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5G in Australia:
The long road to a faster future

5G has a lot to offer, but only if Australian telcos can overcome the challenges inherent in building a high-speed network.

5G is the next big thing in mobile phone technology. At least, that's the pitch we're hearing from an increasing number of telcos and smartphone manufacturers. It promises to deliver speeds many times faster than those possible on 4G, enabling smoother video streaming at higher resolutions and unlocking new opportunities in areas like remote computing and virtual reality.

As appealing as this high-speed future sounds, making it a reality isn't as simple as turning a few antennas on. 5G differs from 4G in some key ways, and those differences create significant hurdles that communication companies have to overcome if they want 5G to become the network of choice across Australia.

To find out how Australia's largest telecommunication companies are tackling the challenges of 5G, we spoke with representatives from Telstra, Vodafone, Nokia and Ericsson as well as a number of academics conducting research in the field of mobile communications. Their responses revealed a range of creative solutions for getting Aussies connected to 5G while also grounding some of the loftier expectations surrounding the new technology.

Before we dive into the specifics, it's worth running down the differences between 5G and 4G and how they make rolling out 5G difficult in a country like Australia.

The challenges facing 5G

The frequency trade-off

At a basic level, the biggest difference between 5G and 4G is radio frequency. 5G transmits data on higher frequencies than 4G. Without going into deep technical detail, a higher-frequency radio wave can transmit more data than a lower-frequency wave in the same amount of time. This ultimately translates to faster speeds and snappier response times when browsing the web or streaming video.

The catch here is that higher-frequency radio waves degrade faster than lower-frequency waves, limiting the range at which they can effectively operate. They also have more trouble passing through solid objects like walls and windows, further impacting their reliability in dense environments.

5G Bandwidth chart
The above chart is a generalisation only. Actual bandwidth-to-coverage ratios may differ depending on the situation.

Associate professor Mark Gregory, who heads up Next Generation Internet Architecture Research at RMIT University, cited an example of this you may have already experienced if your home Wi-Fi network supports both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks.

"People will notice that if the [router] is in the lounge room, they can get 2.4GHz in the backyard but the 5GHz may only reach halfway through the house. If you look at the 3.6GHz band, which is sort of between the two of those, it hasn't got the ability to move as freely as the frequencies below 2GHz, which is where most of the 4G action is," Gregory said.

In Australia, 4G networks currently use frequencies ranging from 700MHz up to 2.6GHz. The first phase of the 5G rollout will operate at 3.6GHz. While that's not quite as large a leap as going from 2.4GHz Wi-Fi to 5GHz Wi-Fi, the same principle applies. A single 5G radio wave transmitted from a network tower will not reach as far as an equivalent 4G radio wave, especially if it has to travel through solid objects like the walls of a building or dense foliage.

Aussie telcos could solve this issue by adding extra radio towers and access points to their networks. That would be a considerable expense they'd likely need to recoup from their customers. It would also significantly slow down the rollout of 5G, reducing user uptake and further increasing the costs to invested businesses.

Image: Ericsson

Variable speeds

Most of the discussion around 5G focuses on the super-fast speeds it enables. Often, though, the speeds touted in press releases and marketing material reflect performance in ideal environments with minimal interference from physical objects or other electronic devices, such as in enclosed labs or isolated test sites.

The real world, on the other hand, isn't quite so neat and tidy. Speeds tend to be far lower and less consistent, as our own Alex Kidman discovered when he put Telstra's 5G network to the test. Compared to the 1.2Gbps Telstra showed off in a demonstration at its Telstra Experience Centre or the nearly 2Gbps Oppo hit at the launch of its Oppo Reno 5G smartphone, Alex clocked average speeds ranging from around 100Mbps up to around 460Mbps. Decent speeds, to be sure, but a fraction of what many telcos are promising.

5G Interference diagram

There's also a degree of mixed messaging going on with the 5G rollout in Australia. Initially, 5G in Australia will be limited to the 3.6GHz frequency band. In countries like the US, 5G operates on "millimetre" waves of 30GHz or higher. Millimetre waves offer tremendously high speeds but only within a very limited range, making them useful primarily within buildings or when direct line-of-sight is available.

The problem here is that a lot of 5G speed claims apply only to millimetre frequencies, not the 3.6GHz band that Australia is using. It won't be until the second phase of the 5G rollout (which has yet to receive government approval) that such high speeds will even be possible.

Spectrum restrictions

Speaking of government approval, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has created a few hurdles of its own for telcos investing in 5G. To promote competition between local telcos, it limited the amount of spectrum within the 3.6GHz band each could bid for during the 5G spectrum auction in late 2018. These restrictions prevented any one telco from purchasing more than 60MHz of spectrum in metro regions and 80MHz in regional areas.

