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The future NBN might look rather different

In all reality it looks like the multi-technology mix (MTM) as it is currently being rolled out by the nbn company is as good as it will get.

Some Australians will have an excellent service, especially those on fibre-to-the-home (FttH) and fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) technologies. Others won’t see any difference from the current ADSL services they already have. And some will actually get a service that is inferior to what they have experienced before. Hopefully, with some further tweaking, over time that last category will be reduced to only a handful customers.

But for the majority of users there won’t be all that much difference between the service they currently have and the NBN service that will replace it.

Obviously some customer improvement is possible, but that depends more on pricing than on technology. A better customer experience can be achieved if more capacity is made available to users (higher speeds) at an affordable price. In the end market realities will force the government to allow the nbn company to lower the wholesale price, which in turn will make more affordable high-speed broadband available to the Australian customers. The question is will that be enough to save the NBN?

It could well be that, looking beyond the current version, the NBN of the future might look rather different.

In all reality it will be unlikely that a rapid upgrade to full FttH will happen after 2020, given the estimated cost of another $30 billion. The nbn company doesn’t have the money for it, private industry has already shied away from investing in the current NBN, and financial estimations are that at least 50% of the initial investment will need to be written off by the government before private investors will become interested.

But even if that did happen it would require changes to the nbn company, as it is currently a government-owned monopoly and making changes to this structure (eg, by privatising it) would require Parliamentary approval and any changes in that respect  could take many years.

So in reality once the current rollout is finished in 2020/2021 it could easily take another five years before the final upgrade will happen and the rollout of NBN 2.0 could then take another five years or so before it is completed. This would bring it to the period 2030-2035.

Obviously a lot will happen in the meantime. New technologies will emerge and further innovations will happen also on the NBN version that will be in place in 2021 and beyond.

Some of the new technologies that are now arriving on the horizon could well mean that a different NBN scenario might unfold – a merging between fixed and wireless broadband.

If we look at the current mobile networks what we see is that they are actually fibre networks with a last-mile wireless solution. Some 50% of all mobile towers are already connected to a fibre optic backhaul network and every year that number is increasing, resulting in an estimated 80%-90% of mobile towers being connected to optical fibre networks within the next five years or so.

The technology innovations from 2G to 3G and 4G – with 5G becoming available in 2020 and 6G already on the horizon – have meant that mobile broadband capacity has increased a thousand-fold; however this is only made possible by bringing the mobile towers deeper and deeper into the network and in order to handle the massive increase on data usage over mobile networks, most of these towers will, as mentioned, increasingly be connected to fibre optic networks.

In the end what this means is that, especially in built-up areas, mobile towers/antennas will be established in nearly in every street. With that in place it will become possible to provide the last-mile connection to the house via a mobile/wireless connection. Critical to this possibility is that enough capacity can be provided via the new 5G (and 6G) technologies to deliver a wireless NBN alternative at an affordable price. Current offerings in the market are indicating that competitive mobile broadband pricing is now becoming a real possibility. As we have seen with the current NBN, affordability is what is stopping people from using truly high-speed access, not the technology. This will be a major challenge for the mobile operators in the future, as well as the ability to have a truly price competitive alternative to the current NBN.

It is highly unlikely that the nbn company, hamstrung by government policies, can react quickly to this and that will only add further to the company’s woes, as more and more people will start to use wireless/mobile solutions, especially if that technology does indeed stand up to its technical promise of very high speed and affordability.

The NBN scenario could then be to deliver wholesale fibre optic capacity to the mobile operators (mobile towers) and expand the network deeper into suburbs to facilitate the extra towers that are needed for 5G and 6G mobile network requirements.

As part of their multi technology mix approach they could also become involved in 5G and 6G last mile access delivery themselves, but this will no doubt lead to fierce opposition from the mobile operators.

Paul Budde