NBN announces 5G trials with Ericsson

NBN is this week trialling 5G with Ericsson in Melbourne in an effort to explore potential upgrade paths of its fixed-wireless service.

Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) company has announced that it will be kicking off 5G trials this week in partnership with Ericsson in Melbourne.

According to NBN, it will be using 100MHz of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band for the trial, as well as Ericsson's 5G New Radio (5G NR) equipment, with NBN CTO Ray Owen saying the tests will be used to see how it can improve its fixed-wireless service.

"As with any new technology, there have been claims made about how 5G will impact the fixed broadband market," Owen said during the CommsDay Summit in Sydney on Tuesday morning.

"We know that 5G will enable much faster speeds than 4G, but at NBN we also know better than anyone about how much data end users are consuming, and some of the challenges on putting that data capacity onto fixed-wireless network.

"It is in this vein, we have a close interest in 5G for our fixed-wireless footprint in understanding the technology and economics of a 5G upgrade path."

NBN now operates more than 2,500 fixed-wireless macro sites across the nation, providing the service to around 225,000 premises.

"We are certainly not done with 4G yet," Owen added.

"We have a number of initiatives under way using next-generation 4G technology such as MIMO to deliver an improved end-user experience on fixed-wireless -- but we absolutely want to look at what 5G will offer in the future to all Australians wherever they may live."

NBN CEO Bill Morrow -- who is stepping down by the end of 2018 -- in February told ZDNet that the company is eyeing the 5G spectrum going up for auction later this year.

"We're not revealing whether or not what our intentions are, but I will tell you that we're studying and watching it closely," Morrow told ZDNet in an interview. "We would like some of the spectrum, but again we're not certain yet as to whether or not we're going to participate."

The transition from 4G to 5G services will assist in improving NBN's fixed-wireless network, according to Morrow.

"When you look around the world, that's most of the applications people are initially targeting -- the fixed-wireless high-broadband usage, which usually is in a stationary environment," he told ZDNet.

The chief executive also revealed to ZDNet that NBN is not ready to launch its 100/40Mbps fixed-wireless product despite saying in March 2017 that it would be launching in around a year's time.

Morrow told ZDNet during the company's first-half FY18 financial results call that NBN is looking into what fixed-wireless products could be offered with a 100Mbps service that would not jeopardise peak evening speeds, pointing to business offerings for during the day.

"We know that the radio technology and the antenna technology that we have can support 100Mbps on fixed-wireless -- and that's with the 4G protocol, that's even pre-5G. But the issue quite frankly is how would that be used because of the spectrum limitations, because of the nature of fixed-wireless in itself, when it comes to the peak period of the day, there is going to be a different experience people get, and to stay at that 100 megabits per second would be unlikely in the evening hours," Morrow told ZDNet.

"As a result, we're looking at what application that we can use that hundred-meg type of capability -- is it a business, for example, that operates the network more in the daytime hours that can leverage that higher speed and still not slow people down when they're looking to downstream or stream their video to their home in the evening hours?

"We would offer business-grade product that just defines and says 'hey listen hundred meg and here's how you can kind of expect to have that perform between these hours of the day', and after that it would move into a best-effort or a lower-committed type of a speed."

During his interview with ZDNet, Morrow explained that the 100Mbps speeds could be offered to consumers "as long as it's clear that it is more out of busy time sort of speeds that they would be observing".

There are typically three ways in which wireless carriers can expand the capacity of their wireless networks, Morrow explained to ZDNet: Changing the protocols from 4G to 5G for a higher spectral efficiency; adding more spectrum; and cell split, which involves adding more towers to divide the existing spectrum among fewer premises.

"That last one is obviously most expensive to be able to deal with, and so therefore most carriers like us always try to find the other two as better solutions," he said.

NBN spent AU$4 million on acquiring spectrum at the end of last year: 3.5MHz in the 3.4GHz band in Hobart and Launceston; 35MHz in the 2.3GHz band in Cameron Corner and Geraldton/Kalgoorlie; and 98MHz in the 2.3GHz band in Delamere.

"The whole idea is that as our take-up rate continues to grow, we need to continue to add spectrum in certain locations where we don't have enough to be able to handle that incremental customer base," he told ZDNet.

In order to help solve the congestion issues, NBN is also connecting more fixed-wireless towers with fibre rather than traditional microwave backhaul "because our network by design is going to carry more of a load than a classic mobile wireless network".

"Our goal is just towards not constraining people -- so whether it's a microwave hop or a fibre location, it really depends on the load being carried by that particular tower," he told ZDNet.

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