While this helps avoid a single telco from monopolising the market, it doesn't align with recommendations from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) that carriers should secure 100MHz of contiguous spectrum to ensure optimal performance for their users. Of course, it is possible the ACMA will free up more spectrum in the future. If it doesn't, congestion could become an issue as more Aussies make the switch to 5G.

If you look at the 4G rollout, there are areas of Australia where there's still only 3G. Rollouts take about 10 years to do. You're still working on one technology while you've started rolling out the latest one in the cities. You're still rolling out the previous one in regional areas." – Mark Gregory, RMIT University

Staggered rollout

Building a new mobile network takes time, especially for a country as vast as Australia. In fact, there are still populated areas of the country where 4G coverage is unavailable, as Gregory explained:

"If you look at the 4G rollout, there are areas of Australia where there's still only 3G. Rollouts take about 10 years to do. You're still working on one technology while you've started rolling out the latest one in the cities. You're still rolling out the previous one in regional areas."

For context, 4G officially launched back in late 2014, and some phone manufacturers continue to sell 3G-only handsets to this day.

With 5G adopting a similar staggered rollout to 4G, it's going to be years before 5G coverage reaches critical mass and becomes an expectation rather than a luxury.

The type of 5G experience you get and receive is not going to be the same as the 5G experience you'll get in a true 5G band, but it will still give them a better experience than 4G. It'll get lower latency, it'll get higher speeds." – David Cooper, Ericsson.

How companies are combating 5G limitations

There are a lot of hurdles 5G has to overcome to achieve widespread adoption here in Australia. This is hardly news to Ericsson and Nokia. Both companies are responsible for the core hardware and technologies Aussie telcos are using to power their 5G networks. Unsurprisingly, they've spent a lot of time mulling over how best to tackle the issues mentioned above.

Take the limited range of 5G, for instance. That's a by-product of the higher-frequency 3.6GHz radio waves, so both Ericsson and Nokia are exploring ways of incorporating lower frequencies into the 5G rollout.

"Ericsson has got a technology which we call Ericsson spectrum sharing that allows us to roll out 5G in the existing 4G bands," explained David Cooper, vice president of networks for Ericsson Australia and New Zealand.

"If you think about carriers in Australia, they're due to roll out 5G on the 700MHz band as well, simultaneously operating 4G and 5G within that band."

Image: Ericsson

Adam Bryant, CTO of Nokia for the Oceania region, envisions a similar approach in the near future.

"I think if you look at where the spectrum is, a lot of the operators have announced that they're going to be turning off their 3G networks within the next two to three years.

"That frees up spectrum in the low band, which has a much better range. We would expect [network operators] would refarm that to 5G, when they've cleared that off," Bryant said.

It's not a perfect solution, though. Lower-frequency bands lack the speed and capacity of high-frequency 5G, even if network optimisations allow for better performance than 3G or 4G.

As Cooper explains:

"The type of 5G experience you get and receive is not going to be the same as the 5G experience you'll get in a true 5G band, but it will still give them a better experience than 4G. It'll get lower latency, it'll get higher speeds."

Spectrum allocation becomes a greater issue, too.

"The challenge as you move to the lower bands is you get a smaller contiguous channel allocated to you by ACMA," explained Adam Bryant. "So we'd be looking at potentially 20MHz contiguous or even 10MHz contiguous for the 5G spectrum. But because it's much more efficient, we should still be seeing more than 100Mbps easily, in terms of capacity."

Even so, Cooper acknowledges that 5G is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Given Australia's geography, some people are simply going to miss out.

"5G is not really a coverage solution. It's not going to fix all those problems that farmers have got. 5G will initially be targeted into metro areas for either capacity relief or specific applications that need low latency, high reliability, high availability, etc."

We are seeing in-building penetration which is much better than the equivalent 4G at that same frequency." – Channa Seneviratne, Telstra

The telco side

Overcoming the limitations of 5G requires work on the telco side, too. We spoke with Channa Seneviratne, network engineering executive at Telstra, to discuss how Australia's largest telco is paving the way for a smooth 5G rollout.

"To bring 5G to life, it's not just about buying some new tech and sticking it in a tower and turning it on," said Seneviratne.

"You actually have to develop the whole ecosystem.

"We work right across the board to develop and bring an ecosystem to life. We work with the chipset manufacturers, the key ones like Intel and Qualcomm to understand what are they doing and their roadmaps. We did trials with Nokia, with Ericsson, with Samsung, with Huawei, the Chinese vendors. We leave no stone unturned in terms of understanding what is the best of breed, and what are the most advanced systems that we can bring to our customers in Australia for 5G," he said.

