Will warring interests spoil wireless broth?

Will warring interests spoil wireless broth?

Summary: Wireless proponents are now providing even more reasons why wireless won't satisfy our bandwidth requirements, launching heated arguments for preferential treatment of Australia's "digital dividend" and other next-generation spectrum.

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Wireless proponents are now providing even more reasons why wireless won't satisfy our bandwidth requirements, launching heated arguments for preferential treatment of Australia's "digital dividend" and other next-generation spectrum.

Long-simmering differences in opinion seem to have come to a head after Telstra announced that it would not wait for the 700MHz analog TV spectrum to be freed up before rolling out its next-generation LTE services. Instead, it will pack its services into the existing 2G spectrum it owns in the 1800MHz band and legitimise its efforts by encouraging operators in other countries to do the same through. Telstra hopes to champion the formation of a 1800MHz LTE special interest group to convince equipment-makers that there is demand for products working in that band.


(Screenshot by David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

It's an interesting strategy that could, if it backfires, end up with Telstra replicating its 1990s-era ISDN debacle when it decided that the ISDN used by the rest of the world was not good enough, and demanded equipment-makers offer special equipment suiting its own bastardised version. This had the effect of shutting competition out of the equipment market, giving Telstra a monopoly not only on its ISDN delivery but on the equipment to connect to its network.

Whether this will happen again with 1800MHz LTE remains to be seen; but at least this time around, the availability of alternatives may not leave consumers in such a difficult situation since there will also be LTE in other bands, and broadband dongles are a dime a dozen.

In the short term, however, the implications of using the 1800MHz spectrum for LTE are being felt, with railway authorities jumping to action. Their concern: increased contention for 1800MHz spectrum will compromise years of planning around the implementation of GSM-R. GSM-R is a version of 2G GSM technology optimised for high-speed transmission and base station handover that's critical to a significantly upgraded railway signalling network.

Albanese ... has no control over spectrum allocations. So he'll go to Stephen Conroy, hat in hands, and plead for the railway sector to retain access to its precious spectrum.

Uproar from railway authorities, effectively warning that trains will stop moving if GSM-R spectrum isn't preserved, has invoked intervention from Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, who has pledged to personally ... um, well, he has no control over spectrum allocations. So he'll go to Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, hat in hand, and plead for the railway sector to retain access to its precious spectrum.

Then there's the question of whether emergency services should be given their own block of next-generation spectrum to ensure their efforts to keep our collective backsides safe aren't compromised by some randy 14-year-old boy downloading naughty HD videos onto his LTE mobile phone. Motorola, on whose wireless solutions many emergency bodies rely, warned that anything less than allocating such a block would be "mortgaging the future". However, ICT industry body the Communications Alliance spoke out against the idea, with chief John Stanton slamming the proposal for 16 per cent of the spectrum as "absolute rubbish" and alleging public-safety authorities are angling for sympathy in the wake of this year's string of natural disasters.

The Australian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council (AFAC), which supports the allocation of an exclusive block, isn't saying how much it wants set aside except for noting in passing that US and European authorities "are targeting the 790 to 862MHz band for public safety broadband communications". Given that Conroy has already announced that the digital dividend will include 126MHz of spectrum from 694 to 820 MHz, a similar allocation here would shave the 126MHz allocation down 25 per cent to 94MHz. This would significantly restrict the potential for LTE services in the future.

Consider also the potential bandwidth available for other wireless services, like the Ngara technology CSIRO is feverishly demonstrating to NBN Co and opposition spokespeople (or will be, once its employees stop their strike). CSIRO says the technology may be able to support symmetrical 50Mbps services to 12 households — count 'em: twelve — per 7MHz spectrum slot. This means that in any particular rural area, Ngara could deliver broadband to 216 households (or even a few more by using time-division multiplexing techniques) by consuming the entire digital-dividend allocation — and pushing aside the prospect of 700MHz LTE services — for that region.

