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The role of the NBN in the development of 5G

With an NBN that is failing many customers it is no wonder that more and more people are looking towards mobile as a potential alternative.

Obviously mobile communication has improved over recent years in providing excellent access to broadband; and it has also become more affordable. At the same time there is the fabulous hype about 5G and the PR and media machines of the vendors involved makes you believe that this will become a real competitor to a faltering NBN.

First of all, anybody who has started to use video-based media over mobile networks seriously – beyond Facebook, YouTube etc – will have noticed that you will very quickly run out of the download capacity that is included in your mobile phone package, and any serious video use over mobile networks will quickly run into hundreds of dollars per month.

Secondly, 5G as a viable commercial mass market alternative might be 10 and possibly even 15 years away.

For starters, there is still not a 5G standard and this is essential for vendors to provide devices for mass markets in order to deliver an affordable device. Totally new handsets are needed to facilitate the multiple tiny antennas that are required in order for the device to operate over the high frequency necessary for 5G. No mass market will be achievable without a standard for such devices.

Secondly, 5G will require access to a fibre optic backbone in order to provide the affordable high-speed services that are talked about by the vendors and the mobile operators alike. Currently some 50% of mobile towers are linked to fibre optic networks – 5G could require a hundred-fold increase in mobile base stations and most of them need to be linked to a fibre optic network.

For the service to deliver the promised quality to the end-users a fibre optic connection to the 5G base station is needed within 100 metres of where the actual 5G users are. Furthermore, as soon as one starts talking about offices, public buildings, cafes, etc the reality is that the fibre network will need to be brought into these buildings in order to provide a reliable service. 5G has significant problems penetrating walls, foliage, water, even people (which from a spectrum perspective are seen as big bubbles of water). So in order to provide 5G services in these places multiple 5G antennas are needed within rooms to enable access to the mobile services.

When comparing wireless to fibre it is also important to note that, while wireless has a very limited capacity to carry lots of data over any distance (eg 100 metres for 5G), fibre can carry enormous amounts of data over tens of kilometres. So, from a network efficiency point of view fibre-based infrastructure will always win over wireless.

Don’t let any politically-motivated fake news get in the way of these facts.

As we have said in many of our articles over the last decade, mobile infrastructure and fibre infrastructure are both essential. It is not a case of either/or. But in the end mobile services will just provide local access linked to a fibre optic infrastructure. In other words, the majority of infrastructure needed to deliver 5G will be based on an FttH – or at least FttC (Fibre to the Curb) – infrastructure.

It is obvious that for these reasons it is impossible for the industry to deliver mass market 5G services within the short and even the medium term; so a 10-year horizon for such a level of 5G penetration is far more realistic.

Surely, in relation to mobile broadband being an alternative to the NBN – as is the case at the moment –  mobile broadband will increase its position at the bottom end of the market, for those people with very basic broadband access requirements. At the most this might be sufficient for around 15% of the market.

However, at the same time the overall content requirements for ‘bandwidth-sucking’ applications will continue in areas like entertainment, as well as in education, healthcare, business, smart cities, smart grids, smart buildings and so on.

With the NBN company finally also looking at bringing fibre deeper into the network (FttC) this will potentially also benefit the development of 5G, depending on mobile operators being able to use the NBN network for that purpose. It would be rather silly if the 3 or 4 mobile operators were also forced to bring their fibres to the curb in parallel with the NBN in order to deliver 5G services. But, again, it will take a decade or more for the NBN company to upgrade the FttN infrastructure – which it is still currently rolling out – to an FttH/FttC network.

So don’t expect a rapid development of 5G services for the mass market. 5G will most likely be installed in pockets where there is a clear business case (for a premium service) and where there is plenty of fibre available to provide a fast and reliable service.

On the other hand, 5G could also be a potential saviour for the NBN company – that is, if it can get its act together to deliver FttH/FttC and to offer the use of the NBN to the mobile. But chances are that some of the mobile operators will not wait for that and will extend their own fibre backbones; if the latter is the case, the financial future of the NBN will be in even greater trouble than it already is today.

In the meantime, because of all the political infighting about the NBN, Australia will remain at the bottom of the international ladder for fixed broadband quality for many years to come (it is currently around 50thplace).

Paul Budde