Vodafone reveals 3G network expansion

The expansion will be fuelled by the closure of the 3GIS network which has been shared between Hutchison (now part of VHA after it was bought by Vodafone) and Telstra since 2004 in a joint venture

Mobile telco VHA (Vodafone Hutchison Australia) has unveiled a giant expansion of its consolidated 3G mobile network, including the construction of a new network using the same 850MHz spectrum that Telstra has made popular with its rival Next G offering.

The expansion will be fuelled by the closure of the 3GIS network which has been shared between Hutchison (now part of VHA after it was bought by Vodafone) and Telstra since 2004 in a joint venture. That 2100MHz network will now shut down in 2012 and its assets dispersed into other networks owned by Telstra and VHA.

Today's announcement reflects the long-awaited consolidation of VHA's disparate networks it has been planning to bring together after it was formed from the merger of Vodafone and Hutchison. The telco has already allocated several large contracts to vendors such as Nokia Siemens Networks And Ericsson to commence work on the upgrade and integration of the networks.

Today, VHA said in a statement that its assets would be merged into a single network, making full use of its infrastructure. The company will:

  • Construct a new 850MHz network to support the growing use of smartphones and mobile broadband, including 1,500 new sites. 350 sites have already been turned on and a further 50 are expected to go live before the end of November. The 850Mhz spectrum has proved particularly effective in providing coverage deep inside buildings.
  • Build 1,400 new sites on its existing 2100Mhz network, including 900 in capital cities. Part of this work will utilise the assets from the closure of the joint venture with Telstra.
  • Construct 500 new regional sites.
  • Launch femto cells in 2011 -- allowing businesses and customers to deploy tiny mobile phone cell receivers on their own premises. Trials are currently underway – with VHA expecting its first business customers before Christmas.
  • Integrate what VHA calls 'new transmission improvements' – such as enabling network infrastructure for the Internet Protocol, as well as continuing to roll out fibre infrastructure to tower sites – a move that will help the mobile telco interconnect with the planned National Broadband Network fibre in future.
  • Continue LTE trials in the 1800MHz band with Huawei – in Newcastle, NSW. Download speeds have ranged up to 73Mbps. LTE – or Long-Term Evolution – represents the next step in the 3G mobile broadband upgrade path. All of Australia's mobile telcos are currently trialling it

VHA chief executive Nigel Dews said the telco was creating a “stronger, better network” for customers, and had already invested $550 million in the network, with “much more planned”.

However, there were a number of details missing from VHA's media release which a spokesperson could not immediately clarify. For example, VHA has not said what network speeds customers will be able to get access to through its network enhancements.

Last week Telstra launched a new mobile broadband modem, saying it facilitated typical download speeds in limited areas of between 1.1Mbps and 20Mbps – with peak theoretical speeds ranging up to 42Mbps on paper. It is unclear how VHA's network plans compared with Telstra's speeds.

In addition, it remains unclear how customers' access devices – such as USB modems and smartphones – will connect to the separate 3G networks if there are overlapping frequencies available. The rollout will bring the number of different spectrum ranges in which VHA operates networks to three -- 2100MHz, 900MHz (in regional areas) and 850Mhz.

Network shutdown

Telstra and VHA do not expect the closure of the 3GIS network to significantly impact customers.

"There is no change for customers on the Next G network and no change for customers in regional and rural Australia," said Telstra chief marketing officer Kate McKenzie in a statement. "The exit of the joint venture will go unnoticed by most of the customers still using the earlier network, because their handsets will automatically roam to the GSM network for voice calls and SMS."

The impact will be that from 2012, customers still using the old network will be unable to use their handsets for 3G services such as video calling. but McKenzie said this wasn't a big deal -- only 158 customers have watched mobile Foxtel on their handsets on the network in recent months -- and only 1,500 have placed video calls."

On paper, the date for the network to be closed is 31 August 2012, but Telstra said this may be brought forward to "a date from 1 January" that year.

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