Labor's deal with the independents to roll out the National Broadband Network (NBN) to regional areas first means it will now 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 grey areas indicate wireless NBN coverage. (Credit: NBN Co)
The original design of the NBN called for wireless broadband, along with satellite, to bridge the gap between the 90 per cent 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 extend the fibre to a further 3 per cent 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 that 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 grey wireless circle or series of circles, backing the notion that wireless infrastructure will need to be built in every centre.
Slattery said that the wireless roll-out would be challenging for several reasons. Firstly, he said, NBN Co would likely need to buy back spectrum assets from Austar to complete the roll-out. 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 analog television broadcasting.
"Austar can probably extract a pretty good dollar from the government for the spectrum," he said.
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 will only guarantee speeds of 12Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream.
As with the fibre roll-out, 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 the NBN Co will go about the wireless roll-out; for example, which vendors and construction companies it will use.
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, pushing for the wireless roll-out to be based on 4G technologies, which the executive said offered greater throughput and spectral efficiencies 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 [long-term evolution], they're not doing their job properly."
The group has broadly welcomed the news that the NBN project will continue with a regional focus under a Labor government, but it also wants the wireless roll-out 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 the NBN Co's roll-out. Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has flagged plans to meet with the company over the coming days to go over the new plans.