NBN 101: The case for wireless broadband

This article is part of Computerworld Australia's NBN 101 series, in which we take a look at the arguments surrounding the fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network, and dissect them one by one. The articles are meant to be an overview of the debates central to the National Broadband Network (NBN) to give you a grounding as more and more media outlets and commentators speak out on the project. We encourage people to take the discussion further in the comments section.

In our first article we took a look at how Australia’s NBN plan compares to the rest of the world and the statistics and graphs from the OECD, and then we strapped in for a tour of speeds. This time we take a look at wireless technologies versus fibre optic.

The question I'm often asked is: why don't we just do it all with wireless? NBN Co chief executive officer, Mike Quigley

Of the alternatives offered by critics of the National Broadband Network (NBN), one of the more interesting options has been the notion of providing all Australians with wireless of one type or another. NBN Co CEO, Mike Quigley, felt necessary to remark on it recently, and proceeded to defend why the NBN, as it currently stands, will not use the technologies.

The alternative has garnered support from the Computerworld Australia community, as well as analysts. It also underpinned the failed OPEL project, and may form a major part of the Liberals' broadband scheme, if they ever formulate one.

It's fair to say not all are convinced the prescribed technologies are the best fit for the job. Whether it's NBN Mark I (a fibre-to-the-node or VDSL network) using copper for last mile access, or a nationwide wireless network, there are alternatives to the NBN that each have their benefits and disadvantages when compared to fibre. Some even continue to champion ADSL2+ as a future-proof Internet access method - why bother building an entirely new network when current technology is yet to reach 90 per cent market saturation?

To recap, the Federal Government's proposed broadband network would see 90 to 93 per cent of Australians receive committed speeds of 100Mbps over a fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network. Of the roughly ten per cent remaining homes, seven per cent would receive wireless access and the remaining three per cent of the population could connect via satellite, both access points meant to be working at speeds of at least 12Mbps.

No matter how the NBN eventuates, then, wireless still plays a vital part; it's necessary to deliver Internet to those homes too rural and too expensive to run fibre to.

Quigley himself confessed he was a "big fan of wireless and mobile" and said that wireless broadband is a big part of Australia's broadband future. But can existing and/or future technologies ultimately replace fixed broadband? Let's have a look at the arguments.

Wireless as it stands

Wireless broadband already plays a significant part of the telecommunications market in Australia. According to the latest figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), wireless broadband subscribers make up 2.8 million of the total 8.2 million broadband subscribers. It's important to note here that the ABS only takes dongles into account at this stage - not smartphones - and doesn't distinguish those users who have multiple connections. However, considering that half of the total 25 million Australian mobile subscriptions in June 2009 were made up of 3G-capable devices, it's likely that the number of connections to the Internet on mobile phones will surpass that of fixed broadband, if it hasn't already.

With Telstra and competing providers pouring an increasing amount of money into developing faster 3G and HSPA networks, it doesn't look like wireless is going anywhere anytime soon.

When it comes to building a national, open access broadband network with minimum committed speeds, though, wireless broadband becomes fraught with issues. The more users you have on a given wireless broadband network, the more base stations and back-end infrastructure a service provider has to implement to keep providing the same quality of service. According to Quigley, Australia would have to expand its current base of 16,000 mobile cell sites to around 80,000 in order to deliver a near-equivalent broadband experience to the proposed NBN.

That doesn't even take into account speed. Telstra's fastest mobile broadband network currently works at a theoretical peak of 42Mbps in lab tests, with real world speeds of up to 16Mbps with the right hardware. In premium conditions, Telstra's dual carrier HSPA network could technically be a candidate for the wireless portion of the existing NBN plan. But given that aspect of the rollout is made up of rural Australian communities it is unlikely a 12Mbps minimum speed can be guaranteed.

Next generation, "4G" technologies such as WiMAX and LTE provide better hope of comparable speeds and coverage, but can they really be fit out for an NBN?

*Note: We will be addressing the uptake and demand argument around whether people will choose wireless over fixed line services in a future article. This article focuses on the technology and their ability to deliver NBN goals.

The case for WiMAX

WiMAX has, so far, been a bit of a non-starter in Australia. Though several Internet service providers (ISP) are expanding their respective WiMAX networks, the technology has suffered from a fractured upgrade path that has essentially split it into three different standards: 802.16d, 802.16e and 802.16m. Like 802.11 WiFi, these different industry certifications provide different capabilities and speeds, but by the same token require different hardware and often significant upgrades to existing infrastructure by both operator and end-user.

The earliest version, 802.16d, is currently available in Australia through Unwired in Sydney and Melbourne, and Internode in South Australia, with varied speeds of between 256Kbps and a theoretical 9Mbps. The service was marketed heavily by Unwired - now owned by Seven Group - several years ago as a fixed wireless broadband access service dedicated for people on the move or those without access to ADSL services. However, slow speeds and patchy coverage led to slow uptake. The Seven Group has since put out a different WiMAX-based offering (802.16e) under the vividwireless brand earlier this year.

vividwireless has generated the most attention for 802.16e WiMAX so far when it launched in March with 150 WiMAX base stations from Huawei scattered throughout Perth. The network launched claiming peak speeds of 20Mbps but promptly dropped the figure and does not currently claim or promise any specific average or peak speeds to customers. However, users have reported an average speed of 9.53Mbps through speedtest.net, which the service provider's chief executive officer, Martin Mercer, recently championed at a 4G conference in Sydney as a success that provided a "superior experience to ADSL2+".

