Mobile Phone Technology in Australia


As mobile phone technology advances with each innovation, the delivery of the next generation mobile communication infrastructure (5G) will bring an abundance of new features and capabilities to approximately 26.7 million mobile handset subscribers in Australia. (ABS, 2018). The past six years have seen an exponential increase in data usage, with a 40% increase in 2016/2017 alone. (ABS, 2018). 5G brings faster data speeds, lower latency, and the ability to connect communities through the Internet of Things (IoT). This paper brings together all the technical capabilities of Australia’s mobile technologies and its communication carriers.

Keywords: 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G, GSM, LTE, FDD, TDD, MIMO, 64QAM, PAMTS, AMPS


Mobile phones are a modern-day communications convenience that has been enhanced with data communication capabilities that allows users to connect to the Internet at anytime, anywhere.

Australia has a colorful history in the development of its mobile technologies. In August 1981, the first mobile phone was deployed as a public system called PAMTS (ACCC, 2018). This was shortly followed by Telecom’s analogue cellular system called AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) in 1987, and by June 1989, 100,000 AMPS subscribers were reached (ACCC, 2018). Optus became the second telecommunications carrier in 1992 and by December that year, Vodafone was the third carrier listed (ACCC, 2018).. GSM/2G was released in April 1993 by Telstra, Optus in May, and Vodafone in October.  By 1994, one million AMPS connections had been made, and in 1996, one million GSM connections were reached (ACCC, 2018). By 1999, Telstra released CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) technology to replace AMPS, and by 2001, the release of GPRS data network for GSM saw the start of the next revolution for mobile communications (ACCC, 2018). In 2003, Telstra launched the 3G mobile network and the other carriers quickly followed suit, and by this time, there were more than 12 million subscribers to the mobile networks (ACCC, 2018).

By 2015, Telstra successfully beat its rivals, Optus and Vodafone to release the 4G network (SBS News, 2015).  As each generation was deployed, the legacy networks such as AMPS and PAMTS were decommissioned, and in more recent times, 2G services have been getting decommissioned. Telstra shutdown their 2G service in December 2016, and Optus followed suit in August 2017 (Telstra Exchange, 2018a; Optus, 2018). Vodafone has finally shutdown it’s 2G service on 30th June, 2018 (Vodafone Australia, 2018a).

Today, Telstra has 99.4% coverage across Australia with it 3G & 4G coverage to ensure a quality of service for its 17 million customers (Telstra Exchange, 2018a). As the industry awaits the confirmation on the 5G technology standards, evolution in the data speeds have taken place with 4GX/4G+ as data speed requirements have increased with the advent of internet streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify. Telstra was the first to delivery 4GX in September 2017.


Licensing & Regulations

The mobile technologies have slowly evolved from 2G, to 3G, 4G and currently carrier-branded 4GX, 4G+ or 4G Plus. These mobile technologies operate in the radiofrequency spectrums, with telecommunication companies using different frequencies such as 850Mhz, 1800Mhz or 2.1Ghz licensed from the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority (ACMA). ACMA is the regulatory body that governs the RF spectrum licensing, standards and codes of practice (Wikipedia, 2018b).

The spectrum licenses are awarded for up to 15 years and there is an annual license tax (ACMA, 2018k). “The core conditions for spectrum licences are set out in section 66 of the Radiocommunications Act 1992” (ACMA, 2018d).

ACMA Licensing Revenue

As RF licenses are sold by the ACMA spectrum auction process, the licensees are allowed the use of these RF frequencies with a defined expiry date. In 2017 alone, the total revenue raised by the spectrum licensing was $1.642billion (ACMA, 2018g). In one auction in the 700MHz band, resulted in $1.55billion, which makes up the bulk of the Telstra 4GX service. The majority of the 2017 spectrum will expire in 2029 to 2032 depending on the RF band (ACMA, 2018g).

4G – Fourth Generation Technology

Released in 2008, Long Term Evolution (LTE) is also known as E-UTRAN (Evolved Universal Terrestrial Access Network), which brings better packet switching capabilities, less complexity and higher data rates (3GPP, 2018b).

It introduced the Evolved Packet System (EPS) as a purely IP-based environment that allows enhanced packet switching capabilities via the connectivity of the base stations and allow things such as OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), modulation up to 64QAM, large bandwidths and spatial multiplexing (3GPP, 2018b).

The 4G network operates in two (2) different ways:

·       TDD-LTE (time-division-duplexing-LTE)

·       FDD-LTE (frequency-division-duplexing-LTE)Majority of the mobile networks are working via FDD-LTE, where 2 separate frequencies are used to for transmitting and receiving data (Optus, 2013). However, TDD-LTE uses the single frequency to achieve data communications in both directions (Optus, 2013).

Optus announced its 4G networks in 2013, indicating that TDD-LTE and FDD-LTE will be used for its networks allowing TDD-LTE at 2300MHz (2.3GHz) and FDD-LTE at 1800MHz. (Optus, 2013). This was a first for any carrier as all other carriers used FDD-LTE.


