven by competition, where we’ve already got excellent 4G at the moment, where some networks previously-preferred vendors have been locked out of participation, and even where there’s little being done to challenge the ridiculous myths of 5G – that microwaves will cook us from the inside out, for example – it just doesn’t feel like Australia is serious about 5G.

Will 5G be another failed infrastructure project that Australia can ill afford?

Worse, it feels like we could end up with a repeat of the NBN. Australia’s NBN was national infrastructure product that was, at its inception, best described as a moonshot which would have delivered fibre internet to 90% of premises across the country. What it ultimately ended up as was a hodge-podge of second-rate technologies that provide second-rate internet connectivity to many.

While other countries are streaming ahead towards gigabit fibre links priced for the average consumer – hello my Kiwi Whanau, or those in the UK – Australia struggles to deliver even 50 Mbps to so many customers left behind on ultimately crap Fibre to the Node connections. I’m lucky, I guess. I’ve got a Fibre to the Curb connection that performs at or right below the theoretical maximum speeds for the technology. Few are that fortunate.

For most, the FTTP NBN was a moonshot that has been thoroughly screwed up by narrow thinking (and conservative politicians); instead of looking forward to what the NBN could be, and what it could deliver, we were left with a network that delivers (barely) what people were thought to need in the mid 2010’s. Now, at the precipice of 2020, we’re still there in the past, and for many, that situation won’t improve.

I fear that 5G is headed down the same path.

Like the NBN could have been, 5G could still be the society infrastructure that will take Australia forward in leaps and bounds. However, instead of thinking big and aiming for the moon, we’re aiming much closer to home. I’d argue that we’re barely aiming to get a few feet off the ground, and that’s just not good enough.

It isn’t too late though. Unlike the NBN, which is almost complete, 5G is barely getting started. Just because we’re behind – and quite behind – doesn’t mean that we need be left behind. It’s up to our major carrier networks, and the regulatory environment in which they operate, to facilitate, encourage and incentivise getting the network right.

Only by so doing can we avoid another failed infrastructure project that once promised so much, and now delivers so much less.

 

Chris travelled to Zurich to attend GSMA’s Mobile Broadband Forum as guest of Huawei Carrier and Networks Business Group.

Last modified on 16 October 2019 7:58 pm

Chris Rowland: @ozcjr Chris has been at the forefront of smartphone reporting in Australia since smartphones were a thing, and has used mobile phones since they came with giant lead-acid batteries that were "transportable" and were carried in a shoulder bag. Today, Chris publishes one of Australia's most popular technology websites, Ausdroid. His interests include mobile (of course), as well as connected technology and how it can make all our lives easier.

View Comments (5)

  • I thought Australia coverage was bad until I moved to California. It’s even worse here! I’m sitting on the couch of my house in the center of Cupertino, where Apple head quarter is 5 mins away, and my Verizon signal is less than one bar.//sigh

  • Australia and the US seem to be the only ones whipping up anti-Huawei hysteria, and suffering for it.

    Germany and the UK refused to be drawn into that, with both recently deciding to build Huawei 5G networks, as it's too important to have good broadband ability within a nation.

  • I don’t care about speeds regarding 5G, i don’t oppose it but what’s the point of having gigabit speeds when you cant even get a good reception signal. In 2019, i’m still having to say to people, sorry but i can’t understand you, it’s a bad line and they aren’t in the middle of woop woop, they could be in the same town or city as me. 99% of Australia has mobile coverage they keep saying but how good is the coverage, not that good.

    • In the case of Huawei and 5G, it's been reported in the main stream media that the USAians listened to us.