Recent years have seen great leaps in mobile phone technology, particularly when it comes in delivering high-speed mobile internet access. In fact, according to Canstar Blue research, high-speed internet on our phones has become one of the key considerations for consumers in the market for a new phone plan.
Telcos, of course, are keenly aware of the consumer appetite for high-speed internet, and this in turn has fuelled the ongoing expansion of the major operators’ respective 4G networks around the country, seeking to deliver consumers broader and faster network coverage.
Meanwhile, manufacturers are producing a slew of 4G-compatible devices. While the price tag associated with such devices was quite high, the technology has become so vital that it has found its way to mid-range smartphones as well.
Consumers in the market for a new smartphone or mobile phone plan would likely have come across the term 4G, which is now heavily featured in telco marketing. But what exactly is 4G, what is needed to access it and what benefits does it deliver?
Background: Mobile coverage through the generations
In basic terms, 4G is the fourth generation of mobile wireless technology standards, with the generation denoting the standards of network coverage and speeds, along with services provided.
In this regard, 4G is the next step up from its predecessor, 3G, with a more intensive set of standards applying.
As explained by Optus of the advantages of 4G over 3G:
“The ‘G’ stands for ‘generation’, so 4G is the fourth generation of wireless internet technology, and it’s an improvement on 3G. For smoother and quicker data transfers 4G is better: you’ll have faster web browsing and image download times.”
While the introduction of 3G saw the widespread growth of mobile internet, 4G is now taking it to the next-gen level, as mobile internet access has become a key plank of telcos’ respective mobile offerings.
Notably, Telstra and Optus are set to shut down their respective 2G networks over the course of the next year, which in turn will likely provide further momentum to the take-up of 4G handsets, driving more consumers to 4G networks.
Smartphone use rises: Welcome 4G
Of course, the growth of 4G networks and 4G-compatible devices has been complementary, with the rapid take-up of smartphones in general, be it on a 3G or 4G network.
Technology analyst firm Telsyte earlier in the year stated that it believes there were 17.6 million Australian smartphone users at the end of 2015, amid signs emerging that the market is nearing saturation, with 860,000 new smartphone users added last year, down from 1.87 million in 2014.
Australians, in turn, are increasingly taking to their smartphones to access the internet, doing so via 3G and 4G networks.
Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded a steep growth in data downloads via mobile handsets in recent times, revealing that 90,693 TB was downloaded in the three months ended December 31, 2015. That’s up from 71,572 TB in the previous quarter and 52,745 TB year-on-year.
Australian consumers are hungry for the latest technology and biggest data deals. In fact, data offers have become a key battle ground for telcos, with most now focusing on improving their 4G networks and handset offers.
A quick browse of the respective Telstra, Optus and Vodafone websites reveals the heavy emphasis placed on 4G, with an ever-growing range of new smartphones now being sold 4G-capable.
Telstra states via its website that it is seeking to expand its 4G network from coverage of 96% of the Australian population today to 99% of the Australian population by June 2017.
Of its 4G network, Telstra states:
“Telstra 4G gives you faster streaming and less buffering in more places, delivering a better video experience, with typical download speeds of 2 Mbps – 50 Mbps (available to 4G devices) across an area that has the largest 4G coverage of any mobile network in Australia.”
Meanwhile, Telstra’s 4GX service is the next step up, providing a faster 4G service, with Telstra stating that it can deliver speeds up to two times as fast as its regular 4G on a compatible mobile device in a 4GX area.
Telstra states that 4GX is being progressively rolled out, with it currently available in all capital city CBDs and selected suburban and regional areas.
Of course, consumers will need 4GX-compatible smartphones to access the Telstra 4GX network, and information on compatible smartphones and on Telstra’s 4G and 4GX coverage can be viewed via its website.
Optus states that its 4G Plus network is available in all capital cities and over 700 regional and holiday towns around the country.
Consumers can check Optus’ 4G coverage via the Optus website, with Optus noting that coverage will change depending both on device and location.
Optus states of 4G:
“4G is faster than 3G, so you’ll spend less time waiting and browse faster. We’re also rolling out LTE Advanced technology in selected areas, so you can go even faster with a compatible phone.”
Vodafone states that it has invested billions of dollars in its network in recent years and plans to continue to enhance it with new features.
Vodafone states of its 4G network:
“Our 4G network is our best ever, and now covers over 22 million Australians. Our 4G coverage is available in all major metropolitan locations and selected regional areas across Australia.”
Like Telstra and Optus, Vodafone provides a coverage checker for consumers to check network coverage in various areas via its website.
There are also a number of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), which lease services from Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, now offering 4G coverage, providing consumers with more 4G choice than ever.
For instance, among the MVNOs with 4G services, Virgin Mobile utilises the Optus 4G network, Woolworths Mobile and ALDImobile utilise the Telstra 4G network, and TPG Mobile and Kogan Mobile utilise the Vodafone 4G network.
Faster data is all good, but what about making calls?
While 4G has introduced faster mobile internet access to Australian consumers, it now is also delivering the next generation of voice communication amid the rollout of Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which utilises the 4G network rather than the 3G or 2G networks.
Telstra, Optus and Vodafone all offer VoLTE services, with consumers able to check coverage and costs via their respective websites.
As explained by Vodafone of VoLTE:
“It allows users to remain connected to the 4G network during voice calls, meaning they can multi-task with no drop in data speed and continue to use 4G data services, such as web browsing and tethering, while making and receiving calls. Users will also experience shorter call set-up times.”
And, now, onward to 5G
While the 4G rollout continues around Australia, the next generation of mobile telecommunications technology is also on its way, with the groundwork being laid for the eventual deployment of 5G wireless mobile technology standards.
While 5G is gaining a lot of media attention, it is likely still a few years away, and like the generations that have already come and gone will be subject to an ongoing rollout.
It is likely that 5G will deliver an additional set of use cases, with the collective grouping of devices knows as the Internet of Things to be one area of focus. Indeed, amid the rapidly increasing amount of connected devices, how all of these devices will be tied together is a point of interest.
As per usual in the world of technology, it is a case of watch this space for further developments.