3G war of words

Tony Williams
16 June, 2008
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One of the things you can guarantee in the Australian communications marketplace is that any time you get a major move by one player, one of the others will start complaining about statements and actions.
With IDC predicting 1.3 million 3G iPhones, or thereabouts, coming to Australia in the next five years — and Telstra not currently one of the beneficiaries of Apple’s latest offering — we were sure to hear something from the big Australian carrier.

It appears that its current complaint, as I write this, is that Optus is deceiving us all about how much of Australia will be covered by its iPhone compatible network.

Let’s have a look at the technical reasons behind this. In Australia 3G services are offered on three different frequencies: 850, 900 and 2100 MHz. Optus uses 900 and 2100 MHz for its service and Telstra uses 850 and 2100 MHz. Both companies use the lower frequency in rural areas as you can cover a greater range from each tower.

Now if we look at the technical specifications of the new iPhone it can use 850, 1900 and 2100 MHz frequencies for the 3G High-Speed Downlink Packet Access (HSDPA) standard, and the slower Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) standard at 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz. Notice that Telstra’s 850 MHz network is in the first list while Optus (and Vodafone) can only support the slower EDGE standard on the iPhone in their 900 MHz networks. EDGE is the standard used on the first iPhone model and is sometimes referred to as 2.5G, though terchnically it is part of the ITU 3G definition — which means Optus can say it has 3G data coverage, even though it’s the slower speed EDGE rather than HSDPA.

So when Optus says 98 percent of the population will be able to use an iPhone, is it saying that 98 percent will get high-speed service? It appears not, and this is where Telstra is accusing it of deceptive and misleading practice.

What does this mean for us poor consumers? Well, my prediction is that either Telstra will jump on the iPhone bandwagon and give rural users a good deal, or the unlockers will do a roaring trade for people who want to drop a Telstra SIM into a phone they bought from Vodafone or Optus.

Already one Telstra spokesperson has said "Watch this space." I will be watching keenly.

The possibility that Apple will update the iPhone to support 900 MHz HSDPA some time in the future is a thin one. It’s not needed for most of the markets in which Apple intends to sell the phone

Of course, if you live in a major city and don’t mind a slower service on your rare country trips you’ll be perfectly happy on any network. Optus already claims 2100 MHz service covering over 40 percent of the population (not my house or my office — despite the maps — but all the networks have "black holes").

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