4GX/4G+ – Faster 4G

Faster data speeds via 4G has been innovated by companies like Qualcomm and Ericsson by leveraging next generation LTE standards such as:

  • ·       LTE-Advanced (carrier aggregation)

  • ·       LTE-Broadcast

  • ·       Voice over LTE (VoLTE)

Telstra obtained majority of the 700MHz spectrum when it became available after the analogue television was switched off and uses the LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation to provide faster internet speeds on its 4GX service (Telstra, 2018a). Telstra also purchased a major portion of the 2500MHz/2.5GHz spectrum in 2013 as well (ACMA, 2018i).

The remaining 700MHz band was sold in 2017 to TPG (738–748 MHz paired with 793–803 MHz) and Vodafone (733 MHz–738 MHz paired with 788 MHz–793 MHz) (ACMA, 2018j). This would be for the FDD / FDD-LTE networks.

Telstra also activated their Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) in September 2017 over their Cat M1 network (Telstra Exchange, 2018b). This has numerous implications to future applications as VoLTE, which allows voice over data, and can potentially mean IoT devices can communicate to each other via VoLTE (Telstra Exchange, 2018b).

Vodafone has enabled their 4G+ via LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation using their 800MHz and 1800MHz RF spectrum bands to achieve higher speeds for their customers (Vodafone 2015).

In August 2015, Optus also launched their 4G Plus LTA-Advanced networks by providing a world first in 3x carrier aggregation, achieving this by using 1x FDD and 2x TDD in the configuration of combination of 20+20MHz of 2300 MHz and 15MHz paired of 1800 MHz spectrum (Singtel Optus, 2018a). Normal 2x carrier aggregation uses combinations of 2300MHz+2300MHz, 700MHz+1800MHz or 700MHz+2600MHz (Singtel Optus, 2018b).


LTE Broadcast / Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service (eMBMS)

LTE Broadcast, also known as Multimedia Broadcast Multicast Service, is a 3GPP LTE standard for broadcasting data across a single frequency network (Qualcomm. 2018b).

This is largely going to be used by communication carriers to allow the broadcasting of major events such as:

·       Live event streaming

·       Realtime Reality TV streaming

·       Radio or Music streaming

·       News, Market, Sports and Weather updates

·       Other media delivery such as youtube, Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio

It is a key feature that communication carriers are leveraging to generate other forms of revenue.

In-flight LTE or Air-to-Ground LTE

As demand for 4G grows and the convenience of accessing the Internet becomes widely accepted, the demand moves towards the air space, flying between cities. However, bringing that convenience into the aeroplane becomes a challenging task with high costs associated with it. Alcatel-Lucent (now Nokia) had developed a solution that may already be widely deployed in Europe since 2016 (Nokia, 2018).   Previous solutions using satellites were costly and inconvenient for the users.

Known as A2G LTE, it will not replace satellite connections (for those over-the-sea long haul flights) but rather complement it with cost efficient solutions that provides fast data services for the passengers.

In Australia, airlines such as Qantas and Virgin Australia have been trialling the technology with Telstra 4G (Phone Arena, 2014). In 2014, Telstra created the Skinet Network utilizing 4G networks and dedicated mobile sites between Melbourne and Sydney (Telstra Exchange, 2018c).

Qantas planes were fitted with 4G antenna fins (above) to enable connectivity to the mobile sites (Telstra Exchange, 2018c). However, it cannot be confirmed if this solution is enabled for Qantas or Virgin Australia, nor the implementation of A2G LTE solution.

What has been confirmed is the use of ViaSat satellite solution using the NBN Skymuster Ka-band satellites for Qantas, as announced by Qantas and ViaSat in 2017 (Qantas Newsroom, 2017; ViaSat, 2017).  According to the ACMA (2018l), Ka-Band satellites use the 17.7–37.5 GHz frequencies.

All Qantas domestic B737s and A330s are expected to be fitted with the solution by the second half of 2018 (Qantas Newsroom, 2017). It is expected that streaming services such as Foxtel, Netflix and Spotify will push the inflight WIFI solution to the limits but there are some free benefits being offered to entice the use of its services (ViaSat, 2018). At this point in time, the implementation of A2G LTE solution is unconfirmed. It is assumed that the ViaSat solution is the only solution implemented.

5G – Fifth Generation Technology

The 5G technology introduces advanced communication protocols to provide faster internet data communication speeds and a “connected environment” between user and device, device-to-device, car to device and any other innovative possibilities. Smart cities with IoT sensors in lights, sewerage pipes, traffic lights, driverless cars and medical sensors will connect via 5G.

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) is touting all the amazing capabilities of 5G and how it will help community and businesses and drive up to $11.8billion of productivity benefits up to 2025 (AMTA, 2018d).

