5G in Australia: What to expect in 2020

5G is looking like the bee's knees.

Everything you need to know about the 5G rollout in Australia.

Remember the first iPhone? The landmark evolution in smartphone manufacturing reshaped how we use our handsets. It could take photos *wow*, it could play music *gasp*, and it could access the world wide web *howling*. It was a huge step forward, but if you took a step back in time and attempted half the tasks we perform on our 2020 smartphones, you’d find it painfully difficult. It wasn’t until the iPhone 3G released that things started to look a little more like what we expect from a smartphone these days, and while the iPhone 3G was a powerful phone at the time, the real key to the future was in its 3G network capabilities. Then things took another huge leap forward in 2012 with the iPhone 5, a handset capable of delivering blistering 4G/LTE speeds up to 100Mbps (the theoretical max).

As our smartphones evolve, so do our data-usage habits. What seemed like more than enough yesterday, begins to reach its limit the next, with more connected devices and more bandwidth-intensive tasks (like video calls and online gaming). So the hardware, and the wireless technologies that power them, are continually evolving to support those changes.

5G is the next step in this evolution, and it’s coming to a mobile tower near you.

5G coverage compared

What is 5G?

5G (Fifth Generation) is the latest in wireless communication technology for mobile data networks. Its frequency is divvied up into millimetre waves (mmWave), mid-band and low-band ranges. The millimetre waves being the most important aspect, with average download speeds between 1-2Gbps. These mmWave are super high-frequency and have a short reach, which make it difficult for them to penetrate walls for indoor coverage. It’s why the technology requires mid-band and low-band support and why more 5G “cells” are required at each base station to achieve similar coverage to 4G.

For the everyday user, 5G will slowly become the new norm and when it comes to mobile coverage, you won’t actually have to give it much thought when the rollout is complete (outside of upgrading to a 5G handset). The biggest question you’re likely to face when the 5G rollout is complete is whether you are better off on NBN or 5G Home WiFi.

How fast is 5G?

With potential speeds in excess of 20Gbps, 5G is being eyed as not only a nifty upgrade for smartphone users but even a fixed-line internet replacement for people who can’t access NBN or need a wider range of broadband coverage, for example farmers using IoT (Internet of Things) devices to automate parts of their workload.

Not everyone will get 20Gbps speeds, and not every mobile network will be able to deliver it, but users should, at the very least, get minimum speeds of 50-100Mbps.

5G latency and bandwidth

Then there’s the low latency offered by 5G. Latency is the Round Trip Time (RTT) of your internet connection, the time it takes to send data from your device to the network and back again. The call and response time of every action you perform on the internet. These days, latency and ping are mostly discussed as a benefit for online gaming, where a millisecond’s delay can make all the difference but 5G’s super-low 1ms latency will have benefits for future technologies, like self-driving cars, where a millisecond variance could pose a real risk.

Lastly, there’s the amount of connected devices a 5G connection can handle. 5G will be able to manage more devices simultaneously than 4G is currently able to. That might not mean much if you’re on a super-fast NBN plan at the moment, with two to three people connected at once. But larger households, and those ineligible for NBN, should look forward to better bandwidth on 5G.

When is 5G coming to Australia?

Global adoption of 5G wireless technology kicked off in 2019 and here in Australia, Telstra and Optus have already begun upgrading their networks across the country. Vodafone has swtiched on its first 5G site in Parramatta with rollout expected to hits its stride mid-2020.

None of the three big telcos have committed to a completion date for their respective 5G networks but they do offer updates on current progress.

Optus 5G

Optus kicked off its 5G rollout in 2019 with a goal to reach 1,200 5G sites by March 2020 and the telco is making good progress. It began selling its 5G Home Broadband plans in November 2019, which 5G-ready customers can sign up to now, so long as Optus believes there’s at least a 95% chance you will receive sufficient 5G coverage in your home. If you sign up and find there isn’t sufficient coverage, you’re free to cancel at any time.

The Optus 5G Home Broadband plan will cost you $70 per month with no start-up fee on a 24-month contract, or a $200 start-up fee on a month-to-month deal. It gets you unlimited data, a 50Mbps speed guarantee, and a Nokia 5G Modem.

Optus 5G coverage

Over on the Optus website, you can see that there are live 5G towers in every state bar Tasmania; NSW, VIC, WE, ACT, QLD, SA all have some measure of coverage in densely populated areas. Pockets of coverage span most of Sydney, as well as a few live sites in Newcastle, Central Coast and Port Stephens in NSW alone.

Here’s a quick snapshot of Central Sydney’s coverage from the Optus site.

Optus 5G Coverage Map - Sydney

Telstra 5G

The big blue has always been the coverage king in Australia, but when it comes to the 5G rollout, Optus is giving it a real run for its money. Telstra doesn’t offer 5G Home Broadband plans per se, but it does offer the HTC 5G Hub as an add-on for its mobile broadband plans.
The HTC 5G (one of our top pocket WiFi picks) is a portable powerhouse that can support up to 20 simultaneous connections at once, with an all-day battery life (when it’s not plugged in at home).

On a 24-month contract, the HTC 5G Hub will cost you an additional $17 per month (on top of your chosen plan cost), or $11.33 per month if you’d like to stretch the payments out over 36 months.

What the HTC 5G Hub has that the Optus 5G Home does not, is 4G fallback. So you will connect to the 5G network where it’s available, and to Telstra’s comprehensive 4G network where it’s not.

Telstra 5G coverage

At the time of writing, Telstra is the only 5G option available in Tasmania, with live 5G towers in Launceston and Hobart. As of April 2020, Telstra 5G is live in 32 cities and regional centres across the country, with coverage in Sydney, Central Coast, Newcastle, Maitland, Murwillumbah, Kempsey, Grafton and Coffs Harbour in NSW alone.