Broader conflicts over spectrum allocations raise all sorts of problems for the government ... Railway and emergency authorities don't have the kind of motza to fight off competitive bids for the spectrum they need, which means the only way they can preserve their spectrum sanctums is if Conroy intervenes.

If ever there was an example of why wireless services cannot scale or perform like fibre, this is it. Even worse, the broader conflicts over spectrum allocations raise all sorts of problems for the government. The last time big blocks of spectrum were up for auction — a decade ago, in the 3G auctions — private telcos were jumping all over each other to secure spectrum, and paying a pretty penny for the rights to Australia's telecommunications future. Railway and emergency authorities don't have the kind of motza to fight off competitive bids for the spectrum they need, which means the only way they can preserve their spectrum sanctums is if Conroy intervenes.

But if he does so, he'll be creating an even bigger problem for himself. Spectrum is, of course, a hugely limited resource, and exemptions for particular interests will invariably lead to special requests from others. These concerns are similar to those echoed by opponents of the utilities' push for special access to NBN services. This will, in turn, diminish the spectrum available for private LTE networks, and reduce the potential revenues the government can reap in selling access to that spectrum.

Of course, how can the government not give in to such demands when phrases like "public safety" and "disaster response" are bandied about? Is it even possible to counter fear-mongering with the assertion that there's enough bandwidth to go around, and that emergency bodies can rely on the same services as everybody else? Or: is there, and can they?

Given spectrum's very real physical constraints and the question marks over the 700MHz and 1800MHz bands, it may be worth asking whether Telstra's approach — shuttle LTE into a new spectrum band and gradually reallocate 2G GSM spectrum to the new technology — is perhaps the best way forward for next-generation broadband.

By establishing LTE outside of the highly-contentious 700MHz spectrum, Telstra could bypass arguments from competing interests while differentiating its spectrum. Optus and Vodafone also own 1800MHz-band licenses for their 2G services, and could theoretically do the same while moving into the 700MHz band as a complementary service in the long term. NBN Co can deliver its fixed-wireless services in the 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz bands it recently bought from AUSTAR, and everyone else can claw their eyes out trying to secure a small piece of whatever is left of the 700MHz band when the special interests have had their way.

What do you think? Should the government reserve digital-dividend spectrum for specific interested parties? Should it be an equal-for-all proposition? And is Telstra onto something with its LTE plans, or is it compromising other services by crowding the 1800MHz band?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Networking, Telcos, Telstra

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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5 comments
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  • Some people never learn, and the same seems to go for corporations.

    Old Telstra hands still whinge about how not enough people signed up for their ISD Network, forgetting that the ol' monopolist charged so much for it that unless you had a corporate or government budget, there was no way it would have been economic for most businesses.

    The fact that there's now a bunfight over spectrum allocation will surprise nobody. The old rule still holds: You can put your money on self-interest, because it will always win.
    gnome-8be8a
  • I'm sure Mr T will have the answer, he's been pushing wireless pretty hard and he obviously knows what he's talking about (having been seen at an ISP board meeting once or twice)...heck, the Lib's will probably just MAKE more spectrum from carbon and we won't have to have a Big New Tax!!11!

    On a serious note, nice article David. You've highlighted some very fundamental issues that will need to be overcome for wireless to be considered a serious contender as "The Other NBN"...
    Tinman_au
  • Spot on, almost completely spot on.

    Cue FUDsters in ...5...4...3...2...1...
    mwyres
  • Allocate the required spectrum to emergency services on paper only. Then divvy it up between the big Telcos as a 25% bonus on whatever they win at auction - with the proviso that the emergency services have free use of Telstra/Voda/Optus LTE at high priority. If the emergency services aren't getting full priority service then they'll take over that frequency again.
    GregA_z
  • It's a bit early to make too much of Ngara technology... it's still the domain of the 'propeller heads' appering to be without much telco marketing or product input driving its boundaries. By the time it is commercialised and productised, with SLAs allowing asymmetrical delivery and bandwidths below 50M, it may very well allow many more subscribers per channel than the 12 currently targeted.
    FiberLover