Australia has begun its 5G roll out, but it still has a very long way to go.
5G has the potential to transform life as we know it. That sounds like an exaggeration, but with the expansion of the Internet of Things and new artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, a strong, fast, reliable mobile internet connection could put the last piece of the puzzle in place for a futuristic-feeling world.
When 5G was in the developing stages, the two major Australian telcos capitalised on the new technology to promote their brand, striving to deliver national and international “firsts”. However, all this competition has ultimately not taken Australia very far in the grand scheme of the 5G rollout.
5G in Australia is still in the infancy stages, and a lack of transparency from the telcos promoting their 5G network could leave customers unimpressed by the current reality of 5G coverage and connection.
Telstra vs Optus
From the start, the Australian 5G battle has been between Telstra and Optus. The only remaining holder of infrastructure, Vodafone, has opted to wait until the technology matures before they being their 5G campaign. That might turn out to be a sensible option, as in many areas it seems the other major telcos may have gotten ahead of themselves.
While both strived in a marketing war, the “firsts” they achieved – such as first live 5G broadcast or the first public 5G connection, for example – were largely just that: marketing. The Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast was seized as an opportunity to push their 5G agenda on the world stage, but in general the achievements were more theoretical than advantageous, such as switching on a 5G connection while no one yet had a 5G device, or creating a technology centre to showcase a 5G connection that wasn’t actually operational for the average user.
The State of 5G in Australia
Both telcos have theoretically lived up to their promise so far – it’s 2019, and 5G sites have been switched on, there is an extensive roll-out planned by both companies, 5G capable phones have been released and 5G plans are being offered to the public.
In practice, however, 5G may as well not yet exist. Coverage is so patchy as to be non-existent, and even covered areas have major barriers to normal use of the network – for example, the 5G signal in many places can’t penetrate indoors. In the vast, vast majority of areas in Australia, a 5G signal is not available. However, even when there is a 5G signal, at this stage many consumers report no real noticeable difference in speed or latency than their 4G connection.
Australian 5G Devices
While there are a very limited number of 5G capable devices available for the public, most major releases of new phone models (notably the latest iPhones and the Pixel 4) have opted to wait until the technology is more developed before they add 5G connectivity to their list of features. And they have good reason – current 5G technology requires a much chunkier handset to hold the extra battery and hardware needed to support it, as well as the unavailability of the signal for most people.
While early adopters will be eager to get their hands on the latest tech and grow with the technology, the majority of people planning to replace their phones are likely to hold off as long as possible to take advantage of the leaps in development that are certain to take place in the coming months and years.
In fact, many analysts are predicting a “super cycle” in 2020 where consumers who have held off on purchasing a new phone are finally happy with the state of 5G technology and replace their 4G phones around the same time. An iPhone release that includes 5G is likely to heavily contribute to this turn of events.
The issue with the marketing situation vs the reality of 5G is that many under-informed consumers will invest in a 5G device, expecting to access the benefits of the latest network. In fact, the network is just not ready, and consumers will need to be patient for quite some time.
Why Are We Behind?
One of the reasons behind the slow roll-out could actually be the relatively excellent quality of the 4G networks in Australia. With less incentive to push ahead, it’s unlikely that the telcos who hold infrastructure will invest as heavily in the new network as those in a country where the 4G network is not meeting basic requirements.
There has also been an issue with hardware vendors. Australia’s growing suspicions around Chinese involvement in their infrastructure has restricted companies who have previously relied on their products and technology – especially Optus and Vodafone, who use some Huawei tech for their networks. Of course, they will eventually find a work-around, but it could take some extra time.
Boosting the Australian Network
While 5G development in Australia is moving slowly, it is still moving. Australia does present some unique challenges, such as the variety of terrain, harsh weather conditions and low population density across wide spaces outside of the city. However, even in the major cities, so far 5G roll-out has been underwhelming – especially in relation to the advertising around 5G.
In other countries, services like 8K broadcasting, live 360 HD sports broadcasting, 5G-enabled virtual reality and augmented reality, and many more are driving early customer adoption of the technology and therefore the national networks’ motivation to expand it. In Australia, there are still groups campaigning against 5G in fear of completely unscientific claims that the signal is harmful.
For now, 5G is limited to very small spaces within capital cities, and a very small number of early adopters who have made the effort to sign up for the latest 5G-enabled tech. So far, the experience has been underwhelming, to say the least. However, with a predicted snowball effect as more and more 5G sites go live and the relevant tech is improved, we can all hope that Australia still stands some chance of catching up to the global standards of 5G.