Stop knocking fixed wireless and get on with the NBN

Ignore the naysayers – increasing the NBN's fixed-wireless footprint is the best and quickest solution for continuing the rollout of a high-quality broadband network.

As a nation struggling with one of the highest obesity rates in the developed world, it’s easy to see the pitfalls of our cultural addiction to ‘fast’. Look more broadly and you see more examples of the social issues around our ‘need for speed’.

We want to travel fast: a high road toll and growing incidents of ugly road rage. We live our lives fast: an unwavering desire for instant feedback and ‘connectivity’ through Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and Instagram. We want to be entertained fast: an endless cycle of ‘news’ as entertainment, and cheap reality shows.

The thinking and (lack of) activity around the National Broadband Network (NBN) suffers from this same issue. Rather than working out how to deliver usable broadband to all Australians in the shortest amount of time (i.e. a fast rollout of services), the NBN has got bogged down in a mindless debate around the best way to deliver ‘blindingly fast’ fibre.

Pulling fibre is not fast. It is a slow, laborious and very expensive way to deliver mass market broadband services. It should, however, play a key role in the NBN -- in backhauling a variety of access technologies (xDSL, Wi-Fi, mobile services, GPON, fixed wireless) and connecting business and government users with uncontended, symmetrical and QoS-enabled network services.

The Coalition government is already committed to a larger fixed-wireless footprint. In the context of fast delivery of services, this is a very practical position from a commercial and technical viewpoint.

Commercially it makes sense as fixed wireless is the most effective way to deliver usable broadband services to sparsely populated regions of outer metro, regional and remote Australia. If we continued with the Labor Government’s ill-conceived “fibre for 93 per cent of the population” approach I have no doubt that we would have been looking at a $90 billion build and an additional 10 years of build time.

I understand that people are upset they aren’t getting the Ferrari of broadband anymore and are being asked to settle for the Toyota Corolla. What I find hard to understand is that people believed that we could all get a Ferrari in the first place -- for the cost of a Toyota.

Technically, fixed wireless makes sense as it provides what is a usable broadband service to many users very quickly. Many people would -- and do -- try to shout down that statement. The chorus of derision comes from the misinformed (general population), self-interested (incumbent and major carriers) and deluded (technology ‘futurists’ who ignore the economic realities that link convenience and a willingness to pay for mobile services). In our desire for fast, we have glossed over the relevant fact: most of the benefits of broadband services are realised in the first 10Mbps to 20Mbps of a service.

What about video conferencing? An HD video conferencing session can run on less than 5Mbps. What about 4K TV? … What about it? What is the real social benefit of broadband that supports the delivery of sharper, clearer 3D pictures to people sitting on their couches? What about the ability to download or stream a movie? Again, what is the social or economic benefit of this? Notwithstanding the benefit argument, a 5Mbps service can comfortably handle streaming and when you’re getting a movie for free (another social issue of torrents and copyright) should you be moaning about a 30-minute versus a five-minute download?

For users where higher bandwidths are more critical (think business users, health and education providers, adopters of cloud services), fixed wireless is also a highly relevant service option. Just not the way that the NBN is delivering it.

Rather than use a point-to-multipoint wireless access technology (TD-LTE to be exact) to deliver residential services, fibre-equivalent services can be delivered to businesses over carrier grade, uncontended, QoS-enabled point-to-point wireless technology.  

In this configuration, fixed wireless is actually a superior offering to that of the NBN’s fibre service. How so? The existing NBN fibre services are based on a shared point-to-multipoint GPON technology. These have been architected to deliver services that are asymmetrical in nature and with lower levels of service guarantees (packet loss, latency and jitter).

Fibre comparable fixed-wireless broadband services make up a huge part of the business we are winning in regional and remote Australia. Factoring in the build and operational costs of technology over a seven-year period, for the price of one 10km fibre run we have the ability to deliver in excess of 10 x 100Mbps point-to-point services using microwave radio in the access layer.

Built to the global standard for Carrier Ethernet (i.e. the same standard as the NBN’s highest quality, yet-to-be-released service for enterprises), our service can be used as a redundant connection to a site (i.e. an integrated fibre/wireless connection for 100 per cent uptime) if and when the NBN is ever actually delivered in a region.

So, if you are serious about fast, take a smarter look at fixed wireless.

Andrew Findlay is managing director of Vertel.