Regional NBN puts emphasis back on wireless: Slattery

NBN Co expected to replan, reorganise rollout plan this week to suit regional reprioritisation

Labor’s deal with the independents to roll out the National Broadband Network to regional areas first means it will now necessarily have to place a big emphasis on the wireless component of the network’s construction, according to Pipe Networks managing director and long-time NBN critic Bevan Slattery.

The original design of the NBN called for wireless broadband — along with satellite — to bridge the gap between the 90 percent of the population that will receive fibre connections to their homes. The number of customers that will receive wireless has shrunk with Labor’s pledge to extent the fibre to a further 3 percent of households.

But according to Slattery, the new outside-in focus of the NBN will mean that it will primarily be a wireless telco in the short term. “They’re going to need to build a network as big as that of Optus outside the cities,” he said in an interview this week after Labor’s election victory.

The coverage maps which NBN Co has released detailing where it plans to roll out wireless around the nation appear to support Slattery’s claim — every major regional area features a gray wireless circle or series of circles, backing the notion that wireless infrastructure will need to be built in every centre.

Slattery said the wireless rollout would be challenging for several reasons. Firstly, he said, NBN Co would likely need to buy back spectrum assets from Austar to complete the rollout. The broadcaster was the only player to hold the right spectrum, the executive said, apart from the Government itself, which is planning to release a chunk of spectrum in several years as part of the digital dividend to come from the closure of analogue television broadcasting.

“Austar can probably extract a pretty good dollar from the Government for the spectrum,” he said.

Some details about NBN Co’s wireless plans can be gleaned from a product overview document the company recently published which draws a picture of how the wireless rollout will proceed.

Unlike the current popular crop of 3G mobile broadband networks operated by Telstra, Optus and VHA, NBN Co’s wireless network will only deliver fixed wireless connections, in the same way that a fibre connection is fixed — and only guaranteeing speeds of 12Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream.

As with the fibre rollout, a network termination unit will sit on the side of users’ houses and provide them with Ethernet ports to which they can connect their own equipment. As with the fibre network, the wireless network will be wholesale in nature, allowing ISPs to use it to sell services to end users.

What has not yet been laid out is exactly how NBN Co will go about the wireless rollout — which vendors and construction companies it will use, for example.

Slattery raised the issue that many customers were already accustomed to using 3G mobile broadband services from the likes of Telstra, and questioned whether the service would see much uptake, as customers couldn’t take their connection on the road.

“Customers have already voted with their feet — they want mobile broadband,” he said. “If they already have a 3G service with Telstra, are they going to prefer to keep their service?”

Another complicating factor is the mobile broadband price war currently being waged between the various telcos, which is seeing prices decrease on a regular basis, accompanied by increases in the bundled quota available to customers.

Slattery is part of a group of rival telcos dubbed the Alliance for Affordable Broadband which is pushing for the wireless rollout to be based on 4G technologies, which the executive said offered greater throughput and spectral efficiences than 3G — and even higher speeds than 12Mbps.

“4G is capable of delivering the best bang for buck, the best internet experience to consumers,” he said. “I get the distinct feeling that it’s going to be a 4G network. If it’s not 4G and it’s not LTE, they’re not doing their jobn properly.”

The group has broadly welcomed the news that the NBN project will continue under a Labor Government, but it also wants the wireless rollout to be national, rather than concentrated on the edges of regional areas to serve those unable to receive fibre.

Much has still yet to be decided about how Labor’s deal with the independents will change NBN Co’s rollout. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has flagged plans to meet with the company over the coming days to go over the new plans.

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