Optus primed for 5G, media convergence: CEO

Optus is sitting on the intersection between communications, media, and technology, and is primed to take advantage of 5G through its spectrum holdings and network technology expertise, according to CEO Allen Lew.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Optus chief executive Allen Lew has said that Optus is in a unique position to be the first in Australia to take advantage of the convergence between telecommunications, media, and technology, and will be able to deliver 5G quickly thanks to its spectrum holdings and experience with new network technologies.

Despite Optus' self-described transformation into a multimedia company with content offerings -- including its acquisition of the exclusive Australian broadcast rights for the English Premier League -- Lew reaffirmed that Optus is a telecommunications provider above all else.

"We want to be a mobile multimedia company, but let's be real: In the minds of Australians, we are first and foremost a telco," Lew said on Wednesday morning.

"We are in the connectivity business and we have to get this right, because if we don't get the basic connectivity product right, we do not have licence for customers to go into media. And that's why the focus of the organisation since I came in in 2014 -- our single biggest priority is to ensure we have in particular a mobile network that spans the length and breadth of this huge country and that meets the needs of our consumer and business customers."

Optus' success as a media company is therefore reliant on its underlying network, Lew explained.

"Yes, we market ourselves a lot of different ways; yes, we are very big with content acquisition, but ... network is the foundation, the key, and the reason why Optus exists, and will continue to be our primary area of focus and our primary area of investment," he said.

"We believe that at the end of the day, before we can talk about the convergence of mobile, of communications, media, and technology, that we will be the first to give Australians that unique experience when these three converge, because we are positioning ourselves to be at the intersection of that."

Lew said Optus' network is now "video ready" across Australia's capital cities, in addition to all major regional cities with a population of more than 100,000, and 75 other regional towns and cities. It is also rolling out its 4.5G network, which provides throughput speeds of up to 1Gbps, across the capital cities throughout 2017, having activated its first site in Sydney earlier on Wednesday.

The 4.5G network uses a combination of 4CC/5CC carrier aggregation, 4x4 Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO), and 256 Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM), and was switched on in partnership with Chinese networking giant Huawei.

The 4.5G network is not only quadrupling capacity and increasing speeds for customers using mobile networks for media consumption; it is also a stepping stone towards 5G technology, Lew said.

According to the CEO, 5G requires three things: Standards, which have yet to be decided; an internationally harmonised frequency band, which is currently the 3.5GHz band; and massive MIMO -- and Optus is already ahead in the latter two categories, he said.

"Optus is one of the few companies in this country that has got 3.5GHz ... so we will start to use that 3.5GHz for commercial services in Australia," Lew said.

"We're not waiting for the standards. We're taking the frequency that we uniquely have, we're taking this new technology, which one of our infrastructure providers is giving to us, and we're going to introduce 1-gigabit services."

Huawei and Optus have been trialling 5G network technology, in November attaining speeds of 35Gbps which they said is the fastest single user transmission rate using 5G so far in Australia.

The trial was conducted over the 73GHz millimetre wave spectrum band, using the Polar Code coding mechanism.

Optus last year also signed a deal with networking giant Nokia to collaborate on developing its 5G network, under which it has undertaken closed lab tests using Nokia's 5G radio test bed on its Airscale product, as well as narrowband Internet of Things (NB-IoT) tests. The two companies will conduct a trial of a 5G prototype across Optus' 3.5GHz spectrum band by 2017.

Optus is also readying its core and transport networks with network function virtualisation (NFV) and cloud infrastructure, group CTO of Optus' parent company Singtel Tay Soo Meng said last year, and ZDNet understands that Optus is looking to trial its 5G network at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast.

In order to continue its preparedness for 5G, Optus Networks managing director Dennis Wong said the telco will continue acquiring spectrum.

"We continue to invest in spectrum. Spectrum is one of the very key assets that makes all this possible," Wong told media on Wednesday.

"We have 90MHz of this [3.5GHz band] in most of the city areas, and we are definitely going to use this to make sure that it brings benefit to the customers, especially in the 5G arena.

"We have already invested more than AU$1.5 billion in spectrum. We will continue to look at using them and ... will continue to acquire it."

Optus did not disclose its mobile market share during its financial results last week, but is extending its network under both the federal government's mobile blackspots program, which will see it build out 114 new mobile sites under round two, and by installing small cells across Australia.

It has also been using the 1800MHz spectrum it secured for AU$196 million during the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) auction last year to expand its mobile networks, and will likely take part in the ACMA's upcoming 700MHz spectrum auction.

As of the end of December, Optus' 4G mobile network reached 95.9 percent of the Australian population.

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