Telstra and Optus have both begun delivering 4G services in Australia, but Vodafone, the number three telco, is yet to begin offering next-generation mobile technology.
However, the embattled telco has put the wheels in motion and will launch 4G early next year – but how long customers will have to wait is not yet known.
The telco has not been shy in investing in its network over recent years, spending $1 billion on it from mid-2009 to the end of 2011. It has spent another $700 million upgrading its network this year, with the telco to make “further announcements” in the new year on how much it will invest in 2013.
How Vodafone is upgrading to 4G
Peter Ryan, general manager of networks at Vodafone, says Vodafone does not need to build new towers to facilitate its 4G rollout.
“What [we’ve had] to do is over the last 18 months … we’ve deployed brand new Huawei radio access equipment across our whole network, which is a single radio technology,” he says.
“So in one cabinet we’ve got 2G, 3G and all the variations of 3G across 2100MHz and 850MHz spectrum. What that’s enabled us to do – because that equipment is LTE ready – it makes the jump for us to LTE quite a small step.”
Vodafone inserts new data cards at base stations to prepare them for LTE, with some base stations built with pre-installed data cards to make them 4G-ready.
“You’ve got a rack with vacant slots which take a cartridge of some sort, which is about the size of an A5 piece of paper…” Ryan says.
“It’s a couple of inches wide and … it’s got a number of contacts at the back and you just insert it into that slot, make some minor cabling adjustments at the back and then that’s it. You plug a PC into the front and you download the configurations specific to that site and you’re good to go.”
Some adjustments to antennas on base stations are also required, depending on the type of site.
Vodafone will replace around 5800 existing 2G and 3G base station sites with Huawei’s SingleRAN equipment. It will also install Huawei network equipment at more than 2200 new base station sites.
Currently all Vodafone base stations are 4G ready, with the second phase of its 4G rollout including ensuring all its sites have the right transmission and auxiliary equipment (antennas).
“What we also need to do is we’re in the process of quite an aggressive transmission upgrade program where we’re uplifting the bandwidth across all our sites. So in addition to installing cards on those base stations we also have to uplift the transmission.”
The insertion of the cards is a relatively straightforward process and typically takes one to two hours. Ryan says the most challenging aspect has been moving to Huawei network equipment.
“Having completed that, which was a substantial piece of work, the installation of the cards is a very basic straight-up activity for us. Then it’s really just the rollout of this additional bandwidth across our transmission network, which is underway,” he says.
Vodafone has also signed a joint venture agreement with Optus to share around 1000 mobile base stations. The telcos will also partner to build 500 new base stations around the country.
However, Ryan says the new base stations aren’t specifically to facilitate 4G and will be capable of supporting 2G and 3G as well.
“It’s all about enriching and increasing the depth and breadth of both our networks. It’s not a precursor for our initial deployment of LTE,” he says.
Like Telstra and Optus, Ryan says Vodafone plans to roll out 4G in metro areas first – areas with the greatest demand – and then expand to other areas where customers “have the greatest need”.