Australian Phone Networks and Frequencies Explained


WhistleOut
04 April 2017


A phone that works on one network will not necessarily work on another. If you’re buying a phone from overseas, or planning a trip Down Under, be sure to check if your phone will function on Aussie networks beforehand.

Look up your device specifications and taking care to ensure any information you find is for the same country model as your phone. This can usually be done on a device manufacturer’s website.

Once you have the figures, you can compare them to the frequencies we’ll list below. The most important frequencies for you to keep an eye out for are: 700MHz, 850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2100MHz.

Aussie carriers and networks


2G
(Calls & Text)

3G (Calls, Text,
Broadband)
4G
(Fast broadband)

Telstra

N/A 850MHz
2100MHz
700MHz
900MHz
1800MHz
2100MHz
2600MHz
Optus
& Virgin Mobile
N/A
900MHz
2100MHz
700MHz
1800MHz
2100MHz
2300MHz
2600MHz
Vodafone
900MHz
850MHz
900MHz
2100MHz
850MHz
1800MHz

The three mobile networks in Australia are owned and operated by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. The numerous other service providers all work on one of these networks. These smaller telcos are called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) and they resell access to the mobile networks. Typically MVNOs are smaller companies, with lower overheads, and can offer basic services at a cheaper rate.

Australian networks use the GSM standard. This is the same as most other countries, although some places like the US and Japan also rely on CDMA. If you have a CDMA-only phone you will not be able to access any of the networks in Australia.

Each of the major networks operates over its own set of frequencies. These often overlap, but do not always. Those listed above are the main frequencies utilised by each Australian carrier.

2G Shutdown

If you're using an older phone, like a feature phone, you soon won't be able to use it in Australia. Australia's telcos are currently in the process of shutting down their 2G cellular networks. Telstra has already closed its 2G network, Optus is in the process of closing its 2G network, and Vodafone is closing its 2G network at the end of September this year. This will also apply to any MVNO powered by these telcos. 

This can also be an issue if you have a dual-SIM device. Older dual-SIM smartphones were limited to 2G on the second SIM slot. This means that you won't be able to put an Australian SIM into your secondary slot, but you'll still be able to use it in your primary SIM. 

Plans and trends

If you’re bringing a phone from overseas, or taking a phone between carriers, you’re probably looking at either a month-to-month, or prepaid plan.

Month-to-month, AKA 'SIM-only', AKA 'BYO phone', is a post-paid plan. This is because you pay at the end of the month, after you have been using the network. It’s like a contract plan, which are common in many countries, but your term is only one month long and there are no phone subsidies. Just make sure you check how far in advance you have to notify your carrier you’re leaving; some require a full month’s warning.

Month-to-month plans mean that you can't run out of credit. You are given a monthly allocation of calls, texts (usually infinite) and data. Go over any of these and you will start paying excess usage fees, rather than being cut off. Don't worry; Australian carriers are required to alert you via text at 50%, 85% and 100% of your usage cap within 48 hours of you reaching those markers.

Prepaid is a system that is used the world over. You purchase a certain amount of credit for calls, text and data in advance. Once these are used up, you have to pay more before you can access the network for those services again. Prepaid credit in Australia generally expires after 30 days, whether you have used it or not; some carriers have longer expiration periods, however.

Telstra

Once wholly-owned by the government and now a private entity, Telstra is Australia’s telecommunications juggernaut. This telco has more than double the subscribers of #2 Optus and #3 Vodafone.

The commonly attributed to Telstra reputation for having superior network coverage and reception (which is often true, depending on where you are). The downside is that it also charges a premium for access to its network.

If you’re planning on doing a lot of rural travelling, then access to Telstra’s network may be advised, either through Telstra itself or through one of its MVNOs. If you are planning more of an urban stay then the other networks are equally valid as choices, depending on where you're going.

Telstra also claims the fastest 4G speeds in Australia on its category 6 (CAT6) ‘4GX’-branded LTE-A network. That 'mumbo jumbo' means Telstra combines its 700MHz frequency with its 1800MHz (a process called ‘carrier aggregation’) to deliver even faster speeds. Of course, you need a 700MHz/1800MHz-compatible phone, as well as one that can handle CAT6, if you really want to see the benefits.

