South Australia's Yorke Peninsula with just 11,780 people spread across 5,834 square kilometres, is known more for its rugged natural beauty than its technological prowess. But now that Internode has brought broadband to the entire peninsula, the area has become a very important part of Australia's telegeography.
The reason: Adelaide-based Internode has successfully brought broadband to every house, caravan park and wallaby hide in the area using WiMax -- the next-generation, long-range wireless technology at the heart of the controversial OPEL nationwide broadband bid.
Last week, Internode began connecting the 200 customers who have already signed up to get broadband speeds that have long been unthinkable in rural areas (with just 4,035 habitable residences in the council area, Internode has gained a five percent market share overnight).
They're paying the same as Internode's city customers -- AU$39.95 per month for a 512/128Kbps service with 10GB download limits, and AU$59.95 per month for a service running at up to 6Mbps -- and they have WiMax to thank for it.
In an industry where progress has been hindered by Labor's and Telstra's self-promoting attacks on WiMax, it's endearing to see the technology actually running in the real world.
The Yorke Peninsula is just a blip on the Australian geography, but the success of Internode's effort should if nothing else prove to Labor and Telstra that just because someone else thought of it, doesn't necessarily mean it's bad.
I talked with Kym Cleggett, rural networks manager with Internode, to learn more about the rollout, and thought it might be informative to share some salient points. Here are a few things he told me:
- Internode has installed 10 WiMax base stations across the peninsula, which is 175km long and an average of 30km wide.
- Tests showed the system delivering up to 6Mbps speed at 30km from the base station.
- To keep within comfortable operating parameters, the network was designed so that 90 percent of customers are within 20km of a base station. This translates, on average, to a square grid of WiMax base stations 28km apart.
- Use of licensed WiMax spectrum allowed Internode to boost power to around six watts, compared with one to four watts over unlicensed spectrum.
- Internode is currently using 3.5MHz spectrum channels to deliver 6Mbps, but can increase this as far as 7MHz to provide in the neighbourhood of 20Mbps wireless. A planned boost to 5MHz in 2009 will push speeds up to a peak 14Mbps.
- Nearly half the customers expressing interest in the service are doing it to access Internode's VoIP service.
- WiMax equipment cost Internode around AU$11,000 per tower, but building the actual towers -- which are up to 60 metres high -- added up to AU$60,000 more to the cost. "It's a lot more expensive to hold it up there than to put it up there," Cleggett laughed.
- Internode is happy to enter into wholesale negotiations with parties interested in utilising its WiMax infrastructure.
Now, Internode is hardly going to be able to roll out WiMax to the entire country; it's only focusing WiMax on areas where landline services are inadequate, with a second WiMax rollout planned elsewhere in South Australia.
Size isn't the issue here, however: what Internode's successful delivery has shown us is that WiMax does in fact work, just as we've been hearing from other countries around the world -- and that it's relevant to Australians. For around AU$600,000 (my figure, not Cleggett's) the company has delivered broadband, phone, fax and VoIP services to 11,000 remote residents who have struggled to get a decent dial-up connection.
Please, for a second, indulge me in a little mathematical extrapolation. At a Yorke Peninsula-equivalent density of one WiMax base station per 583 square kilometres, it would take roughly 13,000 base stations for OPEL to cover each and every one of Australia's 7.6 million square kilometres. That's AU$1.3 billion to blanket the country in WiMAX; take out the 40 percent of the country that's uninhabitable desert, and we're talking about 7,800 base stations at a cost of AU$780 million. Add that much again for backhaul and management infrastructure, and you're still under budget.
In November, Senator Conroy made the statement that OPEL would have to decide what it was going to do about the fibre network "that will run by their door". Was this a tacit commitment to bring Labor's fibre optic network across areas like the Yorke Peninsula -- which I can only imagine would be more expensive than what OPEL is planning -- or was it just pre-election rhetoric?
Senator Conroy, you got your wish and Labor got elected. Perhaps now it's time to dispose of the rhetoric and focus on the best solution to get the job done -- whether wireless or wired.
Labor's intention to have a fibre tender to market by June seems optimistic, and it will of course be interesting to see how many compromises crop up -- particularly in rural areas, where I have the feeling we may see Labor claiming there's no point duplicating coverage by laying fibre where OPEL is already going to go.
Just a hunch. In the meantime, even Cleggett -- whose rollout was nearly overbuilt by OPEL -- would like to see the consortium get a break. "I know from our experience, just in trying to do the two areas we're working on, the amount of work that needs to be done to get these things to happen," he said.
"I think the timeframes for the OPEL rollout are exceedingly demanding, and the fact that nothing concrete has happened from them shouldn't be unexpected. We are supportive of what OPEL are doing, and we think it's great for regional Australia. There are tens of thousands of businesses out there screaming for broadband; they have a use for it even if they can't use it to watch TV."