NBN could force govt's hand on LTE

Telcos are clamouring for clarity around plans for next-generation wireless spectrum, but Stephen Conroy has been so distracted lately that enabling the NBN's 4 per cent seems to be on the back burner. The right approach could kill two birds with one stone — and keep Australia from missing yet another broadband boat.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

In the last rush for spectrum when carriers were ramping up to 3G, they shelled out billions to secure their stake in the mobile future. All the government had to do was sit back and let the auction funding roll in. But the government's going to have to do a lot more if it expects them to pony up this time around.

The conclusions (PDF) of the NBN implementation study — that current 2.3GHz wireless broadband spectrum would require each wireless base station to service an area of no more than 7km radius — means that building a business case around the 2.3GHz spectrum will be tricky for potential service providers.


Optus' Maha Krishnapillai has been a strong advocate for clarity around government spectrum planning. (Credit: David Braue/ZDNet Australia)

The required capital investment, particularly given resource constraints in rural areas, is far higher than it would be for a concentrated capital-city roll-out. A far more commercially relevant solution would be to explore the potential for LTE services to operate within a frequency band offering longer range.

The 700MHz "digital dividend" band, which will be freed up around the country as analog TV services are shut off, seems to be the likely candidate. However, the government has avoided firm commitments around its digital dividend plans for so long that the issue pushed Optus and Telstra to a rare confluence of arguments at ACMA's recent radio-spectrum conference.

At that event, both companies exhorted the government to clarify and lock in its plans for the 700MHz spectrum. Yet it may well be the NBN that ultimately forces the government's hand. After all, how can it mandate a landline-equivalent service to complete its NBN plans if it doesn't provide a viable spectrum allocation in which to make it happen?

Stephen Conroy got an opportunity to meet this requirement recently as he noted government assistance to 2000 home-owners in the Mildura, Victoria region. It was a great time for photo opportunities, but perhaps the biggest promise of the Mildura analog switch-off is that it makes the town the first place where the much-hyped possibilities of the 700MHz spectrum can be realistically explored. Just as it's a centrepiece of the government's digital TV switch-over strategy, the remote town's soon-to-be-freed spectrum is an excellent place to test and refine a coherent strategy for the broader adoption of LTE.

Perhaps the biggest promise of the Mildura analog switch-off is that it makes the town the first place where the much-hyped possibilities of the 700MHz spectrum can be realistically explored.

So far, no announcements of formal fixed-wireless trials have been forthcoming; in terms of attention paid, the wireless portion of the NBN is definitely the poor cousin to the fibre part. And Conroy has been so distracted recently with the perfect storm of NBN, filter controversy, and looming election that it seems unlikely he'll be able to make much real progress in this area until after the election.

LTE was once a far-off concept, but with the first commercial deployments now live in Europe and carriers around the world looking forward from their ever more-congested 3G networks, the industry cannot afford a lackadaisical approach to LTE policy. Analyst firm IDC recently forecast big things for LTE, which it said is set to "eclipse WiMax spending" — no, that's not a joke — but Australia will miss the boat without clarity. Telstra and Optus are slated to start trialling the technology this year, but they're not likely to proceed to anything resembling a full roll-out until the government gets some solid spectrum planning in place.

Why not run this planning in concert with the staggered process by which the spectrum will be made available? Conroy could kill several birds with one stone — justifying the analog TV switch-off, appeasing critics of his LTE inaction, facilitating a solution to the NBN's wireless portion and charting the way towards next-generation wireless in the process. Geographically-restricted spectrum licences, coordinated with the staggered analog TV roll-out, would give carriers the certainty they need to act — and save the entire industry from playing this tedious waiting game any longer. With developed countries around the world moving ahead with LTE, this is one boat Australia really shouldn't miss.
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