Telstra's mammoth task to save regional mobile network


Telstra has announced the 3G network it introduced in 2006 will be switched off in the next five years to free up spectrum for the rollout of the 5G network.

The network will be switched off in June 2024, but between now and then Telstra will have to upgrade its 4G coverage to ensure regional customers in an area totalling around 770,000 square kilometres across Australia don't lose network access.

While this area is almost a third of the total area Telstra covers, the telco said only a very small percentage of customers would be affected.

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"The Telstra Mobile Network covers about 2.5 million square kilometres and reaches 99.5 per cent of the Australian population - 0.3 per cent of the population has 3G service only," a Telstra spokesperson said.

Telstra shutdown its 2G network in 2016 to reallocate spectrum.
Telstra shutdown its 2G network in 2016 to reallocate spectrum.

"Before we switch off 3G, our intention is to upgrade areas where we currently have 3G-only coverage to provide materially the same coverage with 4G," the spokesperson added.

But it's not just Telstra that might have to upgrade.

Customers in regional areas who haven't bought a new phone in a while may have to start saving up for a new one.

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Any Apple devices older than the iPhone 5 will need upgrading to access 4G, but given they'll be more than 12 years old by the time the 3G network is switched off, all but the most conservative consumers will likely have done so by then anyway.

Many Android phones began including 4G capabilities earlier than iPhones, but connectivity varies between devices.

Those who make do with their old Nokia will have to upgrade, but this doesn't mean they'll be forced onto smartphones, as several "dumbphones" on the market still support 4G connectivity.

On the plus side, regional customers experiencing 4G for the first time will notice a significant increase in download speeds and data transfer rates.

It's not just Telstra customers who will be impacted either.

Several mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) purchase wholesale access to the Telstra network that they then sell on to their customers.

While many MVNOs generally provide better value, some of them don't get access to the full network or cut corners in other areas such as customer service.

Some of the MVNOs on Telstra's network include BoostMobile, Belong, Aldi Mobile, Pennytel and Lycamobile.

The move to switch off networks is not without precedent.

At the end of 2016, Telstra switched off the 2G network to provide more spectrum for the modern 4G network.

With the rollout of 5G technology, which supports significantly faster data rates than 4G, Telstra now needs more spectrum.

The 850MHz spectrum carrying 3G will be reallocated to 5G.

Telstra group executive, networks & IT Nikos Katinakis said in a blog post the spectrum would help meet Australia's data requirements in the future.

"The era of 5G will bring ever greater advancements in areas like mobile gaming, virtual reality experiences, HD video conferencing, driverless cars and other applications that haven't even been dreamt up yet," Mr Katinakis said.

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The 2024 end date has been announced well ahead of time to give customers forewarning and allow them to upgrade to a compatible 4G device if they need to.

A Vodafone spokesperson said the company currently had no plans to turn off its 3G coverage.

"A large number of customers continue to rely on 3G services particularly for voice calls, especially in regional areas. We want to ensure that any potential disruptions to our customers are thoroughly addressed before 3G network closure plans are considered," they said.

An Optus spokesperson said the company has not decided on the timing of its 3G shutdown but will notify its customers once plans are confirmed.

Are you one of the 0.3 per cent of Telstra customers who only have access to 3G? Let us know in the comments below.

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