Andy Penn on how Telstra is deploying 5G

Andy Penn explains how the telco is choosing its first 5G sites, with the Telstra CEO also outlining recent 5G and IoT trials the telco has done with Linfox and the National Farmers Federation.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Telstra is choosing a range of different launch sites for its early 5G network in order to ensure the new mobile network can handle all geographical and population density requirements ahead of 5G smartphone availability next year, CEO Andy Penn has told ZDNet.

"There's a few things that go into our site selection," Penn told ZDNet on Wednesday.

"We obviously want to make sure that we're covering different parts of the country nationally, and so targeting different topographical, demographical locations -- so we launched one in Toowoomba, which is a good barometer of what we need to do regionally and Toowoomba's quite a digital hub."

While Penn wouldn't be drawn on where Telstra will be launching next, he did confirm that the telco's 5G network will be live "nationally" by the end of 2018, with the telco using mid-band spectrum in the 3.5GHz band.

The availability of spectrum is also part of its selection criteria, as well as the ability to trial major use cases with its early 5G networks, like smart cities.

"Smart cities is a really important use case ... and there's a number of communities and councils around the country that have very significant aspirations to enable their smart cities, and it's not just metro," Penn said.

"I was speaking to the Lake Macquarie economic development council, I was briefly in Bendigo, and Toowoomba we've talked about, Bunbury in Western Australia; there's lots of communities across the country that see digital and enabling their smart cities as being very important."

Other use cases the carrier wants to explore with its early launch 5G networks are Internet of Things (IoT) applications both in enterprise and consumer -- the latter of which would include photography and gaming use cases where upload can be as important as download.

"We're doing a lot of work in the moment in logistics, in agriculture, in resources and mining, in smart metering, that organisations are looking to use the Internet of Things to improve productivity and efficiency in their businesses," Penn explained on the enterprise IoT use cases being trialled.

According to Penn, Telstra is partnering with "some of the biggest mining companies in the country", and is utilising its acquisition of MTData last year to partner with Linfox on logistics.

"We're effectively putting telematics into all of their trucks to provide data and information in relation to the drivers' experience, the vehicle itself, and so therefore enabling predictive maintenance and performance assessment and location in relation to the vehicle and then also in relation to the loads, what's being pulled, and what temperature is it being pulled at, and how long is it taking to get from A to B," Penn told ZDNet on Wednesday.

"Similarly in agriculture, we did a bit of work with the National Farmers Federation recently, some research work looking at the role of digital and the Internet of Things in agritech, working with a number of agricultural organisations and farmers on that."

With no commercial devices yet compatible with the network -- as 5G smartphones are not expected to arrive until 2019 -- Penn said having an early network will enable Telstra's partners to trial devices during development.

"The reason we're rolling out 5G mobile stations now when the handsets are not yet available is because we want to be in a position to test and trial within a real live environment," Penn told ZDNet.

"We also want to be able to hit the ground running when the handsets do become available."

While Telstra had announced a 5G vendor partnership with Ericsson earlier in the day, Penn added that Telstra is always looking at other solutions and is "keeping it open", especially with networking and technology giants worldwide wanting to use Australia -- and Telstra -- as a testbed.

"One of the great things about Australia is that Australians tend to be early adopters of technology, and I think there's a virtuous circle here -- because they are, and we are a relatively small market, compared globally, what it means is a number of the really big global technology companies are quite interested in trialling some of their capabilities in Australia, and they're interested also in partnering with us as technology leaders, because they can then leverage those experiences and that leadership internationally," Penn said.

"Ericsson's a very good example of that: Ericsson is a global company which is supplying many major telecommunications companies around the world, so we're not their biggest customer, but one of their most important."

Penn revealed that this means Telstra has similar partnerships with Cisco, Microsoft, Netflix, and "other global technology companies as well".

"We're absolutely working with a number on the opportunity that 5G creates," he said.

Telstra had earlier on Wednesday announced hitting 50 of its planned 200 5G sites for 2018, launching the network across Canberra, Adelaide, and Perth.

Adelaide's first 5G mobile base station is in Flinders Street; Canberra's is in Pialligo, with more going live on Thursday in Phillip, Lyons, and Fyshwick; while Perth's first 5G site will be in Narrows Bridge in the CBD.

Telstra already had its 5G network live across 15 towers: 13 in the Gold Coast, one in Toowoomba, and one in Brisbane.

"We need the handset and the device manufacturers to start building equipment at scale now," Penn told ZDNet in September.

Telstra ED of Network and Infrastructure Engineering Channa Seneviratne then revealed that the telco's next 5G launch would be based around smart cities, with the telco choosing each of its 200 initial launch sites for showcasing different use cases.

"We will launch another regional centre which I can't name yet where we're going to do smart cities," Seneviratne said.

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