Austar looks inland for wireless broadband

Austar CEO John Porter Austar will target communities like Broken Hill, which are generally underserviced by ADSL providers, during its regional rollout of wireless broadband, the company said today. Austar's chief executive John Porter yesterday announced that the rollout, based on the same wireless technology used by Sydney carrier Unwired, will go ahead in two regional markets in the first half of 2006, with another 15 to follow.

Austar CEO John Porter
Austar CEO John Porter
Austar will target communities like Broken Hill, which are generally underserviced by ADSL providers, during its regional rollout of wireless broadband, the company said today.

Austar's chief executive John Porter yesterday announced that the rollout, based on the same wireless technology used by Sydney carrier Unwired, will go ahead in two regional markets in the first half of 2006, with another 15 to follow. But, he kept the exact locations under wraps to stop competitors moving in.

However, the executive did confess to ZDNet Australia that Broken Hill is definitely a target. While coastal areas like Wollongong and the Gold Coast were "an obvious target", Porter said he was also interested in less well-known, but still sizeable communities.

"Whereas a Wollongong or a Gold Coast sounds pretty attractive at face value, they're probably reasonably well serviced with DSL," he said, adding Austar would try to attract funding from both the federal and state governments to service "chronically unserved regional markets".

Porter confirmed Austar would use Navini's technology to build the radio base stations necessary to provide coverage. The manufacturer uses a preview version of the WiMAX standard, which is expected to become the defacto for all wireless broadband communications worldwide, but is yet to be finalised.

"We selected Navini because we think they have the most logical and expedient path to WiMAX. They have product available today," said Porter.

The choice of technology supplier will also dovetail with Unwired's existing relationship with Navini. Austar itself cosied up to Unwired in July when the companies announced they would swap some of their wireless radio spectrum in order to facilitate infrastructure rollouts.

Porter said his company's ultimate aim was to collaborate with Unwired and provide "a reasonably ubiquitous wireless network" around the nation. Such a network will be dependent upon Unwired's plans to roll out infrastructure to capital cities other than Sydney, which recently received a boost in the form of AU$37 million in funding from Intel.

Porter confirmed that Austar will look sell wholesale access to its network: "This could be a very attractive wholesale option for competitive ISPs. We certainly intend to offer that."

What to expect
"Initially we'll be provisioning service with a range of products from 256kps up to 1Mbps," said Porter. "The actual networks can manage speeds of up to 4Mbps, on an erratic basis, but we'll ratchet up the throughput as the market demands it over time."

The company will also offer so-called triple-play services; voice, data and video content over the same network connection. This sort of service is a natural fit for Austar, which already offers pay-TV and dial-up Internet services.

"We're designing the network to support VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol]… We will probably offer a service, but if someone wants to take their own VoIP product and put it on the network, we'll support it," said Porter, who confirmed that Austar may offer customers the ability to prioritise voice packets to run Internet telephony.

As for video, "I think that's a little ways off, because as you know it's pretty bandwidth hungry," said Porter. ISP Internode, which intends to operate a video on demand service over its next-generation ADSL2+ network in 2006, has said such a service would require around 4Mbps per video stream.

Another potential future service mentioned by Porter was the ability to connect hand-held devices such as PDAs to the network using what will then be the WiMAX standard.

The backhaul dilemma
In order to pipe traffic from regional areas back to the capital cities and Internet backbones (this is known as a 'backhaul' service), Austar is willing to use whatever service provider it can.

"In terms of backhaul, it's a reasonably competitive environment out there," said Porter, noting the East coast of Australia especially had a range of alternatives for backhaul between communities.

However he would still like to see Telstra cut some weight off its backhaul prices. "I'd like to see them get more commercial and realistic," he said, noting this would be likely to occur if a separation between Telstra's wholesale and retail arms currently being planned by the federal government went ahead.

"I hope they come to the party… We need backhaul," he said.

The news comes as Queensland ISP OntheNet announced it would start offering ADSL2+ services at speeds of up to 24Mbps to customers on the Gold Coast. The company joins South Australian-based Adam Internet and Internode as the only mass-market ISPs offering such speeds.