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Suppliers see different side of NBN rural rollout

NetComm Wireless, Qualcomm, and ViaSat have all lauded NBN's capacity to collaborate with its tech partners to push the infrastructure project to technology limits across fixed-wireless, satellite, and fibre to the curb.

The NetComm Wireless lab used to test NBN equipment in varied climate conditions

(Image: NetComm Wireless)

While the National Broadband Network (NBN) company is routinely criticised for "geographical discrimination" by forcing Australians living in regional areas onto its satellite and fixed-wireless networks, its tech partners have lauded the innovation and collaboration that goes into designing and implementing the complex infrastructure project.

ZDNet spoke with NetComm Wireless, Qualcomm, and ViaSat about what working alongside NBN on fixed-wireless, satellite, and fibre has done for broadband technology innovation, regional connectivity, and their own companies' global prospects.

Partnering with the experts: An evolutionary process

In the early days, NBN faced criticism for its system of recruiting partners: Back in 2011, the company had halted its tender process while slamming vendors for supposedly overpricing their rollout proposals, which was followed by Silcar being awarded a AU$1.1 billion construction tender after what NBN called "eight weeks of intense negotiations".

NBN was "delighted" that the contractual price reached was in proportion with its corporate plan; however, several contractors -- including Silcar -- subsequently came under fire for underpaying their sub-contractors, with one even forced to cease its rollout in the Northern Territory, citing awareness issues of the full cost of designing and constructing the fibre network.

Since the Coalition government's change from a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) rollout to a multi-technology mix (MTM) incorporating several different broadband technologies in 2013, sub-contractor-centric criticisms have died down and NBN has reported the rollout hitting its targets, while the Coalition says it is costing AU$33 billion less than Labor's original plan.

As NBN worked out the kinks in awarding contracts for its physical rollout, mounting pressure from being a government-funded organisation under close scrutiny resulted in an initial avoidance of partnering with smaller technology companies, according to Australian telecommunications equipment company NetComm Wireless, instead choosing to go with big-name Alcatel-Lucent (now Nokia) on fibre.

Hoping that such a large-scale project would require a role for NetComm, the company was disappointed when tenders were put out for a full-fibre network that did not leave room for its products or expertise, CTO Steve Collins told ZDNet.

"Very quickly, it transpired that there was nothing ... their whole fibre-to-the-home network architecture was extremely well thought out," Collins lamented.

"We looked at it and we went, 'We've got nothing. NetComm's got nothing to play in this space'."

Once the MTM had been adopted, however, Ericsson -- another big-name global networking giant that signed its own initial wireless agreement with NBN back in mid-2011 -- asked NetComm to collaborate on a bid for NBN's layer 2 wireless tender after seeing its work with long-time network partner Telstra.

Rather than taking part in a traditional tendering process, NetComm thereby entered the project via a backdoor.

"For many years, while we interacted with NBN, it wasn't as a direct supplier," Collins explained.

"We supplied to Ericsson, Ericsson supplied to NBN ... even though we spent half of our life sitting in the NBN labs working with the NBN people."

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield in August said that there are now around 2,500 Australian sub-contracting businesses engaged either directly or indirectly in constructing, operating, and maintaining the NBN across cabinets, fibre, electronics, cables, termination devices, and other network equipment, with the majority of its procurement funds spent on local businesses.

"Over 70 percent of NBN's procurement spent to date has been on local content -- that is, Australian manufacturing, construction, installation, and support activities," Fifield said during the NBN Corporate Plan 2018-21 announcement.

"NBN will spend AU$6 billion this financial year on procured goods and services, over 80 percent of it locally. Literally thousands of Australian businesses are involved in creating what we know as the NBN."

Pushing the bounds of wireless technology

According to Collins, partnering with NBN has been a big part of NetComm's motivation to push wireless innovation.

"As a customer, they're actually one of our more sophisticated and demanding customers; they're also one of our best customers," Collins told ZDNet.

NBN's initial request for a layer 2 wireless network came as a surprise to NetComm Wireless, as at the time it was not considered as being possible; wireless networks were all layer 3 internet protocol.

"They tendered this out and it was really nice architecture, but it hadn't been done before anywhere in the world," Collins said.

"Ericsson worked out how to do the base station piece, but they needed a company who could design a brand new device, a thing called a CPE [customer premises equipment] or a WNTD [wireless network terminating device], that would connect to the network wirelessly but then provide this layer 2 tunnel through the whole network.

