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NBN looks to buy 5G spectrum, hesitates on 100Mbps fixed-wireless: Morrow

NBN is 'studying and watching' this year's 5G spectrum auction closely as it would like to obtain part of it, CEO Bill Morrow has told ZDNet, at the same time revealing that the company is hesitating on how it can offer its promised 100Mbps fixed-wireless product without impacting peak period customer experience.

The National Broadband Network (NBN) company is eyeing the 5G spectrum going up for auction later this year, NBN CEO Bill Morrow has told ZDNet.

"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 3.6GHz and 26GHz millimetre-wave (mmWave) bands will most likely be auctioned off by the government later this year.

The chief executive also revealed to ZDNet that NBN is not ready to launch its 100/40Mbps fixed-wireless product despite saying almost a year ago 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: Adding more spectrum; changing the protocols from 3G to 4G and from 4G to 5G for a higher spectral efficiency; 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, with NBN consequently spending 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.

Morrow also pointed to the concurrency now seen on networks thanks to video-streaming applications, which means the use of networks during peak periods is now continuous rather than spiky.

"Concurrency on networks is becoming a very important thing for engineers to look at. Fixed-wireless technologies are going to be the ones that are going to be most challenged by that; it really requires a whole different redesign than the classic approach to wireless," he said.

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.

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.

Morrow's comments on Monday followed retail service provider (RSP) Aussie Broadband arguing in December that NBN should pause its fixed-wireless rollout in the same way it halted sales on its hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) network, saying it needs to repair issues with congestion.

At the time, an NBN spokesperson had told ZDNet that there is already a system for working through any fixed-wireless congestion issues, and that the "vast majority" of customers are having no problems.

"We have a program of work in place to resolve fixed-wireless congestion issues. Work is well under way to remediate cells on towers to provide for more capacity," the spokesperson added.

NBN's 100Mbps product was announced in March 2016 to use carrier aggregation to increase bandwidth and capacity, with the company at the same time demonstrating its ability to hit speeds of up to 1Gbps when utilising a combination of carrier aggregation, fibre backhaul, multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO), and quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) technology.

Morrow also updated ZDNet on NBN's satellite service, saying the technology is "holding up quite well".

"There will always be issues with things like rain fade, certain weather conditions that cause a bit of disruption for that technology, but when we look around the world as far as the standards, we think that our network here in Australia is holding up very well," Morrow told ZDNet on Monday.

"What's the next phase of this to look at? We're constantly trying to examine how can we get more capacity to those end users, how can we think about lifting the speeds, we aren't resting on our laurels here; we are constantly looking for innovative ways to be able to do that. Some of the things that could be done at the layer 3 rather than our 2 Ethernet bit access type service to able some caching predictive capability, these sorts of things are currently being explored."

In November, Morrow had revealed to ZDNet that NBN is looking into satellites with 1Tbps capacity, as well as deploying a third satellite, piggybacking off existing satellites, building out additional fixed-wireless towers in order to relieve congestion, and improving the tech on its existing two satellites.

NBN's first-half FY18 results

For the first half of FY18, NBN reported revenue of AU$891 million, up 121 percent from the AU$403 million reported a year previous, with earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) of negative AU$1.377 billion -- 37 percent higher than the previous year's negative AU$1 billion.

NBN's fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network made AU$216 million in revenue during the half year, with 1.5 million active end users and almost 1.6 million premises ready for service (RFS). Cost per premises (CPP) for FttP brownfields was AU$4,392, while for FttP greenfields it was AU$2,264. NBN spent AU$173 million on capex for the network technology during the six-month period, down from last year's AU$294 million capex spent on FttP.

The fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network jumped from AU$49 million revenue a year ago to bring in AU$222 million in revenue for the six-month period, and cost AU$870 million in capex. As of the end of December, FttN had 1.53 million active end users and 3.2 million premises RFS, with a CPP of AU$2,222.

NBN's HFC network brought in AU$50 million in revenue, up from just 1 million a year ago, cost AU$794 million in capex, and had 408,293 active end users and 1.36 million premises RFS at AU$2,403 CPP, up from AU$2,258, which Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland labelled a "cost blowout".

Morrow added during the results call that NBN is now conducting upgrade work to improve the quality of the HFC network and is "progressing quickly", but said it is too soon to announce any timelines on this.

"We will not prioritise the speed of the build over end-user experience," he said.

The fixed-wireless network rose from AU$22 million in revenue last year to make AU$33 million this year, with a capex cost of AU$159 million. Fixed-wireless had 212,917 active end users as of December 31 and 565,557 premises RFS, with a CPP of AU$3,645.

Lastly, NBN's satellite network had 83,400 active users and 424,184 premises RFS by December 31. Its satellite division made revenue of AU$13 million during the half year, up from AU$8 million, with a six-month capex of AU$35 million.

Average revenue per user (ARPU) finally rose after remaining stagnant for several years, rising from AU$43 to AU$44 per month.

Morrow further stated that NBN's fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) network is on track to launch later this year.

NBN had additionally revealed earlier on Monday that it expects to have 1.2 million people on 50Mbps speeds by June as a result of providing this speed for the same access pricing as its 25Mbps service at the end of last year, at the same time setting up 50Mbps as its flagship speed under its new wholesale pricing and offering discounts on its 100Mbps speed tiers.

The first speed-monitoring report on fixed-line NBN services is due to be published next month, despite the boxes only just having been provided to the homes taking part.

For FY17, NBN had in August reported full-year revenue of AU$1.001 billion, up 138 percent from AU$421 million for the previous financial year, with EBITDA of negative AU$2.4 billion -- 53 percent higher than the previous year's negative AU$1.57 billion.

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