NBN's 5G play kicks off industry debate

While Michelle Rowland has called for the government to explain NBN's 5G trials and Vodafone says NBN has too much 5G spectrum, Bevan Slattery has said there is a 'great opportunity' for NBN to offer wholesale 5G services.
Written by Corinne Reichert on

Amid calls by Labor for the federal government to explain the National Broadband Network (NBN) company's "intentions with 5G", Australian telco entrepreneur Bevan Slattery has spoken positively of NBN's opportunity to provide a wholesale mobile service.

"I think there's a great opportunity for NBN Co to really provide an amazing alternate provider for wholesale wireless in the 4G, 5G space with their wireless technology, they've got fibre [backhaul]," Slattery said at the CommsDay Summit in Sydney on Tuesday.

"I think it's a great opportunity for NBN Co to actually not just do fixed line and kind of fixed-wireless; I think what are the opportunities for them to provide a virtual MVNO product or an MVNO product for other carriers.

"It will happen in the next five years, and it will need to do that because 5G will absolutely eat its lunch if it doesn't."

Slattery pointed out that NBN has "a lot of spectrum to do that", with Vodafone Australia chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd using his own speech on Tuesday to argue against the amount of 5G spectrum NBN holds.

Echoing comments published last week in Vodafone's submission to the joint standing committee's inquiry into the NBN business case, Lloyd said there has been a "worrying trend of different pricing for spectrum for different players, particularly NBN".

"NBN now holds a very significant amount of spectrum, which is some of the only internationally aligned 5G spectrum that's likely to be available in the next few years," he pointed out.

"I don't propose a specific answer to that, but that is a very significant question if NBN is going to continue to hold very significant amounts of 5G mobile spectrum, including in metro areas which are on the multi-technology mix fixed technologies -- fibre to the premises, fibre to the curb, HFC cable.

"The potential for seriously inefficient outcomes ... are very significant."

Vodafone had last week raised issues with the incoming competition between NBN and 5G, arguing in favour of spectrum sharing or releasing NBN's spectrum to other carriers, which could then raise enough money to extend the fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) footprint.

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said on Tuesday that the government needs to "clarify" what the NBN is providing.

"Just this morning, the NBN chief technology officer stated the company would commence 5G trials, and was keen to understand what 5G can offer to all Australians no matter where they live. Is NBN now planning to build a mobile network?" Rowling said in a statement.

"Or is the company planning to build a metropolitan 5G network to bypass the AU$50 billion second-rate NBN the Turnbull government has just built? If it is the latter, this is a clear admission the NBN engineering core consider parts of network currently being built is not fit for purpose."

NBN had earlier on Tuesday announced that it will be conducting 5G trials in partnership with Ericsson this week in Melbourne.

In all, Slattery said NBN and its departing CEO Bill Morrow have done a "really good job" of rolling the network out, but that a potential Labor government elected next year might change it again, with the launch of 5G to start causing problems for NBN from 2019.

"Bill Morrow's timing is genius," Slattery said.

Speaking at the CommsDay Summit, Rowland then addressed the recommendation last week of the disaggregation of the NBN by saying "4G and 5G are going to give NBN enough to think about".

"My view is that NBN and wireless broadband are the future of infrastructure-based competition for residential broadband in the Australian market. The market should be designed to encourage competition along this dimension. Labor does not want to see fixed-line networks duplicating each other, because we don't consider this to be efficient investment," Rowland explained.

"We are comfortable for NBN to be the ubiquitous fixed-line provider because that was always the policy intent. This is not a religious argument. It is simply born out of what has and has not worked over the past 25 years, and why the NBN was set up in the first place."

Also speaking on the convergence of fixed and mobile networks, Lloyd presented a report on mobile and fixed-line convergence prepared for Vodafone by the Centre for International Economics (CIE), which suggested policymakers and regulators "adopt a more technology-neutral approach" for dealing with NBN and 5G.

"To date, the fixed and mobile investment debate has largely been focused on the relative importance of one technology over the other. The fact is both technologies are vitally important and are constantly changing and converging. This reality must continue to be incorporated into the strategic direction of Australia's telecommunications policy settings," the report states.

The report also raises the issues of NBN's 5G spectrum allocation; NBN's wholesale pricing; access to NBN infrastructure; competitive neutrality between the Regional Broadband Scheme (RBS) and the NBN; and subsidy arrangements such as the mobile blackspot program and Universal Service Obligation (USO).

"We really need to look at a coherent tax framework if we're going to try and be technology neutral," Lloyd said.

"The approach of adding a separate taxation regime for the USO, having general taxation, having new tax measures such as the RBS, each one of those inevitably unintentionally skews this equation and produces inefficient outcomes, so we really encourage a step back."

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