Australia has always been at the forefront of new mobile technology rollouts, and 4G is no exception. Initially rolled out by Telstra late in 2011, both Optus and Vodafone quickly followed suit rolling out their own versions of LTE technology.
Over the past few years, all three telcos have committed to massively expanding their 4G networks to not only reach more and more people across the country, but also introduce new technologies to offer faster downloads, while new features like Voice over LTE and LTE-Broadcast are beginning to make an appearance.
The transition to 4G was fairly quick, really, given the Australian thirst for faster speeds. But now that 4G has become a standard rather than just a new and exciting feature, the battle lines now seem to be drawn over not just coverage areas, but device compatibility, download speeds and 4G features.
With that in mind, what do these networks have up their sleeves for the immediate future? Here is our rundown on what you can expect.
Best 4G Coverage
Let's face it, is going to be of no use to you if you don't have access to it. Telstra had quite the head start in the rollout. At present, around 98 percent of the Australian population can get Telstra 4G, which is seemingly on track with their promise of 99 percent coverage by the middle of 2017.
Optus took a slightly different approach to its 4G rollout, launching exclusively around the Newcastle area in April 2012. Since then, the service was expanded to capital cities and key regional hubs, around the country. Optus now claims that 95 percent of Australians can use its 4G service, and is dedicating a lot of time and resources to expanding its 4G offering to regional hubs around the country.
Vodafone was the last telco to join the 4G competition, and is a little bit more cautious with its claims of market reach. However, the telco has said that its 4G network reaches 96.9 percent of the country's metropolitan customers, and while Vodafone 4G is available in a number of regional areas, Vodafone isn't quite as vocal about it as its competitors.
Both Telstra and Optus are currently using a type of carrier aggregation that they refer to as 4GX and 4G Plus respectively. This method, albeit tackled slightly differently by each telco, essentially combines two “channels” of certain frequencies in order to potentially double regular 4G data speeds and network availability.
The catch is that these “double speed” services are only currently available in the major cities and some regional centres, and you’ll need to have a compatible device in order for this to work. Thankfully, most of the newer and more popular devices play nice with both these technologies, such as the Apple iPhone 7, Samsung Galaxy S7, and Google Pixel.
Best 4G price
The biggest challenge with 4G in Australia is the limitation on data caps. Despite the fact that data speeds have been drastically increasing thanks to 4G technology, the data allowance on plans actually went down as the networks were being rolled out, and we’re now seeing price hikes almost across the board.
The good news is that bundled data has slowly been on the rise again and telco's are also starting to actively change the way they charge for excess usage.
Telstra currently have four bring-your-own-phone plans (with a 12 month lock-in period), the smallest of which only offers a piddly 500MB data for $35 a month. There are two Medium-sized offerings, one with 5GB data for $40 a month, and the other with twice the data at 10GB for $50 a month. The Large plan has unlimited talk and text, and a massive 15GB of data per month, however weighs in at a hefty $70 per month.
Additional data packs are available for the heavy downloader, with a $15 purchase giving an extra 2GB of data, $35 for 5GB, or $55 for 8GB – just be sure to cancel this if you don’t need it for the next month, as it does automatically roll on. Even if you go over your limit, you’ll only get charged at $10 a GB which is a huge improvement on the pay-per-MB of the past and has been adopted by all three telco’s.
Although offering a very similar structure to Telstra’s SIM only 12-month plans, Optus’ pricing tier lacks an option on the larger end of the scale, but offers a much stronger small plan.
At $30, $40 and $50 a month, the costs are at least simple to follow. The smallest offers 1.5GB of data, the middle tier (thanks to an online exclusive) offers 10GB, while the top tier … offers 9GB. All plans allow unlimited national talk and text, something missing from all of Telstra’s plans (bar the mammoth $70 plan), and the $50 Optus plan includes $500 of international calls a month, perhaps justifying its lack of competitive data.
Excess data, as with Telstra, is charged at $10 per GB automatically when you exceed your monthly allowance although there doesn’t seem to be the option to purchase any extra data packs.
Vodafone has the widest stretch of 12-month BYO phone plans, ranging from $30 to $60 a month, and also the biggest choice of data limits ranging from 1.5GB to 20GB. Most price tiers give you the choice of whether you’d prefer more data or some included international calls, and all plans include unlimited national talk and text, like Optus, so in this case we’ll just compare the data options.
For $30 you can get 1.5GB, the same as Optus, at $40 you get 9GB, $50 offers 15GB, and the top-tier $60 plan offers a mammoth 20GB data – the biggest available at the moment.
Depending on how you use your data, you could be interested in the new trend of offering exclusive streaming services for free (so they won’t count towards your monthly data limit). At the moment, you can get free music streaming and a 6-month Apple Music account with Telstra, and although you don’t get any free subscriptions, Optus offers free music streaming from Spotify, Google Play Music, Pandora and iHeartRadio.
It's important to note that all the above plans also include varying amounts of talk and text value, which might sway your decision, not to mention the plethora of options when it comes to bundling your plan with a brand new phone.
Best 4G handsets
The most important part of your new contract will be your new smartphone, whether you buy it outright or on a plan will obviously impact significantly on the value, and the phone itself is going to determine whether or not you can make use of the double speed 4GX and 4G Plus.
Possibly the biggest phone for any network right now is the iPhone 7, and all three telco’s are offering it with a variety of plans – none of which are directly comparable – so we’ll look at similarly valued plans.
Telstra’s offering is the most expensive, with 10GB of data and unlimited talk and text (both nationally, and to 10 selected countries) for $105 a month. Optus’ 8GB plan is $92 a month, with unlimited talk and text and $300 included international. Vodafone is the cheapest at $92 a month for 11GB, but you’ll have to consider the lack of international calls and the network itself in making your decision.
When choosing your handset on either Telstra or Optus, it would be wise to get a phone that can make use of their double speed technologies, and although Vodafone don’t currently have the capability, it could be worth future-proofing with a compatible handset on their network as well.
There is currently quite a large range of phones with this capability, so it’s worth checking the Telstra and Optus websites for the full list. Among the more popular models, the iPhone 6s, 7 and SE ranges along with Samsung’s Galaxy S5, S6, and S7 series are all compatible, as are Google’s new Pixel and Sony’s Xperia X series.