Many overseas phones do not have 700MHz support, although it is becoming more common; carrier aggregation is not built in to every device; and CAT6 is only just beginning to become a hardware standard in modern smartphones as of late 2014. Most cap out at CAT4. If you're planning on signing up to Telstra because of its fast 4G speeds, make sure your phone is compatible first.

The two largest Telstra MVNOs are Boost Mobile and TeleChoice. These are restricted to 3G, but still offer Telstra's fantastic far-ranging call and text coverage.

Optus

Australia’s second-largest provider, Optus operates it's fast 4G services over the 700MHz frequency, as well as a few others. Plans offer generous inclusions including several with international calling minutes.

Optus continues to aggressively expand its rural and metro 4G and 3G networks in order to remain competitive.

Interestingly, Optus has also adopted what is known as TD LTE in some regions for its 4G. TD, or Time Division, is a different form of broadband than the more-globally-standard Frequency Division (FD) LTE. To function on a TD network, a device must be specifically designed for it. Currently, most Optus TD areas overlap with FD ones, so you can run your phone on either.

Canberra, on the other hand, relies heavily on Optus TD over the 2300MHz band. You may get a few dead spots in our nation’s capital, but there is also plenty of regular 4G reception to be had.

Optus is the only major network to sell 4G access to MVNOs. If you want super-cheap 4G in Australia, an Optus reseller is your best bet.

Vodafone

Vodafone in Australia is still recovering from a catastrophic public outcry from 2010, when its networks became overloaded and subscribers were left without reception. As such, it is left with a reputation of unreliability that is undeserved after so much time.

It’s been a long road, but Vodafone is making its way back in to the public consciousness. After focusing almost solely on strengthening its network for the last 5 years, Voda is in many areas as good as or better than Optus for 4G connections, although in rural areas Telstra is still king.

A large part of Vodafone's return to the fore is its focus on big deals and special features. It is rare that this provider doesn't have some kind of bonus promotion going.

Vodafone is currently in the act of re-farming its 850MHz frequency from 3G and turning it to 4G purposes in metro areas. 850MHz is a more globally-common standard than the 700MHz of Telstra and Optus, so phones from overseas are more likely to benefit.

Vodafone MVNOs are often some of the cheapest. While they are limited to 3G, if you're after saving some cash while you're down under then it's worth giving them a look.

FAQs


In Australia it's very easy to move from one provider to another. All carriers use the same basic technologies, so cross-compatibility isn't an issue in the majority of cases, especially if your phone was bought in Australia.

If you are on a long-term contract, you must finish it before switching carriers (unless you are willing to pay an early termination fee). If you are on a month-to-month plan, or prepaid, then you can switch any time you like.

If you already have an existing and active Australian mobile number then it is very easy to switch between providers and keep your number. When you sign up to a new plan, make sure to either input your current number (if applying online) or tell your salesperson that you want to keep your number. Your new provider will contact your existing provider to arrange the transfer.

It usually takes between 15 minutes to 4 hours for the transfer to take effect. During this time you can usually continue to use your phone via your old telco. Once it stops working, switch out the old SIM card for your new one and keep going about your business.

If you are bringing a phone from overseas then you will be allocated a new phone number when you sign up to an Australian telco.

The easiest way is to visit your phone manufacturer's website and check the device specifications. Make sure you are researching on an Australian website, as it is common for manufacturers to release models with different hardware in different regions.

Check the MHz frequencies against the table we've compiled at the top of the page. See the table above.

If you already own a phone, the cheapest option is usually to go with an MVNO. These are small providers who buy access to the larger networks at wholesale prices and re-sell that access to customers at a discount.

You can check out a full list of Australia's MVNOs here.

If you need a new phone, and are planning on staying in Australia for at least 2 years, then you can sign up to a 24 month contract on Telstra, Optus, Vodafone or Virgin Mobile. On these plans you can add a phone, often for a small extra monthly payment, which usually ends up being a bit cheaper than paying for a phone outright and going on a cheaper plan. Take a look at contract plans with phone subsidies.

Ask your carrier. You can check the website, but calling and asking directly is usually the best way.

If your phone is an Android and was bought from a carrier within Australia then it's almost definitely unlocked. If it was bought outright and not on a plan, then it should be unlocked.

If you are bringing a phone from overseas then you will need to ask your carrier. Each country has different rules and trends regarding phones and carrier locking.


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