Take that, Telstra: Optus has 500 4G towers


news The nation’s number two telco Optus has revealed it has already upgraded some 500 mobile phone towers across Australia to support high-speed 4G mobile broadband services, in a rapid-fire rollout aimed at curtailing Telstra’s lead in the provision of the next-general mobile services.

In a wide-ranging briefing yesterday, Optus also noted it had started selling commercial 4G services on its new network to business customers in Sydney and Perth, following successful trials of the network in Newcastle over the past few months involving around a thousand customers. The company has also rolled out its 4G network in Melbourne but hasn’t yet started allowing customers to use it, as it is still finalising a spectrum re-farming exercise in that city.

The news marks a faster than expected 4G rollout for Optus. In late May, Telstra — the only other carrier to have deployed 4G services in Australia, with Vodafone not having rolled out its own 4G infrastructure yet — revealed it had switched on its 1000th 4G site. Optus’ own rollout has been less high-profile than Telstra’s, but also now boasts significant 4G coverage in many of Australia’s capital cities. It will hit more than 600 sites by the end of August.

Speaking at the briefing, Optus’ managing director of its networks division, Gunther Ottendorfer, said the company’s coverage extended for between 10 and 30 kilometres around each capital city’s central business district — ranging from Linfield in Sydney’s North, for example, to Botany Bay in the South, and from Rose Bay to Newington. Complete coverage maps can be found at the bottom of this article.

The network has been constructed using equipment from several different network vendors, with gear from Nokia Siemens Networks being used in Sydney and Perth and Chinese vendor Huawei getting the nod in Newcastle and Melbourne.

The company will give customers three options for signing up to its 4G network, with $34.95, $54.95 and $74.95 monthly including 10GB, 15GB and 20GB of usage quota respectively. Excess usage will be charged at 10c per megabyte. Optus currently has two 4G access devices available manufactured by Huawei, a 4G USB modem and a separate 4G Wi-Fi modem which can share a 4G connection between five connections via 802.11 Wi-Fi. Each can be bought for an additional monthly charge on a one or two year contract with Optus.

Unlike Telstra, which currently has a handful of 4G handsets available from vendors such as HTC and Samsung, Optus is not currently selling any 4G-capable smartphones, but it expects to reveal its planned handset range when it launches full consumer services on its 4G network shortly. “Building on our first 4G services in Newcastle earlier this year, business customers in Sydney and Perth can now get faster speeds, greater capacity and quicker response times on their 4G mobile broadband services — ahead of our wider consumer 4G launch,” said Ottendorfer yesterday.

Wider network upgrades
However, the 4G rollout isn’t the only network upgrade which Optus has been working on. The company also revealed yesterday that it had upgraded more than 1,000 mobile towers to use the 900MHz spectrum, in a move which the company said had resulted in stronger 3G performance for Optus customers across regional centres and major capital cities. The move is particularly designed to give customers better coverage indoors.

““Our customers are making the most of these network enhancements with a 20 per cent increase in 3G data usage in our upgraded areas,” said Ottendorfer. “In addition to our popular 3G HomeZone product, Optus has significantly strengthened its 3G metro indoor coverage footprint, ensuring our customers receive the highest quality coverage in the places that matter most to them.”

“Over the next twelve months, Optus will continue to roll out 3G coverage enhancements to the remainder of the network including Brisbane, Newcastle, Wollongong and Adelaide. Our intention to build the best mobile network in Australia relies on having a strong foundation in 3G, while transitioning into a 4G world.”

In addition, the company is also trialling a different 4G network standard, TD-LTE, in its campus in Sydney’s Macquarie Park, as well as in St Marys in Western Sydney. Optus believes the TD-LTE standard will allow it to deliver even higher capacity services to customers, as opposed to the FD-LTE standard which its current 4G network uses. It will use the spectrum acquired through its recent purchase of wireless telco vividwireless to fuel the rollout, and sell devices to customers capable of accessing both 4G standards.

In a live trial demonstration to media yesterday, the TD-LTE service delivered “peak site throughput capacity of over 200Mbps and a consistent per user range of speeds between 25Mbps and 87Mbps”, according to Optus significantly outperforming the company’s current 4G network in a side by side trial. Optus’ current 4G infrastructure is capable of peak speeds up to 60Mbps, although testing accounts currently vary as to how consistent the experience is.

Most tests have shown Telstra’s 4G network capable of speeds up to around 35Mbps, but Ottendorfer wasn’t willing yesterday to make a categorical statement putting Optus’ speeds ahead of Telstra. “A lot of things influence the performance of the network,” he said. But he added that with Optus’ plans, the company “certainly will have the opportunity to have the leading network”.

I’ve been pretty tough on Optus over the past year, slamming it for not having enough vision and not executing well on its plans. In addition, the company has been experiencing only modest growth in its mobile division, at a time when Telstra has been adding on some 900,000 new mobile connections every six months. However, what I saw yesterday was a company which does have a strong vision for where it is taking its mobile network, and if the company can move fast enough, it does have the opportunity to at least provide a highly competitive 4G network to Telstra’s or even go one better.

Although Ottendorfer wouldn’t say it in yesterday’s briefing, it seems reasonably clear at the moment that the theoretical performance of Optus’ 4G network currently has the potential to exceed that of Telstra’s — delivering what appears to be better speeds. Of course, as the executive noted, there are a large number of factors which go into the performance of a wireless network — for example, the availability of backhaul fibre to mobile towers — and it’s much to early to call a winner yet.