Image: Telstra

One of those systems is a suite of transmission technologies that increase the efficiency of radio communication. Two of the key technologies are adaptive beam-tracking and beam-forming. These are systems that allow radio antennas to focus their transmissions directly at connected users rather than simply blasting radio waves in a blind arc.

"In a given [4G] site we might have three sub-sites or cells," explained Seneviratne.

"They normally cover 120 degrees. One cell, 120 degrees, will send out its transmission right throughout the coverage area. It doesn't matter who you are, it covers this whole area.

"With 5G, what's different is that [the antenna array] actually tracks where individual users are in that same footprint area, and sends out a much lower energy beam that is targeted directly at where the customer is as they move. Effectively, what that means is that we are seeing in-building penetration which is much better than the equivalent 4G at that same frequency.

"For example, we have 4G at 1,800MHz, and what we're seeing at 3.6GHz on 5G is that we're getting in-building penetration as good as 1,800MHz," he said.

In this way, adaptive beam-forming can compensate for some of the range limitations of 5G. It's not a perfect solution, though, as Seneviratne admits:

"Having said that, what we see in practice is that 1,800MHz 4G doesn't get as far as 700MHz 4G. So there will be some gaps and it will mean perhaps some additional towers need to be brought online."

All around Australia, we'll be targeting larger regional centres. We will go there. Yes it will take time. Australia is a large country." – Channa Seneviratne, Telstra

As we mentioned earlier, it's going to take a few years at least for 5G to achieve mass coverage across Australia. To compensate for this, Aussie telcos plan on making use of spectrum bonding, a technology that enables 5G smartphones to use both 5G and 4G connections at the same time.

"When we launch 5G, the way it works is it uses the 5G spectrum, but it also dual-connects – in other words, it bonds – with 4G as well. So your new 5G handset supports 5G and 4G simultaneously. You get a 5G pipe bonded to a 4G pipe, and you get a much bigger data pipe" Seneviratne said.

Not only does this allow for faster download speeds, it also minimises the impact when passing between areas with and without 5G coverage. Step inside a building 5G can't penetrate and your phone will automatically switch from the bonded 5G+4G connection to 4G only. Once you're back outside, you'll reconnect to 5G and have access to its higher speeds again.

Image: Finder

Still, this doesn't change the fact that widespread 5G availability is a ways off. Rural and regional areas of the country will have to wait even longer than metropolitan city centres, though Telstra isn't ignoring the importance of rural coverage.

"When we launch 5G, yes, it will be in capital cities, but our next phase will see us going to some selected regional areas," said Seneviratne.

"All around Australia, we'll be targeting larger regional centres. We will go there. Yes it will take time. Australia is a large country."

It's one thing to say you're targeting regional areas, but Telstra has already made some notable contributions to pushing 5G beyond metro cities. The telco is a contributing member of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the body responsible for standardising communication protocols for mobile technology. It has leveraged this position to help shape the latest standards to account for Australia's unique geography.

"It's a historical fact that every time a new generation of wireless has come out, whether it's 2G, or 3G or 4G, it comes up that the towers are limited to a maximum radius of 35 kilometres. But because we are members of 3GPP, we actually did some fundamental research of the Australian environment, and particularly the flora. The gumtree has got a particular impact on the way radio propagation works.

"We have got agreements embedded called the Extreme Rural Case, where we've embedded in the standards the capability to transmit beyond 35km up to 70 and 100 kilometres. That's now in standards for the very first time.

"That's one of the key things that we need to be able to provide coverage from a given tower to the largest parts of the landmass. That allows us to bring 5G to those places where we turn on that capability," Seneviratne said.

Should you be excited for 5G?

Having spoken to the key players involved in rolling out 5G across Australia, it's clear that while there are plenty of challenges to overcome, both the telcos and the technology providers have plans in place to address or at least mitigate the biggest obstacles in their way. There's no hand-waving going on here – everyone we talked to fully acknowledged that the road to the promised 5G future will be a long and difficult one. To a person, the belief is that the effort will be worth it, especially as it will propel Australia to the forefront of the global mobile communications industry.

That said, it's important to understand the practical limitations of 5G before buying into the hype. Range and coverage will be weaker than 4G, even with the technological optimisations going on under the hood. It's also worth keeping in mind that the initial rollout of 3.6GHz 5G in Australia won't offer the blazing speeds promised by the millimetre wave 5G networks deploying in other countries around the world.

But these are short-term issues and 5G is a solution aimed at the future. In this context, there's reason to get excited for the possibilities 5G will unlock going forward.

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Claire Masterson, Massive MIMO and Beamforming: The Signal Processing Behind the 5G Buzzwords, Analog Devices, June 2017, (accessed May 2019)

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