South Australian ISP, Adam Internet, uses 802.16e WiMAX to fill in gaps on the outer fringes of Adelaide where residents and small businesses are unable to receive ADSL2+ services, as part of the Federal Government's Australian Broadband Guarantee. At time of writing, 18 of the total 62 communities targeted by Adam Internet for WiMAX base stations are able to sign up to the service, with the remainder of the areas slated for connection before the end of the year. The service provider artificially caps the maximum WiMAX speed at 12Mbps downstream, but has reported that users experience an average of 11Mbps.

Another notable WiMAX experiment is currently under construction by NSW energy utility, EnergyAustralia. The retailer is in the process of rolling out 140 802.16e WiMAX base stations across NSW, with 20 expected to go into full operation soon as part of the Federal Government's $100 million three-year lt;Igt;Smart Grid, Smart Citieslt;/igt; trial. The wireless network works off 15MHz worth of spectrum leased from Seven Group's Wireless Broadband Australia (WBA) - which also owns vividwireless' spectrum in Perth - and is designed to connect to WiMAX-capable smart meters in homes as well as up to 3000 mobile field computers. While ambitious, the retailer has ruled out interests in signing up customers to the network, even if legislation allowing enterprises to become retail service providers (RSP) were to eventuate.

Put simply, WiMAX as it currently stands in Australia, is untenable as a nation-wide broadband network, and certainly isn't capable of delivering the committed 100Mbps speeds that the Federal Government proposes to deliver for at least 90 per cent of Australians.

Unlike optic fibre-based network technologies, the WiMAX technology’s greatest asset is also yet to make a strong appearance in commercial reality. 802.16m WiMAX, otherwise known as "WiMAX 2", purports to deliver peak speeds of 300Mbps and lower latency than previous generations to make applications like Voice over IP (VoIP) easier to deliver over the network. However, the specification is yet to be finalised and, while reports earlier this year pointed to 2011 as the beginning of the standard, the timeline has since been pushed back to 2012 according to Intel.

The WiMAX Forum says operators are able to co-locate WiMAX base station equipment within existing 3G towers, which means that telcos at least won't have to erect completely new towers if they choose to implement the technology. However, given that the technology is yet to be field-tested indicates that the upgrade path to WiMAX at a national level could potentially take even more time than currently slated for the NBN and, even then, 100Mbps on a completely even playing field for all users (the concept of ubiquity that is part of the NBN) are unlikely.

Next: LTE

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The case for LTE

The other major 4G technology, Long Term Evolution (LTE), has been marked as the direct successor to current HSPA services by industry body 3GPP, with greater capability for VoIP and telephony services under an all-IP network. While the technology as a whole is comparatively immature compared to WiMAX, full trials of the technology have already begun in Australia, and may come to fruition before the competing 802.16m WiMAX makes a local appearance.

LTE sees a shift in the way most broadband and telecommunications players operate. LTE’s all-IP technological foundations essentially require operators to switch off existing 2G and ultimately 3G networks. While this is inevitable at some point, it also means a potentially massive shift with similar repercussions to the shutoff of the Australian CDMA network in 2008.

Telstra has led the way in the trials, with the telco's six-month tests of the networks beginning in May. According to Telstra, the trial should see the network deliver theoretical speeds of 172Mbps, though one test by Nokia Siemens Networks has seen real-world speeds of up to 70Mbps. Even if trials are wildly successful, Telstra has publicly stated it won't jump into LTE head first, and the first LTE services aren't expected until halfway through 2012 at the earliest.

As part of a potential deal between Telstra and NBN Co, the telco will also be able to bid on wireless spectrum made available by the Federal Government in the future, potentially increasing opportunities for a more expansive and faster LTE network than is currently available over its flagship Next G service.

Optus' parent company, SingTel, has also announced trials to take place in Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore though further details remain scant.

Other major Australian telcos have expressed interest in delivering similar services by early 2013 but it's clear the technology has some time yet before it becomes a real world application. According to one report on LTE, mass adoption of the technology will only begin in 2015.

Thanks to better handling of radio spectrums, each LTE base station can handle up to ten times more users than 3G base stations are currently capable of; some report 200 to 400 customers each. As such, it's almost a necessity in order to provide better voice and data services to mobile customers without building more stations. However, the fact that a choke point continues to exist means that, as more mobile broadband customers join a network and use more and more data - as they inevitably will over time - the guaranteed speeds will fall unless operators upgrade infrastructure or build more stations. With no easy way to increase capacity at the operator end, the ubiquitous 100Mbps guaranteed speeds will easily drop.

The case for satellite

Australia is currently serviced by satellites operated by either Telstra or Optus, many of which fall under the Ku-band category, which means they operate on the 12 to 18GHz bandwidth of the radio spectrum. While these are largely devoted to supporting backhaul for operators' mobile networks, they are also used to deliver Internet services to rural Australian communities.

Those eligible under the government's Australian Broadband Guarantee program currently have access to Internet services ranging in speed from 256Kbps to 1Mbps at prices of between $19.95 and $165 if you're on a service on the Optus satellite network, such as those from BorderNET and HarbourSat. Telstra's fastest plan, on the other hand, currently costs users $499.95 per month for 800Kbps downstream Internet speeds and 4GB of monthly data quota.

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