"We sat down with Ericsson and came up with a whole new architecture for how to do this layer 2 tunnel wireless network that people just call fixed-wireless now -- but it had never been done before."

NBN's fixed-wireless network is slated to connect 600,000 premises in regional areas across Australia by using a 4G-like service where it is considered uneconomical to roll out fixed-line access, and will next year launch a 100/40Mbps product thanks to development with NetComm, Ericsson, and United States semiconductor business Qualcomm.

Qualcomm similarly entered the project through a backdoor, itself piggybacking off NetComm's by-then existing relationship with NBN when it came time to making further enhancements to the fixed-wireless network.

"NetComm is a global partner of Qualcomm, who we have been working with for several years, so it was an exciting prospect when we first discussed the opportunity of work together on the fixed-wireless solution for NBN," Qualcomm director of Business Development in Australia and New Zealand Alex Fernandez told ZDNet.

The three companies had also worked with NBN on a trial showing that their fixed-wireless technology had the theoretical capacity to deliver speeds of up to 1Gbps when utilising a combination of Ericsson's carrier aggregation technology, NBN's fibre backhaul, multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO), and quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM).

Qualcomm's Snapdragon X16 gigabit LTE modem was used for the gigabit-speed project, which it said is "able to support the NBN spectrum and full features which will provide the high-speed connectivity", alongside NetComm-developed WNTDs and a Qualcomm chipset to bond three WNTDs together.

"This project is the first opportunity we've had to work with NetComm, Ericsson, and NBN directly, and it's a challenge we think is important as well as exciting," Fernandez said.

"We see this as a long-term relationship, and hope to partner on future LTE and 5G broadband solutions for Australians."

Furthering fibre with FttC

Another consequence of NBN moving away from a full-fibre rollout has led to the development of new ways for incorporating fibre-copper mixes, and following its initial Ericsson-backed fixed-wireless project, Collins said NetComm tendered directly for a fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) contract last year after NBN specifically asked it to take part.

"Early last year, the CTO department of NBN rang me and said 'we've got this idea for fibre to the curb; is that something that NetComm is interested in?', and it just so happened that we actually had some technology that could do parts of fibre to the curb," Collins told ZDNet.

The NetComm Wireless lab used for developing and testing NBN solutions

(Image: NetComm Wireless)

"Fibre to the curb was a relatively new architecture and so we had bits of it and we just said, 'OK, we've got this and this, if we just tweaked that then yes, we would have it'.

"That started a whole consultation phase with NBN, directly this time, not with Ericsson in between. And they went through a whole RFP process -- RFI then RFP -- it was a competitive tender scenario, and then Q3 last year they appointed us as their vendor for their fibre-to-the-curb product."

In November, NBN announced that NetComm Wireless would be supplying its FttC distribution point units (DPUs) and related services. Under the Master Equipment and Services Supply Agreement, NetComm will supply an unspecified number of one-port and four-port DPUs to be installed in pits outside premises to connect legacy copper with fibre.

NetComm said the supply of services would "likely commence" in FY18, with CEO and managing director David Stewart at the time saying the DPU solution to be used was "specifically developed" for NBN.

FttC, which serves as a medium between the cost constraints preventing fibre from being rolled all the way to every premises and the criticisms of the copper-line distance between nodes and houses, will be launched on the NBN in 2018.

"We're confident we can now deploy [FttC] technology in areas where it makes better sense from a customer experience, deployment efficiency, and cost perspective," NBN chief network engineering officer Peter Ryan said in November 2016.

"Delivering FttC will not only allow us to deliver speeds of up to 100/40Mbps using VDSL, but will also allow us to offer even faster speeds in the future with some of the new technologies that are becoming available."

The contract signed almost a year ago could also cover the supply of more DPUs than initially expected, after NBN earlier this year expanded its FttC footprint out to 1 million premises.

Collins said that since NetComm this time has a direct commercial relationship with NBN, it has "changed the dynamic" of their discourse.

"The interaction with NBN has been fantastic," Collins said. "They're really good, smart engineers that work really well with us."

On pushing the speeds across FttC, NetComm in August announced attaining 1.66Gbps aggregate speeds with BT Openreach across a reverse-powered FttC G.fast DPU -- technology that could be brought to Australian users once NBN moves away from VDSL and embraces G.fast.