Here’s a small snapshot of Telstra’s 5G coverage in Sydney for the sake of comparison with Optus.

To see if your address is eligible, head over to Telstra’s 5G coverage maps.

Telstra 5G Coverage Map - Sydney

Vodafone 5G

In March 2020, Vodafone switched on its first 5G tower in Parramatta, New South Wales, and is continuing its rollout throughout 2020. Vodafone’s website reports that 5G will become available in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, and Perth from mid-2020 on. Overall, Vodafone’s coverage plans span 650 sites, with more to be announced as 5G towers go live throughout 2020.

Vodafone 5G coverage

For up-to-date information on Vodafone’s 5G coverage, head over to the telco’s comprehensive rollout hub. But if you want an idea of where Vodafone 5G will be available in Sydney, take a look at the proposal map below.

Vodafone 5G Coverage Map - Sydney

What is 5G WiFI?

5G Home Broadband (or 5G WiFI) is a product currently available through Optus. As mentioned above, it’s intended to replace your fixed-line broadband connection with a 5G modem that connects to the next-generation mobile network.

It’s still early days in the 5G rollout, and even those that are eligible might not get a strong enough signal to replace their reliable fixed-line plan completely. But Optus has promised a 50Mbps speed guarantee and won’t service your address unless there’s a 95% chance you will receive sufficient speeds. If you don’t, you’re free to cancel at any time, so there’s not a lot of risk involved in being an early adopter.

Optus also has the super handy Optus @Home app, which gives you live speed and stability diagnostics, even when you’re not at home. But the most helpful thing for new 5G Home customers is the app’s setup assistance. Once you set your modem up, the Optus @Home app will act as a compass, pointing you towards the closest 5G tower so you can position your Nokia 5G modem in the prime position for receiving a signal.

5G modems

In Australia, there are two primary 5G modem options available. More will become available as 5G continues to rollout, but in the meantime, you’ve got Telstra’s HTC 5G Hub and the Optus Nokia 5G Home modem. Here’s a little more information on each modem.

Nokia 5G Home from Optus

The Nokia 5G Home modem from Optus has a sharp, cylindrical design. It’s not as small as the HTC 5G Hub below, but it’s also far more compact than your typical antenna-heavy NBN modem. It has an easy-to-read signal indicator that lets you know when your connection is struggling (which the handy-dandy Optus @Home app might remedy).

We’ve not had a chance to put the Nokia 5G Home modem through its paces, but our mates at WhistleOut took it for a whirl and were coloured impressed except for some 5G signal issues at no fault of the modem itself.

The Nokia 5G Modem from Optus comes included with the telco’s $70 5G Home Plan.

Optus 5G Modem
HTC 5G Hub from Telstra

Next up, you’ve got the HTC 5G Hub. This portable modem is more akin to a traditional WiFi hotspot, the sort of device designed to be used on the go. The critical difference is that its the first 5G-ready modem of its kind, supporting up to 20 connections at once. So even though it’s capable of leaving the house, it’s still a reliable solution for in-home 5G coverage.

Telstra 5G Modem - HTC

5G vs NBN

One of the biggest questions surrounding the 5G rollout is whether it’s killing the bees. But the biggest, and the most sensible question is whether 5G has got the grit to replace the often-maligned National Broadband Network.

If we only consider speed, the answer would be yes. 5G is not only capable of speeds much faster than the NBN’s Premium 100Mbps plans, but even its baseline 50Mbps is faster than half of the NBN plans on the market.

With speeds like that, why wouldn’t it replace the NBN? Well, there’s still a lot of unknowns at this stage. How stable with 5G Home WiFi be? How long can coverage be comprehensive enough for you to rely on 5G Home as a fixed-line replacement? Also, how much will telcos charge for the privilege?

Optus was the first to show its hand, with a reasonable $70 per month 5G Home plan. But Telstra and Vodafone are yet to announce their plans for 5G Home. And that monthly $70 fee for early Optus adopters could swing either way as demand grows and competitors enter the mix.

Lastly, we have no idea what the MVNO market will look like. Boost Mobile founder Peter Adderton didn’t seem too thrilled by the immediate impact of 5G when he discussed the next-gen network in February 2020, claiming that Boost would only offer 5G “when it makes a difference to [their] customers.”

Optus was the first network to include MVNOs in its 5G rollout strategy after signing a new 5-year deal with Vocus (iPrimus and Dodo) that includes access to the Optus 5G network. Access will be limited, however, with Optus planning to offer “wholesale access” to MVNOs, limiting the coverage MVNOs can access, so Optus’ 5G network remains the premium option. This is similar to how Telstra currently operates with its mobile MVNOS on the 4G network.

5G Phones Australia

While 5G Home is still in its infancy, 5G smartphones have been available for some time now.

From Optus, you can pick up a 5G-compatible Samsung Galaxy. Optus currently stocks the Galaxy S20 5G, Galaxy S20+ 5G, Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G, Galaxy S10 5G, Galaxy A90 5G, and the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G. Telstra offers the same range of 5G Samsung Galaxy handsets, with an additional LG V50 Thinq 5G device for the Samsung-averse.

Here’s how much the Galaxy S20 Ultra 5G will cost you on Optus and Telstra.

And for a budget alternative, here’s how much the Galaxy A90 5G will cost you on Telstra and Optus.

Those are all the 5G handsets currently available on a plan, but you can also pick up an outright Reno 5G if you’re partial to a bit of Oppo, or a Xiaomi Mi MIX 3 if you’re looking to save some dosh.

Now that you're clued up with 5G, see your options in Australia.

Take a look at the best mobile plans this month.

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Or the best NBN plans for a Home WiFi solution.

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