opinion Right, you’re thinking. Telstra has just launched its 4G/LTE network around Australia and Apple is planning to unveil the iPhone 5 next month. There’s every reason to believe these two beautiful facts could come together in one glorious orgy of speed-filled smartphone goodness, right?
A variety of facts currently point starkly to the fact that when the iPhone 5 launches in Australia, as it is expected to over the next several months, the handset will not support Telstra’s brand-spanking new 4G/LTE network, and we’ll have to wait something like 12 months for an Apple handset that will. Yes, it’s disappointing, yes, it’s heartbreaking, yes, it’s a #firstworldproblem, but here’s five reasons why a 4G iPhone is not on the cards yet for Telstra.
1. Spectrum incompatibility
Currently, all three of Australia’s major carriers, including Telstra, are basing their LTE/4G deployments on the 1800MHz wireless spectrum band. Broadly, this is a good thing; it brings Australia into line with parts of Europe and Asia, which are the major markets for smartphone manufacturers outside North America.
However, Apple is headquartered in the US, and tends to partner first with US carriers — currently AT&T and Verizon. And while both are currently rolling out 4G networks in a very similar way to the way Australia’s carriers are, neither are using the 1800MHz spectrum — instead, they’re using spectrum from the 700MHz band. This is likely the reason why Optus recently announced it would also test a 4G rollout in Australia using that band.
Spectrum incompatibility is a nasty little issue. The availability of spectrum differs between countries — Australia’s 4G rollouts, for example, depend partially on the allocation of spectrum left over after analogue television broadcasts are turned off (the ‘digital dividend’). What generally happens is that all the major spectrum bands end up being supported once mobile chipsets mature for each new wireless standard. However …
2 … mobile chips aren’t quite ready
Commentary on LTE at the moment has focused on the fact that mobile chipsets at the moment don’t appear to be quite mature enough for a device like the iPhone, which has to be rock solid. Commentary abounds about LTE chips which suck battery life like there’s no tomorrow and are quite bulky.
In January, when the iPhone launched on Verizon’s network in the US, a key question was why the device didn’t support LTE. At the time, Verizon said the first-generation LTE chips available on the market forced some ‘design compromises’ which Apple refused to make. Have things changed, just nine months down the track? Possible, but unlikely.
3. Telstra’s not hyping it, even subtly
You would think, if Telstra were on the verge of launching an iPhone that supported its 4G network, that the company would be tremendously excited about this. After all, such a launch would be an absolute coup for the telco — given that its 4G network would be the only one in Australia that would be ready for the iPhone’s launch. It would have a monopoly on the fastest iPhone speeds in Australia for some time.
But the vibe emanating from Australia’s biggest telco right now has nothing to do with major LTE handset releases and everything to do with a minor release — the ‘HTC 4G’ it announced today was on its way and its small range (two, so far) of USB LTE modems. I’m not getting the feeling at the moment from Telstra that a major release is coming up in the short term.
As when Telstra first launched its Next G network back in 2006, with the at-the-time radical 850MHz spectrum, I’m getting the feeling that it will be a while — at least six months, but perhaps closer to a year — before Telstra’s new LTE network will be supported by major top of the line smartphone releases.
4. LTE is more about freeing up capacity for Telstra
There’s no doubt that Telstra is about to engage in a massive marketing push to let everyone know that right now, it’s the only telco in Australia to be offering 4G/LTE mobile services. And there is also no doubt that the scope of its LTE network will dramatically increase over the next few years.
But right now, Telstra’s 4G/LTE network is not really about getting everyone the fastest speeds. The focus within Telstra on LTE is much more about offloading really heavy mobile broadband users off its 850MHz HSPA+ capacity and onto LTE, freeing up its existing network for further growth (perhaps through wholesale deals) in the process.
A number of commentators have highlighted the fact recently that Telstra’s network currently appears to be buckling in CBD areas due to the sheer amount of new customers it has connected to its infrastructure over the past year (among them, many Vodafone refugees), and LTE is very much about fixing this problem for Telstra.
5. US carriers are indeed testing an LTE iPhone … but so far, only US carriers
The latest news on a 4G/LTE iPhone existing comes from Boy Genius Report, which in mid-August broke the news that US carriers were testing such a device. Sounds encouraging, right? But again, this mediates against a 4G/LTE iPhone being launched on Telstra’s network this year. If the iPhone 5 is slated to launch in late 2011, and US carriers, which use a different network spectrum allocation for their 4G networks, only just started testing its chipset on their networks, there seems little hope that Telstra is currently testing such a device — which it would need to be, given most people expect the iPhone 5 to launch by the end of 2011 globally.
Furthermore, there have been no reports of carriers outside the US testing the device, which lends credence to the idea that this is just a test rumour — not a hard attempt by Apple to get a 4G/LTE iPhone ready for market. Apple clearly wants to bring LTE-based iPhones to market; but it just doesn’t seem like the right time.
In conclusion: Yes, it’s sad. It’s a tragedy of national proportions. But when the iPhone 5 launches in Australia (and likely the next batch of Android smartphones as well), it is simply very likelu that Australians won’t be able to take advantage of the top-line speeds offered by Telstra’s flashy new 4G network. That seems a while away yet.