Tuesday, 01 May 2018 19:16

Are unlimited 4G and future 5G plans the death knell for the NBN?


Unlimited 4G data plans for mobile phones have arrived in Australia at long last, and truth be told, unlimited 4G was actually launched long ago by VividWireless, but is this the end for the NBN?

COMMENT: Has the NBN been turned into the EndBN? Is it all over for Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy's dream of a national broadband network, since destroyed, as ordered by former prime minister Tony Abbott, and carried out by current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's spectacularly inept handling of the NBN fiasco?

Given the fact that a robust, wired, nationwide fibre network is required for robust handling of the massive traffic volumes that today's 4G network and tomorrow's 5G networks require, it's easy to see that the answer is no.

After all, as I've said many, many times in my life, a wired connection is always better than wireless – especially when you want the fastest speeds.

Well, that is if you're not moving around. When you're moving around a house, an office, outside or wherever you are, a wired connection direct to your laptop doesn't do much good, does it – and if you have a smartphone or tablet, how do you wire that?

Obviously, a wired connection in those instances means a wired connection via fibre, FttN, FttC, Ftt-WTF or whatever connection you're using to get a wired connection in your property, after which you connect wirelessly via Wi-Fi.

But that said, is a wired conneaction truly needed any more in a world of super fast 4G connections, and even faster 5G connections to come?

On a personal basis, I've been wireless for nearly 20 years – and even beyond that. I remember using a 36.6Kbps Banksia PCMCIA card that connected to a Nokia analogue phone in late 1995, although it cost a fortune to use.

I remember getting a Vodafone GPRS PCMCIA card at 2.5G speeds when they first became available, and while it was effectively the equivalent of dial-up, it was wireless heaven!

Since then I've used all manner of 3G, 4G and 4GX hotspots and compatible phones to tether wirelessly to my notebook, as well as using my smartphone as my personal computer for many, many things over the years since then.

In the interim, I have had 4G speeds way faster than any ADSL connections I've had in the past, for both downloads and increasingly crucially important upload speeds, and since the advent of Telstra's 4GX connectivity, even faster speeds beyond what many people are getting on their NBN connections.

You've even had VividWireless offering "unlimited data" on its Optus 4G network running exclusively on the 2300Mhz frequency, which is mostly limited to a range of capital cities, a much smaller footprint than traditional 4G voice, data and text networks, and which is limited to 12Mbps down and 1Mbps up - but is still great value at $90 per month and which was truly first to the unlimited 4G data game.

And now, of course, we have OptusTelstra and Vodafone all offering "unlimited data" on their mobile phone plans, with hard data limits of around 40GB (and up depending on carrier and price paid per month) before throttling users back to much slower 1.5Mbps speeds than the network is capable of.

Now, it is true that too many people on the same cell can overload wireless connectivity.

We saw this most dramatically during the end of the 3 Mobile era, where its $10 or $15 per 1GB of data with super cheap USB modems saw its 3G network speeds drop to effectively dial-up levels. It was an atrocious time.

This was compounded when Vodafone merged with 3 mobile's parent company Hutchison to form today's Vodafone Hutchison group, which led to the incredibly frustrating Vodafail era, something that took billions of dollars investment over years to restore Vodafone's reputation as a great carrier in Australia once more.

The thing is, the wizards working on all our wireless standards have been working ultra hard to solve this problem. 5G is meant to solve the capacity problems of 4G, while 4G itself has advanced with LTE-Advanced and better technologies to cram ever more users onto cells, while still delivering very fast speeds.

Were 5G not on the horizon, then sure, 4G would eventually suffer the same problem as the 3G network did before it, and there have been times during the lifespan of today's ever evolving 4G networks when 4G has slowed, too.

But since then telcos have been adding ever more advanced 4G technologies to their networks from different 4G equipment makers, and have figured out how to keep the data pumping despite the laws of physics that are supposed to eventually get in the way.

We even have Artemis Networks which claim to deliver 5G speeds to 4G phone users using its special antennas and servers, although sadly, phone companies and equipment makers have seemingly been working on their own ways to do similar things to what Artemis claims, although by the creation of 5G technologies instead.

So, with 4G keeping up with today's data demands, and 5G around the corner to make 4G seem slow, the NBN still has a place.

Wired connections can offer the uncapped data volumes that 4G networks cannot, and will likely fall in price as 4G and 5G connections arrive and undercut fixed/wired NBN pricing, and at the low end of the NBN plan range, offer vastly faster upload and download speeds than cheap NBN plans can offer.

Until then, a decent NBN or equivalent connection (such as iiNet's Transact in the ACT, which I am connected to when in Canberra, with 70Mbps down and 30Mbps up) are perfect for effectively unlimited Netflix watching in 4K with everything else that a household or office does with their computers, devices and data today.

But for many, and especially the young who rent and don't want to sign up to fixed phone or data plans, a wireless life has already beckoned, despite the limitations, as it has for me for around 20 years.

Wireless is always more versatile than wired, and in the age of 5G, is as fast or faster than many of the speeds wired users get today.

The NBN isn't dead and likely will never be, but its battle will be to attract users in a world where wireless data has become unlimited – even if it is at today's 1.5Mbps throttled speeds after using up the uncapped data, with even throttled speeds to increase in speed as technology progresses and allows.

I come not to bury the NBN, but to praise it as necessary, but if you lend me your ears, I'll tell you that plenty of people will live effectively fully wireless lifestyles, with intermittent connectivity to fixed connections via Wi-Fi anyway – just as plenty of people like me (and nothing like me) have been doing for years already.


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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