Killing the NBN wireless myth

NBN's opponents may have high hopes for wireless but new developments in fibre tech exposes the weakness of their argument.

The transformative powers of wireless technology is one misconception commonly touted by the opponents of the Labor NBN but improvements in the wireless space are unlikely to render optic fibre networks redundant any time soon. If anything, recent announcements by Japan’s NTT and UK university researchers show that fibre networks are zooming even further ahead of their wireless cousins when it comes to capacity.

Telecommunications companies have used fibre for three decades to provide backbone connections and in that time the capacity growth has been impressive. In 1977, the first commercial use of fibre optics in Southern California delivered a 6Mbps connection. Today’s backbone fibre connections which connect cities and telephone exchanges are 2,000 times faster.

Fibre faster than ever

While it’s established that fibre is a key part of any modern network, with the NBN much of the argument has centred on whether the delivery side would be more ‘future proof’ if it were wireless rather than fibre.

Dispelling this view, researchers at the UK’s Bangor University in Northern Wales this week announced their OCEAN Project had been able to push the barriers on home fibre connections to 20Gbps by using existing technology. Currently those links have a maximum speed of around 1Gbps, as opposed to claimed maximum speeds of 40Mbps on 4G networks.

While NBN Co’s chief technology officer ,Gary McLaren, sees promise in the Bangor University research, the capacity increases we’ll see in the street will come from evolving the network’s neighbourhood hubs to the 10GPON standard with four time more capacity as demand grows.

Down the track, NBN Co’s plans include investment in upgrading both the GPON technologies and the backbone network which carries the data between cities and towns.

Backbone fibre networks are seeing even greater capacity improvements with Japan’s NTT recently announcing they’d been able to push 85 Tbps down a single fibre – weaving together 12 of these fibres gave NTT a Petabyte per second connection (1,000,000 Gbps), nearly 80,000 times more capacity than current fibre networks.'

Project VIP

These improvement in technologies mean NBN Co is not alone in their upgrade plans. In the United States this week, AT&T announced their Project VIP which will move most of their customers onto Internet Protocol (IP) based systems.

Project VIP will involve rolling out fibre to the node for most residential customers while businesses in office blocks and industrial parks – Multi-Tenant Business Buildings in AT&T’s terminology – will get fibre directly to their premises.

AT&T expect the project will cost them $14 billion over three years which includes upgrading their mobile network to 4G. At these rates the far more comprehensive NBN looks reasonably priced with $12 billion expected to be spent over the same period.

It's all about capacity 

An interesting side note with AT&T’s Project VIP are the markets the telco expects to address with its new network with home automation, mobile wallets and connected cars all mentioned in their announcement.

These technologies, which are also being explored by Australian providers, means telcos and agencies like NBN Co are going to need the increased capacity on both fibre and wireless networks. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reporting that data downloads increased 50 per cent  last year alone, with fixed connections growing fast than mobile.

As our appetite for data grows, the need for these faster technologies in both fixed fibre connections and mobile networks are going to become more critical. This is why both public investment like the NBN and private projects like AT&T’s are essential in providing the capacity needed to meet our demands.

While wireless networks are an important part of the broadband future, it’s the growth in fibre capacity that is going to be critical in meeting those demands.

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