According to the AMTA, 2019 to 2020 will be the commercial launch of 5G and by 2025, mass adoption of the technology (AMTA, 2018c). However, some of the more concerning features of 5G will be the proliferation of cell antennas ranging from small cell to macro cells (as seen in the next photo) (AMTA, 2018c). The small cell and macro cells will be part of a RAN (Radio Access Network) for mobile users and wireless devices connecting to the core network (AMTA, 2018c).

The ACMA have confirmed decisions to re-allocate the 3.6GHz range for 5G use, with the 5.6GHz spectrum for point-to-multipoint use and finally the possible use of 28GHz for regional Australia (ACMA, 2018a; ACMA, 2018b; ACMA, 2018c; ACMA, 2018d). The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is a global initiative to set global technology standards for 5G with the cooperation of seven (7) organizations responsible on defining telecommunication standards (3GPP, 2018a). In December 2017, 3GPP announced the first approved 5G architecture, which allows telecommunication carriers in each country to deliver on the 5G technology based on the architecture (3GPP, 2017). 

According to the AMTA, the 5G spectrum is visualized as below with IoT and coverage occurring in the 1-6GHz range and extreme data rates occurring beyond 6GHz (AMTA, 2018c). As the frequency increases beyond 30GHz, the RF wavelengths become millimetre waves (mmWave).

Some of the technology differences with 5G is the capability to do ‘Massive MIMO’ (Massive Multiple Input, Multiple Output) at the base station (aka. Cell tower). A key difference with these base stations is the number of antenna ports/elements, where 4G base stations would have 2-8 antenna ports, while 5G base stations will have more than 100 antenna elements (AMTA, 2018c).

Massive MIMO provides a very different form of connectivity as opposed to 4G. 4G provides a broad coverage area for the mobile device to have connectivity, however, with 5G Massive MIMO, it allows a direct RF signal to be “steered” to the user in a method called Beam Forming or Beam Steering (AMTA, 2018c). This allows better signal strength and connectivity, while simultaneously providing high speed data connectivity.

As early as 2016, Telstra has been testing 5G in Melbourne in partnership with Ericsson (Telstra, 2018b; Telstra Exchange, 2016). Telstra has tested features such as high data speeds of 20GBps (100 times faster than 4G), RF beam steering to the user or device location and maintaining very low latency capabilities (Telstra Exchange, 2016).

In February 2018, Telstra spent $60million to open the 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast and also announced the world first outdoor 26GHz mmWave data call (Telstra Exchange, 2018d).

In April 2018, Gold Coast hosted the Commonwealth Games, but also show cased the first Australian deployments of 5G to the public (AMTA, 2018d). 

Telstra hosted free 5G wireless for the public as part of its showcasing, while also announcing a 5G-connected car (Telstra Exchange, 2018e).

Optus also announced the deployment of 5G, and showcased its capabilities by providing a variety of virtual reality (VR), video streaming at 8K and 360 degree dome to experience the event games (Singtel Optus, 2018c).

Vodafone Australia is leveraging its global counterparts to start testing on the 3GPP 5G NR standard within the 3.7GHz spectrum (Vodafone Global, 2018a). 

With 2020 and 2021 involving large-scale deployments of 5G infrastructure, the infrastructure is being relayed onto the 4G infrastructure. This means that 5G antennas receive signals from 5G phones and transmit them to 4G communications and backhaul networks. Eventually, NR (New Radio) standards will be used as Telco’s decommission the 3G infrastructure. At this current stage, 5G communications occur in the low to mid-band frequency ranges. These are the 700/800MHz and 3.6GHz frequency range. Recent mmWave frequency bands have been auctioned off and pre-release licenses have allowed Telstra and Optus to trial the 26GHz/27GHz bands. However, 5G devices using mmWave frequencies are yet to be available for general consumer use.


With telecommunication carriers like Telstra & Optus having already deployed 5G in 2019/2020, the future is decidedly defined for those looking to use the latest generation of mobile devices. According to ARN (2011), As of now, 7 percent of NBN internet services would be provided by wireless and/or satellite services, and the majority by fibre (ARN, 2011). NBN Co is looking to leverage 5G technologies as part of its wireless service despite competition from telecommunication carriers.

Finally, the installation of any infrastructure is regulated by the ACMA as part of the Telecommunications Act 1997 and the Codes of Practice, C564:2011, which is maintained by the Communications Alliance (CommsAlliance, 2018a; CommsAlliance, 2018b). As part of C564:2011, the carriers are required to notify councils about proposals to install mobile phone towers or wireless base stations (CommsAlliance, 2018b; ACMA, 2018f). As part of the C564:2011 code, Council and community consultation is required as well as carriers requiring to identify community sensitive locations before the mobile base station/tower installation is initiated (CommsAlliance, 2018b). Each of these installations are registered with the ACMA, and eventually shows up in their Site Location map, however, with the proliferation of small cell antennas and macro cell towers, it will surely test the capabilities of the ACMA Site Location Map to clearly identify these installations. Or will it?


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Version: 1.8

Created: 13 July 2018

Revision Date: 3 Nov 2021

Published Online: 3 Nov 2021