It is also true that Telstra already has several hundred thousand 4G customers on its network, while Optus has almost none. It will be interesting to see whether Optus’ 4G network starts to experiences congestion as more and more customers are added to it — as we’ve already seen with the various 3G networks. So far, Telstra’s 4G network doesn’t appear to have suffered this problem.

But on current grounds, and with the long-term TDD-LTE plans being developed, there is a heap to feel positive about right now if you’re an Optus mobile customer or thinking of becoming one. The company is truly amping up its challenge to Telstra, and if Optus can significantly undercut Telstra from a pricing perspective and offer a decent range of end user equipment, the big T may have a huge fight on its hands in the next several years for 4G customers.

Of course, none of this is good news for the ailing Vodafone, which is far, far behind both Telstra and Optus when it comes to the development of its 4G services, and still losing hundreds of thousands of customers every year. I was at several technology industry events yesterday, and much of the conversations I had with people revolved around the issue of whether Vodafone will continue to exist as a viable independent entity in the next few years. Australia’s mobile sector is increasingly looking like a two horse race.

Image credit: Optus


  1. Optus 4G prices is pretty weird..

    cost per GB actually increases as you go up larger sizes

    • Telstra’s new pricing has done exactly the same thing. They are trying to keep people from overloading the network, which sucks if you have no fixed line internet option.

      • Telstra’s headline pricing is a bit different because of bundling. Bundling benefit is essentially a fixed amount of revenue that doesn’t increase as you scale up the 4G plan size.

        If you take Telstra’s unbundled prices, price per GB does decrease. So yes, Optus price is different.

        I think its a pretty clear case on how demand management produces odd results.. basically Optus thinks that average utilization of 10GB plans is signficantly lower as a percentage of quota than average utilization of 20GB plans.

  2. They can have as many 4G towers as they want, but until they add adequate backhaul it’s useless.

  3. Minor error Renai, I’m guessing “next-general mobile services” was intended to be “next-generation mobile services”?

    Agree with Thrawn, it is odd that the per gig price increases rather than decreases as you move up in allowance.

    • Rob G:
      “Agree with Thrawn, it is odd that the per gig price increases rather than decreases as you move up in allowance.”

      Probably to discourage heavy users so they don’t overload their backhaul capacity?

    • If we’re pointing out minor errors there’s a misspelled “too” in “much to early” – second paragraph of the analysis.

      And wrt $/GB it does make sense. If you are going to go onto a higher plan then you are more likely to use it thus using more of the precious precious bandwidth. (I use less than 1GB/month of mobile data and it’s not the network’s fault. Optus would like lots of customers like me!)

    • Optus will have the same before Sunday lunch. Telstra had to expand aggressively because they took on first mover advantage. Optus piggybacked on that success waiting for 4G technology to mature (somewhat). Who is smarter?

      • Given that Telstra is signing up 900,000 new mobile customers every six months and Optus is signing up not even a quarter of that, plus the fact that Telstra already has 200,000 4G customers and Optus has only 1,000 on free trials …

        I’d say Telstra is smarter.

  4. It would be good to see Optus get off it’s shiny a**e and improve the reception issues in the Byron Bay/Mullumbimby area, no point in spruiking your upgraded wares as to the “regional centres” when it continues to fail customers around where I live.

    • Well, if they used the term “regional centres” they certainly weren’t talking about you; you do not live in a “regional centre”.

      Those are country towns. I’m sure the towns proper have Optus reception. Beyond the reach of the infrastructure in town though, probably not. But while Optus services most country towns nowadays, they have never really done rural coverage, even in the immediate surrounds.

  5. So Optus hasn’t heard of the nation’s capital?

    By the way, Renai, it’d be nice to get a story sometime on which phones can benefit from 4G.

    • “So Optus hasn’t heard of the nation’s capital?” No 1800MHz spectrum = no LTE network. They have 2.3GHz though.

  6. Optus can have as many 4g towers as it likes, but if the reception is as shitty as their 3g network is im not interested.
    I want to see a direct comparison of –

    Telstra switching between 3 and 4g (i get 0 battery drain issues owing to constant 2/2.5/3g switching on Telstra, it just stays on 3g no matter where i am.)

    Optus switching between THEIR 3 and 4g networks.

    And Optus switching between their 2/2.5/3g. If the reception issues for optus 3 vs 4g and telstra 3 vs 4g then ill be fucked if im shelling out for a 4g phone.

  7. Id like to point out, that the VAST majority of ‘battery drain’ issue shenanigans have NOTHING to do with handset quality, and everything to do with network quality issues.

    Get yourself three identical phones, s2 being a good example. Put a Telstra sim in one, an Optus sim in the other, and in the third put any Optus resold (the entire balance of the carrier market) – Then walk through… say… an old brick hospital.

    Within a couple of minutes youl find the two optus phones hot to the touch as they constantly switch between network types, and youll get 2-3% battery drain per minute without even touching the thing.

    The Telstra one will be happily sitting there on 3g, albeit a fairly low reception level, but still FAR above the switching threshold.

  8. Or i could get 20gb for $20 from an optus reseller.
    Shitty optus internet is still shitty optus internet, no matter how quickly it becomes shitty.

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