Wireless Broadband in the Upper Mountains – 3G

Thursday, May 8th, 2008

You might have seen the reports in the Gazette about opposition to a mobile phone tower in Faulconbridge. This is part of the network upgrade that is to deliver fast wireless data speeds to the Blue Mountains for users of the Vodafone and Optus networks.
These 3G (for 3rd generation) systems offer access to the internet ate speeds that often exceed the wireline ADSL service available on traditional phones.
Over the last few months a couple of friends have shared the roll-out plans for various networks in the upper mountains region.
The NextG network replaced the old CDMA service, and while there are issues for users who are on the fringe of coverage areas (the signal doesn’t travel as far), on the whole it will probably be a good move. The new network offers speeds up to about 7Mbps, although typical speeds are slower, but still several megabits. The other advantage is the NextG network is HSDPA, the standard just about everybody is using, so handsets and modems will be cheap in time.
This network is running now, and pretty well covers the upper mountains. I don’t believe there are any plans to further expand coverage in our area, so if you cannot get it now, you are probably out of luck.
Optus and Vodafone launched a joint network upgrade for metropolitan areas last year, with them sharing the cost of upgrading the base stations to 3G. Interestingly, the information I have says the metro region includes base stations all the way to Leura. I also suspect they expect to cover Katoomba from the Leura station, so don’t read that as excluding Katoomba. Even Blackheath might get some coverage as the straight line distance will be within range.
I haven’t got a date on when the upgrade will go ahead, but the Optus coverage website says upgrades will be done by July 2008.
I don’t believe they will make this date, based on some scheduling information I have seen from Vodafone.
As the other partner in the Optus expansion, Vodafone’s network will come on at the same time. Their project plan states all metro upgrades (the whole joint venture project) will be complete by May 2009. This is why I doubt the Optus date.
Significantly, delays like that in Faulconbridge could extend this deadline further, and I am unaware whether the Leura upgrade will require a new mast (and possible associated delays) or whether the existing sites will suffice.
The second part of the Vodafone story is their 3G upgrade for non-metro sites. This is a separate project on their own, aiming to cover 95% of the population (slightly more than they cover now) with 3G services.
This project is scheduled to complete by December 2008, and has Ericcsson supplying the kit. Interestingly, they intend to upgrade all nodes then switch them all on at the same time, rather than as the upgrades are completed.
Vodafone claims after this upgrade you will be able to access 3G services anywhere you can currently get a standard GSM signal from them.
At the time of writing, the Vodafone 3G signal extends just west of Lapstone, with slower GPRS available for most of the train ride to the Upper Mountains.
3 launched the first 3G network, covering a fair bit of Sydney, but coverage peters out in the lower mountains. 3 have no current plans to extend this, so mountains residents will have to continue looking enviously at the cheap data bundles they offer. Note that 3 users can access data in the mountains, but it is via roaming onto Telstra GPRS at ruinous expense ($1.65 per MB) and pretty slow.
I’m including Unwired here even though their technology is different from the phone companies. They currently offer no service in the upper mountains and have no firm plans to extend here. They do expect to change their network architecture to WIMAX, which will, in theory, allow wider coverage, so a future expansion would cost less.
That said, they do recognise the need to expand coverage, so we’ll see what happens.

If you have money to burn, or a critical need for mobile broadband, then Telstra NextG is your only current option. Optus and Vodafone offer some cheap data plans, but the best Optus offers require you to bundle your home phone (and they do not extend their best deals for fixed lines to the mountains) and neither service operates at broadband speeds in the Upper Mountains yet.
The interesting thing will be to see whether the Optus/Vodafone upgrades scheduled for the upper mountains happen before or after the Australia wide Vodafone upgrade. It would be pretty annoying if rural areas get a 3G competitor to Telstra before the mountains.