5G Fixed Wireless can help solve the NBN shortfall

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David Soldani Chief Technology Officer of Huawei Australia speaks at the 5G Business Summit in Sydney.

As the completion of the National Broadband Network comes into view it’s time to face a very simple fact: The project has failed and Australia needs to stop expecting NBN Co to deliver universal high-speed broadband. It’s not going to happen.

Australia has somehow managed to invest $51 billion on a network that can’t even deliver 50Mbps to around one million of its fixed-broadband end-user premises. Indeed, we now know that close to 200,000 end-user premises on the Fibre-to-the-Node network can’t even get 25Mbps.

Don’t forget that the real cost of the NBN is actually much higher than that, on top of the $51 billion cost of building the network NBN Co must also pay Telstra a reported $100 billion in long-term lease payments for accessing its network assets.

Just imagine what Australia could actually have built for that $151billion?

When you look at the network requirements for accessing the fundamental technologies enabling the 4th industrial revolution you soon realise that these are much higher than what NBN can deliver.

If you want a perfect example of how little value Australia has got from the NBN you only need to look at the performance of the NBN Fixed Wireless network.

To date NBN Co has spent around $4 billion on the Fixed Wireless network that currently has around 280,000 activated end-users – that averages out at around $10,000 per activated household.

That is a simply extraordinary figure and it’s made even worse when you look at how that network is actually performing for the Australians that rely on it for their broadband connection.

The incredible truth of the matter – and this takes some believing – is that in hundreds of cell sites across the country the NBN Fixed Wireless network is now delivering only around 6Mbps to each end-user premises at peak-time. Yes, you did read that correctly.

For a staggering $10,000 per household we are delivering speeds at peak-times – you know, when people in their homes actually want to use the network – that are slower than most people were getting on ADSL before we decided to spend $51 billion on the NBN.

Let’s be clear, we all know that there are always going to be congestion on wireless networks – that’s just a question of physics – but the NBN Fixed Wireless network has not only suffered from cell-site congestion.

From what has been extracted from the company during parliamentary hearings we also know that there have been significant problems with backhaul congestion between several hundred NBN’s Fixed Wireless towers and its Transit Network.

As an engineer there are some questions I have to ask here….

How did this happen?

What could have been done differently?

Has anyone been held accountable for it?

These are questions which Australians deserve answers to because after my 25 years in working in telecommunications all around the world I have never seen such a poor result after such a huge expenditure.

The reality is that excluding Huawei from both the NBN deployment and the 5G market Australia has exacerbated the digital divide, meaning that many Australians will be denied access to revolutionary technology.

This ranges from being excluded from Cloud-Gaming-PC-AR/VR, to Telehealth, education and industrial processes automation – and preventing multiple industries from investing in and capitalising on an ever-increasing field of digital applications.

At the same time the rest of the world will continue to pioneer new technologies and business models for the coming digital era that Australia will most probably struggle to adapt with.
So, the next question becomes what can we actually do about it? Well, there is actually quite a bit we can do.

Firstly, let’s stop pretending that NBN Co can do this whole thing by itself – we now know that it can’t. There is simply no more money in the pot. That’s it.

The plain fact of the matter is that even at the last Federal Election neither of the major parties was proposing any further significant investment in the NBN.

That means we need to look at new ways of solving the problem, especially in the outer-suburban and regional areas where the Fixed Wireless network and Fibre-to-the-Node networks are struggling to deliver what is needed – and there is no real upgrade in prospect.

The solution to the problem is actually very simple. We know that in these outer-suburban and regional areas that the mobile operators have plenty of spare spectrum available because there is very low population densities in those areas.

So, using the hugely successful Mobile Blackspot program as a template why not encourage the mobile network operators to extend their regional networks and use that available spectrum to deliver 5G Fixed Wireless services to consumers?

The focus should be on delivering Fixed Wireless services in the Sub-6GHz spectrum given that mmWave Fixed Wireless services fundamentally cannot be deployed on a large scale in Australia, because of the propagation and cost limitations.

Satellite solutions are also questionable, as the necessary connectivity performance requirements (such as end-to-end latency) cannot be achieved for providing access to revolutionary technologies in the 4th industrial revolution.

Alternatively, we could look to take a leaf out of what has been happening down in Victoria where the state government and local council have collaborated to deliver a contract to Spirit Telecom to deliver high-speed Fixed Wireless services of up to 1Gbps to regional end-users.

Sure, these kind of schemes will require extra funding from the Federal and State Governments but at least the money will be going into an environment where the high-speeds available from 5G will actually be affordable for end-users.

The ludicrous NBN pricing structure means that 1Gbps speeds are currently priced at over $350/month – so if we want to make high-speed 5G Fixed Wireless available to regional Australians then there is little point trying to do it via the NBN.

More importantly we also need to look at how we generate funding for this kind of ‘Broadband Blackspots’ program – we need to look beyond the Federal Government and examine what can be generated from state and local government as well.

Now, I expect many readers will be thinking at this point, “What on earth does any of this have to do with Huawei? Aren’t they banned from the NBN and 5G in Australia?”

Well, yes, that is all true but as a company celebrating its 15th year of business in Australia and with hopefully a long and successful future still ahead of us here we care deeply about the future of this country.

To be quite frank, as a starting point it makes no sense for Australia to continue to exclude the world’s leading 5G technology provider from the marketplace – especially when we have a proven track record of delivering the kind of quality services that Australians so badly need.

In the last couple of weeks alone Huawei has been the technology provider of choice to 5G launches from both EE in the UK and Vodafone in Spain – with plenty more to come in due course.

Indeed, you only need to look at the huge success of our Fixed Wireless deployment with Sunrise in Switzerland – which presents hugely challenging terrain – to see what can be done when Fixed Wireless is done properly.

Working with Huawei Sunrise is now delivering 5G Fixed Wireless services to over 150 villages in Switzerland – covering many of the areas that are not currently served with fixed-broadband – there is no reason why the same could not be done here in Australia.

The technology is already there to solve the challenges Australia is facing – there is no doubt about that – what we need now is for that technology to be allowed to do what it was designed to do and for our leaders to recognise that we need to adopt a different approach with regard to delivering universal high-speed broadband.

The fact of the matter is that the current approach is not working and doing nothing is no longer an option. Furthermore, any concern on 5G cyber security can be managed. See for example: Huawei explores the 4G to 5G network architecture evolution in Australia.

As a crucial company strategy, Huawei complies with the applicable laws, regulations, standards set forth by Australia as well as globally, while continuing to adhere to best practices in industry.

We have established and will continually improve our end-to-end cyber security assurance system, to tackle the challenges of cyber security through partnerships with governments, customers, and partners in an open and transparent manner.

In addition, Huawei guarantees that its commitment to cyber security will never be outweighed by the consideration of commercial interests. As a company, cyber security and privacy protection are our top priorities.

We are committed to building upon the trust earned over our 15 years in Australia and continuing to provide an unrivalled quality in every device, ICT infrastructure, product, service and solution to build fully connected, intelligent Australia.

Dr. David Soldani is Chief Technology Officer of Huawei Australia

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