The DPU used in the Ipswich, United Kingdom trial with BT was designed and built by NetComm, and can be installed on either a telegraph pole or in a pit to provide aggregate gigabit speeds when within 150 metres of a premises.

The companies used 40 metres of copper lead-in cable as well as spectrum frequency of up to 212MHz for the demonstration.

"NetComm Wireless began developing FttC DPUs when it became clear that an alternative to fibre to the premises was needed," NetComm Wireless COO Timo Brouwer commented.

Building NBN's 'Rolls Royce' satellite service

Global satellite provider ViaSat, meanwhile, was brought onboard prior to the government's switch to an MTM in order to supply NBN's solution for the approximately 400,000 premises positioned in rural areas unreachable with fibre.

ViaSat Asia-Pacific VP Peter Girvan told ZDNet that the company's involvement in what then-Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnball described as being a "Rolls Royce" satellite service followed a more traditional tender involving an "extensive" two-year procurement process, after which it was awarded the satellite ground infrastructure business in 2012.

NBN's Sky Muster satellite

(Image: Screenshot by Corinne Reichert/ZDNet)

"This process involved many technical, commercial, and legal people on both sides to get it done," Girvan said.

"This was a very complex and collaborative process."

According to Girvan, the design for the wholesale satellite product that is now sold to retail service providers (RSPs) was led by NBN's exacting requirements.

The contract covered the construction and supply of 10 gateways, each with two 13.5-metre satellite dishes; two data processing centres; and approximately 200,000 small dishes and modems for each household to be covered by the service.

"The tender, and subsequently the contract, contain very detailed capability and performance requirements. ViaSat used these requirements to design and build the network," Girvan explained.

ViaSat's contract also covered it leading the testing and integration of the network prior to the launch of services, while NBN was responsible for product testing, along with testing the IT systems that would be used to provision and manage the service being delivered by other NBN partners.

With Labor calling for a review into the satellite service it commissioned itself amid criticisms by state and territory governments, and Fifield arguing that "people with satellite overwhelmingly are having a good experience", Girvan said NBN's focus on bringing high-speed connectivity to all Australians has seen it drive new product developments and operational improvements across all networks, including satellite.

"We work with them on the development of new products, from design and engineering to deployment and support in the field," Girvan said.

"We meet as a senior executive team regularly, where we discuss performance and future strategies of both NBN and ViaSat -- with a consistent mission on bringing best practices, techniques, and innovations to their network -- in order to best service the customer."

ViaSat could also see its contract cover possible additions to the satellite service, with NBN CEO Bill Morrow telling ZDNet that the company is looking into micro-deployments of fixed-wireless towers, deploying a third satellite, and enhancing its existing satellites' technology to improve the service.

NBN contracts enable global business expansion

Not only has partnering with NBN resulted in technology innovation being pushed for fixed-wireless, FttC, and satellite networks, but both NetComm and ViaSat said it has also enabled growth opportunities for their own businesses by giving them the credentials to expand across the globe.

NetComm's NBN contracts "enabled us to jump from Australia to other places in the world", Collins said, with the company also attributing its FY16 revenue of AU$85.3 million, up 14.9 percent year on year, to its role in the NBN rollout.

"The NBN contracts have been a real cornerstone of part of our growth over the last five years; it's been a great win for us to have," Collins told ZDNet.

"They've done a really nice job of architecting [the NBN], and we've worked with them and we've managed to create some intellectual property out of that in this fixed-wireless space that has enabled us to win business elsewhere in the world.

"On the back of the gear that we did with Ericsson and NBN, we've won a contract with AT&T in the US."

NetComm in July announced that it would be providing its fixed-wireless technology to the US carrier in a project to provide broadband speeds of at least 10Mbps to under-served premises across 18 states.

A machine used by NetComm Wireless to test water proofing on NBN equipment

(Image: NetComm Wireless)

AT&T and NetComm had already deployed their first phase of fixed-wireless throughout Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee by July.

For US-headquartered ViaSat, meanwhile, Girvan said partnering with NBN has "absolutely" benefited its business throughout the Australian and Asia-Pacific region.

"Whilst ViaSat has been in Australia since 1990, the NBN business is strategically important to ViaSat, enabling us to enter the Australian and thus the Asian market via a partnership with such a prominent tier 1 network operator," Girvan told ZDNet.

