Vodafone is turning your 3G reception in to 4G

29 July 2014

At a media event today, Vodafone announced its plans to re-purpose parts of its 850MHz 3G spectrum for use as 4G LTE by the end of this year in metro areas. The telco does not expect this to negatively impact users who are still limited to 3G, thanks to a large portion of them already having made the switch to 4G devices.

The initial stage of this roll-out is aimed for completion in Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane by the end of this year. It should already be live in Newcastle, where the tests have been conducted. If you're a Vodafone customer with a 4G device you won’t have to do anything yourself to benefit from it. You should simply notice one day that your 4G is suddenly better in-doors and is available in some areas where before you could only get 3G.

This is actually important

850MHz is a low-frequency radio bandwidth, just like the 700MHz frequency that Telstra recently announced it will be shortly launching, and that Optus will be itself activating next year.

When it comes to phone reception, low-frequencies are the holy grail. They have a much longer range and are also better at penetrating solid obstacles like buildings, giving you better access when in doors or surrounded by skyscrapers.

Until now, Vodafone’s response to the impending launch of the Telstra and Optus low-frequency 4G networks was unknown. Now we have an answer.

It gets even better

The problem with Optus’ and Telstra’s 700MHz networks is that there are very few handsets on the current market that can support them. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is one, as is the HTC One (M8). The soon-to-be-released LG G3 is also 700MHz compatible. That’s about it. None of the two telco’s current customers that don’t have a compatible device will benefit directly from the new networks.

Vodafone, on the other hand, already has 1.5 million active devices on its network that are compatible with 850MHz 4G LTE. Instead of waiting for future pay-offs after its customers have upgraded their phones, Voda will be dolling out the benefits right away.

And better

We’ve said that low frequencies travel further and penetrate more deeply. Not only do the signals themselves have better range, but by switching its previously 3G-only 850MHz towers over to support 4G, many Vodafone customers that were nowhere near a 4G source will now be well within range of a tower.

The official estimate is that, as of the end of this year, 95% of the Australian metro population (read: the cities listed above) will be covered by 4G. While Vodafone was unable to comment on its current coverage in those markets, they did stress that this is “a significant increase”.

So how much is making the switch, and when?

Vodafone currently holds 20MHz of the 850MHz spectrum. This is the same amount as Optus will release widely in the 700MHz spectrum next year, and half of what Telstra has in 700MHz.

10MHz of Vodafone’s 850MHz holdings will make the switch to 4G by the end of this year. The remaining half will continue to support Vodafone’s 3G customers for a short while. Eventually, the entirety of the 850MHz Voda network will be 4G. The timeframe on this is largely dependent on how quickly current subscribers make the switch to 4G-enabled plans and devices. The projected timeframe for the total change over to 4G on this frequency band is sometime next year (2015).

In summary

There’s a lot of information here, so to make things simpler here are some bullet points:

  • Vodafone will be taking part of its 3G network and switching it to 4G. This is a low-frequency network.
  • Low frequencies are better at penetrating inside buildings and have longer range.
  • Many Vodafone customers in metro areas that currently do not have 4G coverage will soon have it. This is because the 3G towers in their area may be converted to partially pushing out 4G as well.
  • Unlike subscribers to other telcos, Vodafone users will not have to get a new device to benefit from the low frequency upgrades. There are already 1.5 million compatible handsets and tablets on the network.
  • Eventually the whole 850MHz Voda spectrum will be switched to 4G. The initial rollout this year will only use up half of it.

Weirdly enough, Vodafone isn't really planning on advertising this. When asked about the marketing strategy, Benoit Hanssen - Vodafone's Chief Technology Officer - indicated that the belief was customers would notice their increased reception and that it would spread by word of mouth.

If HTC's lack of success is anything to go by, being "quietly brilliant" is not a good marketing strategy. Still, at the very least this seems like an intriguing, unexpected and smart move from Vodafone. Hopefully the benefits will be as noticeable as the telco hopes, and gain back some of its lost market shares.

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