No 2015 deadline for NBN wireless rollout

Plans to finish the NBN fixed-wireless network in 2015 have gone since the change of government, despite the company meeting its own new running targets since the strategic review.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

It is unlikely that the over half a million premises set to receive a fixed-wireless connection to the National Broadband Network (NBN) will be connected by the end of this year.

NBN Co's fixed-wireless long-term evolution (LTE) network is being built by networking giant Ericsson, and was originally slated to be completed this year. A fact sheet (PDF) put out by NBN Co prior to 2012 stated that the network would be completed in calendar year 2015, and would cover 500,000 premises.

The fixed-wireless network was one of the less contentious parts of the NBN policy. When the Coalition announced its alternative NBN policy in April 2013, while it proposed radically altering the fixed network from fibre to the premises to a multi-technology mix, the party promised that premises originally set to be connected by fixed-wireless LTE or via the two satellites would still be connected via those technologies.

Since coming to government in September 2013, NBN Co underwent a radical management change, and instigated a number of reviews of its operations, including that of its fixed-wireless network rollout.

That review (PDF) in 2014 stated that while the network rollout had largely progressed as planned, NBN Co had AU$3.5 billion in capex to 2021 to build 1,400 towers and launch the two satellites to pass 230,000 premises, but would actually need over $1 billion in more funding to pass between 440,000 and 620,000 premises in total.

The review also found that NBN Co was running slightly behind its targets in the fixed-wireless rollout, and might not meet its targets for that financial year.

Since then, the situation has somewhat improved. A spokesperson for NBN Co told ZDNet that NBN Co had met its target for the end of 2014, and is ahead of schedule so far in 2015.

In NBN Co's latest corporate plan, the combined target for the wireless and interim satellite service is 278,000 by the end of this financial year on June 30. As of January 29, 2015, NBN Co currently sits at 163,164 premises passed by wireless, and 40,201 premises connected to the interim satellite service.

Despite meeting its targets, NBN Co has not announced the timing on when the network will be completed, and has confirmed that it will not meet the original pre-2013 deadline for the network to be completed.

The spokesperson said that the fixed-wireless rollout is ongoing, and there is no set target at this time.

"The only target we have is 8 million connections by 2020. Fixed wireless is on the 18-month schedule, so should be viewed as ongoing," the spokesperson said.

NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow has indicated in the past that a more solid target for the fibre-to-the-node, fibre-to-the-basement, and HFC rollouts will be included in the next corporate plan. However, these are contingent on the renegotiations with Telstra and Optus being completed. The fixed-wireless rollout is not impacted by those agreements.

In a blog post, telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said that the government has been reluctant to talk about the fixed-wireless rollout because it is progressing too slowly.

"Given this rollout rate, it will take forever to get half a million premises connected; and obviously, such low numbers are not very newsworthy, so it looks as though the government has decided to keep quiet about it," he said.

"If regional Australia wants better broadband, it should start asking questions about the rollout of the fixed-wireless NBN in their areas. Unless they make this a political issue again, very little will happen."

Despite this, the fixed-wireless rollout is believed to be the most successful for NBN Co, with few customer complaints relative to the significant hurdles still facing NBN Co in connecting customers in the fixed-line footprint, and the ongoing issues with the interim satellite service.

NBN Co is considering using the fixed-wireless network as a "band-aid" in some areas to offer the product as an interim step to fibre to the node as the NBN rolls out.

It comes as the launch of the first of the two NBN Co satellites could be delayed for three months. NBN Co has stressed that the window it has allowed for the launch of the two satellites will mean that the delay will not impact the timing for the services to go live.

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