5G will complement NBN, not replace it: Nokia

5G will not replace Australia's NBN, according to Nokia's head of Fixed Networks, as fixed-line technology upgrade paths will enable faster speeds sooner than wireless, and with greater download allowances.

(Image: Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) will not be replaced by the advent of 5G, Finnish networking giant Nokia has argued, suggesting even that NBN is actually in a good place to take advantage of 5G due to its strong fibre backbone.

Speaking to ZDNet, Nokia head of Fixed Networks Federico Guillen said that while 5G wireless services will by 2020 be able to emulate the speeds that are currently capable across fixed networks, by then, fixed-line services will have been upgraded beyond that point.

"Probably a fixed-wireless overall solution can replicate what is going to be provided at 2020, but the thing is at that moment, it's the beginning of the next generation of the NBN," Guillen said.

"Which is upgrading the fibre into maybe 10-gig, which is available today from a technical viewpoint, and going closer and closer to the home with fibre to a deeper node in the network to provide 500Mbps with G.fast, which they are starting to do.

"Yes, we see that the future wireless technology could provide the same service that the fixed is providing today, but fixed will keep on evolving."

Nokia is already working with NBN on trialling NGPON2 across the fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network, which would bring speeds up to 10Gbps, and on launching 1Gbps-capable G.fast this year across fibre to the node (FttN), fibre to the basement (FttB), and fibre to the curb (FttC).

According to Guillen, those arguing that fixed-line networks will be made redundant by 5G are mainly representatives of wireless companies.

"In the last months, what we are hearing is some people saying that 'OK fine, now that 5G is here, the fixed networks are not needed anymore'. Just by coincidence, those type of arguments are being used by people that only have wireless products," he said.

"We have everything [fixed and wireless], and we don't say that because that's not true. You cannot match the service of wireless for the same money with the service of fibre."

Wireless services are also costly from equipment and spectrum viewpoints -- and with 5G needing a strong backbone of fibre to every mobile tower, NBN could in future potentially utilise its massive and still-growing fibre footprint to provide the backhaul that will be needed for 5G operators, Guillen suggested.

"The deployment of 5G, this is something curious, will depend on the quality of the fixed network in the country. At the end, the 5G network is a fixed network with a little bit of tail of wireless at the end, because you need fibre in every single base station to support the speeds that 5G is committing," he said.

"So only the countries with good fibre networks, and that could be fibre to the node or fibre to the premises, are going to be able to provide a 5G service. So all of a sudden NBN is in a fantastic position, because they can provide the residential service, and with the same assets they can provide the wireless service."

Last week, Australia's incumbent telecommunications provider Telstra had likewise said it is focused on increasing fibre backhaul to mobile towers in preparation for 5G services.

"It's not just about at the access layer, at the 5G boxes on the tower, and the spectrum; it's also actually in the backhaul," Telstra CEO Andy Penn said.

"93 or 94 percent of our towers have fibre to them [and] we've upgraded our optical transmission network to provide full capacity, so it's critical that you've got the capacity and the speeds at the access layer, but you've also got to have it in the core as well, and we're making material investments."

With Nokia hoping that the Australian government pushes NBN as an evolving project with continual upgrades beyond the rollout's completion in 2020, Guillen said this would likely involve extending the fibre closer and closer to the home, towers, and coax.

"Everybody including NBN knows that the end goal is to go fibre to the home or premises. Now the problem is how much does it cost and when can we reach that point, and it's going to take some time," he said.

In the meantime, Guillen -- who was in Sydney to take part in Nokia's regular governance meetings with NBN as its technology partner -- commended NBN for its multi-technology mix (MTM) approach.

He said the MTM enables NBN to provide broadband "as soon as possible, as many megabits per second as possible to as many people as possible, with the lowest cost possible", and to cash in on the savings from reusing assets.

"We don't like to be dogmatic about any technology at all. What we believe is that the solution that we offer to the end customers has to be ruled by the service that is provided to the end customers and the economics to provide that service," he said.

Guillen pointed out that building a full-fibre network immediately leads to a longer period of negative cashflow, whereas reusing assets means broadband companies can afford to upgrade their networks progressively.

This includes complementing fixed-line access with wireless technologies, he added.

"The first part of our plan is fixed and wireless ... it's not either/or. It's whatever is best for each of these areas, where you have to address the whole. So in some cases it's copper, in some cases it's fibre," he said.

Nokia currently provides NBN's FttN, FttP, and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) services -- and while rival networking giant Ericsson in December extended its partnership to provide NBN's fixed-wireless network operations, Guillen said Nokia has "told [NBN] what we do in fixed-wireless access, which is now part of our portfolio as well".

"And then we are not trying to influence in one direction or another," he said.

According to Guillen, NBN's MTM is becoming a global showcase on how to roll out a ubiquitous nationwide network using multiple different technologies, with Poland, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Italy all following suit, especially ahead of 5G and the necessity for fibre.

"Australia has more fibre than you think because of the NBN network, because either fibre to the node or fibre to the premises, the fibre is there," Guillen said.

"NBN and others in the world that have already a good infrastructure of fixed that covers the residential are in the best position to provide the backhaul of the 5G network of the future."

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