"NBN have a sincere desire to bring broadband to the masses and continue to work side by side with partners to make this happen. This consistent level of passion from both sides has formed the basis for us to grow our other Australian businesses such as Air Mobility with Qantas, and our business with the Australian Defence Force."

ViaSat's satellite connectivity technology is currently being used for Australian airline Qantas' domestic in-flight Wi-Fi solution, which commercially launched in April in beta mode, and uses idle satellite capacity as aircraft travel through the 101 Ka-band spot beams of NBN's Sky Muster satellite service.

Qantas last month said it would accelerate the rollout of its Wi-Fi service after kitting out and testing a second domestic 737 aircraft with new ViaSat technology in July ahead of eight more gaining the equipment by the end of September.

ViaSat's new Wi-Fi equipment is tipped to provide faster speeds and more reliable connections to Qantas passengers, with around 80 Boeing 737 and Airbus 330 aircraft expected to be fitted out by late 2018.

NBN extends collaboration to problem solving

While agreeing that NBN has high, exacting standards, all three vendors denied that it has been tough to work with on resolving any consumer issues, saying NBN does not rule over its projects with an iron fist or point the finger when something goes awry.

Instead, they said NBN works in a collaborative and cooperative manner with all partners.

"With any complicated technology solution, there's always issues, there's always things that come up that no one expected," Collins told ZDNet.

"There's never been a contract in my professional history where something hasn't come up, and you have different types of customers: There's some customers who tend to be very 'there's a problem, NetComm, just fix it' and they just point and you have to go in there and solve the lot. That tends to not go very well from a long-term perspective ... if you've got a customer that just wants you to fix everything, then that's not very helpful.

"NBN are not that sort of customer. NBN are a very engineering-led organisation, I would say, lots of competent people in there, and they just want the thing to work for the customer.

"Their interest is not in pointing the finger, but in just making the solution as good as it can possibly be. So that means they don't have that kind of confrontational methodology with their suppliers; it's very much more of a partnership."

ViaSat's satellite contract also sees it involved in technology issues that crop up, albeit from the very top of the chain that sees RSPs, NBN, Ericsson, and then ViaSat itself working together on connectivity issues.

"The RSP is the first port of call for consumers if they have service issues. RSPs will resolve many issues themselves, for example billing issues. For network issues, RSPs, if they cannot resolve an issue for any reason, will then escalate to NBN for resolution," Girvan explained.

"NBN contracts Ericsson to manage their fixed-wireless and satellite networks. This includes day-to-day monitoring of the networks from the Ericsson Network Operations Centre in Sydney, field service staff to change faulty network hardware, and also home installations.

"ViaSat provides higher-level technical support to Ericsson on more difficult, highly technical network issues. ViaSat also provides replacement hardware. In general terms, Ericsson (acting as NBN) monitors and maintains the network on a day-to-day basis, with escalation of difficult system problems to ViaSat for resolution."

While acknowledging that the fixed-wireless project focusing on upgrade paths is complex and therefore throws up issues, Fernandez said that Qualcomm is utilising its long-standing relationships with Ericsson and Telstra -- which currently involves developing 5G solutions -- in order to circumvent any issues that may occur.

"The relationship and requirements are unique and complex; however, we're all committed to achieving the same goal of delivering best-in-class solutions for all Australians," Fernandez said.

"This common goal, and our experience working together over the past 10 years, means that we work together very collaboratively to achieve and continue to break new ground every day."

NBN's efforts to avoid experiencing problems is what has led it to being so selective in choosing its partners in the first place, both Fernandez and Girvan added.

"We have full respect for NBN as a partner as they seek out new technologies and solutions," Girvan said.

"We find them great to deal with, as they are very open with their partners on what their plans are for the future and areas where, together, we can improve."

NBN's close relationship with its vendors and the way it collaborates and pushes innovation is best demonstrated by the 1Gbps fixed-wireless trials this year, Collins said, as very few telcos across the globe could have pulled off such a cooperative effort.

"There's certain operators around the world that have a really close relationship with their suppliers, and they tend to be the operators that make these world-first announcements, because to get those world-first announcements you need a cohort of suppliers," Collins said.

"NBN, Ericsson, NetComm, and Qualcomm ... you have to be a certain kind of telco operator to get those four players all in a room."

ZDNet approached NBN, Telstra, Ericsson, Nokia, Service Stream, Downer, and Silcar/Thiess for inclusion in this feature, but these companies either declined to comment or did not respond.

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