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Friday, 15 June 2012 14:42

The future is wireless...with lots of fibre


Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey's careless comments about the supposed 'superiority' of LTE wireless over FTTH have put a blowtorch to the ever-smouldering debate about fibre v wireless. So let's get this straight: every wireless service is a bit of wireless on the end of fixed network that will increasingly be fibre.

As time goes by and as demand and technologies advance those wireless bits will cover smaller and smaller areas. The debate of wireless v fibre is a real furphy. The real issue is who will own the customer, who will own the network and who's making the money.

That, in a way, is what Hockey's comment was all about. What he said was: "...there is a great deal of irony in the fact that when the Government did a deal with Telstra for the National Broadband Network, I understand part of that deal identified that Telstra was not allowed to sell its new 4G technology as a competitor to the NBN because 4G has the capacity to be far superior to the NBN."

It's true that Telstra was not allowed to promote 4G (ie LTE) as a competitor to the NBN; not because it is superior, but because there was, and is, a real danger of people taking up such offers and undermining the business case for the NBN.

There is no ban on Telstra promoting LTE and it is not clear how 'non-NBN-competing' promotion will be differentiated from 'NBN-competing' promotion. So that clause may well prove to be toothless.

But, back to the fibre v wireless debate. The latest commentator to weigh into the Hockey case is Tony Brown, Qld based senior analyst, broadband and Internet with Informa Telecoms and Media. And quite rightly he concludes: "The NBN debate still has plenty of twists and turns left in it yet but local politicians must, for the sake of the integrity of the debate...stop arguing that LTE can be a substantial long-term player in the residential broadband market because the facts tell a very different story."

The focus on LTE is too narrow: it just happens to be flavour of the month thanks to Telstra's impressively rapid rollout and the demand for mobile bandwidth created by the astonishing popularity of smartphones and tablets.


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To widen the debate: it is worth pointing out that the bulk of access to the NBN will be via wireless. The fibre will terminate at one point in people's homes and for most cabling with fibre or cat5 copper to every room will be impractical. So they will have to choose either broadband over powerline or wireless. Wireless seems likely to win out, as already many people are making extensive use of their portable wireless devices in the home.

More generally, the wireless infrastructure vendors are now talking 'hetnets' or heterogeneous networks, where macro, micro and pico cells in the network all work together seamlessly to provide the depth of coverage, the capacity and the bandwidth required at any location and where WiFi is integrated - in some cases in these base stations - to provide a seamless handover for the customer.

Increasingly these base-stations will need fibre backhaul. Given the likely bandwidth demands from multiple devices in the home of the future, and from people on the move, it is very unlikely that these wireless technologies will make the NBN's FTTH network redundant. More likely they will exploit that ubiquitous fibre.

One could speculate that, as the world increasingly demands high bandwidth mobile access, having a fibre running into every home that is dedicated solely to serve the occupants of that house represents an under-utilised resource.

Why not use it as backhaul for a wireless access point, or points, that serve not only the occupants of that house but provide coverage of the surrounding area?

Which brings me back to my starting point: access will increasingly be via wireless connected to fibre. Then it becomes a question of who owns the customer, who owns the network and who's making the money.

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