As you shop around for a mobile deal that suits your budget and your needs, you’ve no doubt noticed that there’s a mountain of different providers to choose from. Ranging from giant household-name corporations to small startup operations and everything in between – including supermarket chains – mobile phone provider choice is more vast than it’s ever been. But smaller providers usually run on big providers’ networks. And we’re here to tell you exactly what that means.
Greater choice is brilliant news for the consumer. You’ve got options that you never would have had a few short years ago. Want unlimited calls and texts so you can treat your mobile like your default home phone? Done. Want to keep in touch with loved ones in the UK, New Zealand or even China without watching the clock? Done. Or perhaps you just want mountains of data to stream Netflix and make that morning commute a bit more entertaining. Done! There’s a provider and a plan to suit just about any need.
But there is one factor that many don’t take into account when choosing a provider. We’re talking about which actual mobile network they use and how they use it.
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Many providers, three networks
Despite the abundance of mobile provider brands, there are only three physical mobile phone networks operating in Australia. There’s a good reason for that. Setting up a nationwide mobile network is phenomenally expensive, time-consuming and difficult. The costs can be high enough that in many cases two of Australia’s competing network operators actually build and share some mobile towers as a joint venture to keep costs down.
The three networks that power all mobile communication are owned and operated by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone. The latter two sometimes opt to share their infrastructure. Telstra Mobile’s network has long been regarded as the most extensive – a legacy of the huge advantage they started with. Telstra had done years of work setting up and running an analogue mobile network in the 1980s, which incoming competitors like Optus had access to. But when mobile phones went digital (initially with 2G) Telstra was able to quickly convert their existing phone towers to the new system and be up and running. Optus and Vodafone, on the other hand, had to build their networks from scratch.
As a result, Telstra long had wider coverage than its rivals, as the newer companies focussed their spending on cities and metropolitan areas. These days, though, many years of investment in network expansions and upgrades from all three companies means that there’s very little difference in coverage. If you’re in a very remote area of the country, you might find that Telstra’s network still holds an advantage. But for the vast majority of the population – whether at home or travelling – you’re rarely going to be without mobile coverage. Of course, unless you are unlucky enough to find yourself in what’s known as a “black spot”.
All three networks have their “black spots.” Those are areas where there’s little or no coverage. Usually because of geography, surrounding buildings blocking the signal or other reasons. They’re rare and small. Plus, you generally can’t tell in advance of signing up whether the areas you’ll be wanting to use your phone in are affected. Coverage maps supplied by the networks can only give you a rough idea of what actual coverage in an area will be like. For example, in cities like Melbourne or Sydney, the maps show almost total coverage in suburban areas. If you’re looking for the best coverage in your area, the best test is to grab some friends who have phones using one of the networks and invite them over for a meal and a network test. Works like a charm.
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Network access isn’t equal
You might have decided on a provider based on their use of a particular network – say, Telstra, for example. Your friends with Telstra mobiles speak highly of the coverage and data speed, so you’re thinking you’ve found yourself a bargain. But there can be a catch. While rumours of the three big networks de-prioritising third-party operators are almost certainly not true, there can be a difference in how much access you get. When third-party providers buy access to a network they often do so on a budget. That can mean that while you have access to, say, the Telstra network on your Woolworths mobile, you don’t have access to the entire network. By that, we mean the multiple different frequencies, or “bands” that modern 4G networks operate with. The host network might be operating on three or four bands, but you’re only getting access to one of them.
In practice, that’s usually not a major issue. All three of the big networks are more than capable of handling the needs of the phones connecting to them. But if you’re looking for fast data, for example, you will often get less impressive results from a provider that’s not able to take advantage of all the different frequencies a network has to offer. That’s because 4G data works by splitting up the download and upload data and using multiple bands to transfer it, achieving incredibly fast data speeds – often many times faster than the fastest NBN connection. But if you’re on a provider with access to only one of those bands, you’ll never be able to reach those blindingly fast data speeds.
Does it matter? Usually, no. After all, you’re restricted by a data limit that’s going to encourage you to stay away from the big files and data-hungry videos that would chew through your quota in no time. Even the most restricted of 4G is still more than fast enough to blaze through most things you throw at it – web surfing, Facebook and Twitter, sending photos to friends and so on.
The plus side? By simply buying network access from the three big networks and on-selling it to their customers, the small providers completely eliminate the hassle of running a network. They can instead focus on the one thing that’s going to make them money – looking after their customers. And that means they’re all about customer service. Their one job is to keep you around and they’ll often go to great lengths to do so. They’re unlikely to tie you down to a contract and years of repayments. These providers often give you the chance to access the network of your choosing with no commitment and the ability to switch providers any time you like.
What about my phone number?
All mobile providers are required to let to take your mobile number with you whenever you change to a new provider. A process the industry calls porting. There’s no charge for it, and it’s usually fully automated. You can switch from one provider to another with ease. Moreover, you’ll have your new service ready to use in minutes, in most cases. You’ll certainly never have to worry about needing a new mobile number. That’s a huge relief for those of us with a huge contact list of friends and colleagues. The mass sending of “here’s my new phone number” messages is very much a thing of the past!
Which network does my provider use?
Back in the day, smaller providers often used to operate without letting customers know which network their service was using. Not anymore. Now, telcos tend to be more upfront about their choice of network partner. They even use it as a marketing tool in some cases. Still, it’s not always easy to tell. If you’re looking for a budget-priced connection on a particular network (such as Telstra for better coverage in the bush, for example) then you can save a lot of time by narrowing your search down to the providers that use that network. Here’s the “big three” and the providers that make use of them for their mobile services:
Built out as Australia’s first ever mobile network many years ago, and massively expanded and upgraded in the decades since, Telstra’s 4G network is extensive and can be very, very fast.
The Optus 4G network was winning acclaim from tech journalists early on for its raw data speed, and it continues to impress in areas where their “4G Plus” service is available. Optus now covers 98.5% of the population.
Massive investment in their network in recent years has greatly improved both the coverage and speed of the Vodafone network, and it’s now very much the equal of its rivals, with a large team of network engineers constantly tweaking and upgrading it to improve 4G performance.
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Not sure which one you want? Try them all!
The best way to find out for sure whether any mobile provider’s coverage and speed is going to work for you is to road-test them yourself. All thanks to mobile number portability and the easy availability of no-contract, low-cost prepaid SIMs from almost every provider. You can easily give a provider’s service a good thorough test and, if you’re not happy, simply move to another one, bringing your number with you.
It’s hard to go wrong with any of the three huge mobile networks that power the Australian mobile industry. But their frequencies, coverage patterns and features are different enough. Making an informed choice can not only get you the best possible mobile service, but can also save you a ton of money.