With the NBN struggling to deliver its promised world-class performance, 5G’s potential lightning speeds are likely to tempt consumers. But mobile networks alone don’t have the capacity to cope with the rapidly increasing demand for data.
The 5G network might present a business threat to the NBN, but it will not make fixed line broadband irrelevant, said Dr Craig Watkins, committee member and past Deputy Chair of Engineers Australia’s Information, Telecommunications and Electronic Engineering (ITEE) College Victoria.
Watkins pointed out that the majority of Australia’s data downloads are via fixed line networks. According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Internet Activity Report, 3.5 million Terabytes was downloaded on fixed line broadband in the final quarter of 2017. This was 97 per cent of the national total.
“There’s so much bandwidth over wired networks. If you put it over wireless it would cause a meltdown,” Watkins told create.
While some subscribers might decide to become wireless-only users, for the majority of the population, there is likely to be a continued need for wired networks, he added.
Data consumption skyrocketing
Another issue faced by Australia’s communications networks is the exponential growth of annual data consumption due to more widespread demand for applications such as video streaming.
Between 2015 and 2016, the total volume of downloaded data increased by 50.8 per cent, and from 2016 to 2017 by 38.6 per cent, according to the ABS.
“The network today supplies about 20 per cent of what we will need in five years’ time,” Watkins said.
He expects that in five years the 5G network (due to go live in 2019) will be deployed and becoming mature. But its extra capacity is not likely to stem users’ appetite for data-hungry applications.
“If you build a new road, there’s a whole bunch more traffic,” Watkins said.
A growing sector with a need for reliable and capable internet connections is the Internet of Things (IoT).
According to Geoff Sizer, leader of Engineers Australia’s Applied IoT Engineering Community and past ITEE Chair, 5G is likely to reduce the use of the NBN for IoT device connection and backhaul, which provides an internet connection for wireless devices. However the data travelling from ‘smart’ devices to cloud-based servers will naturally migrate to the NBN.
Sizer said the main growth of IoT applications is in the wireless space. He predicts this will eventually lead to fixed-line networks being used mainly at the local network level for industrial and building management applications with problematic wireless connectivity, as well as applications needing wired power.
However, he believes optical fibre networks will continue to dominate IoT traffic and backhaul for some time, and the NBN will continue to play a role.
NBN: Where does the next step come from?
According to Emeritus Professor Reg Coutts, who was a member of the original expert panel appointed by the government in 2009, one of the big problems with the NBN has been the political rhetoric on both sides.
He also said that NBN Co and service providers had taken advantage of the political chaos to “make hay in the absence of facts”. Coutts expressed frustration that, until recently, NBN Co and the government were not listening to people’s concerns. The NBN’s wholesale service standards are now the subject of an ACCC inquiry.
Labor’s initial ambitious vision was to directly connect the fibre broadband network to 93 per cent of homes and businesses – known as fibre to the premises (FTTP). This ‘Rolls Royce’ model was knocked off its perch in 2013, when the newly elected Coalition government halted the FTTP rollout and replaced it with a multi-technology mix (MTM), which they claimed would be a cheaper and quicker solution.
The NBN now boasts a dizzying array of acronyms, including: fibre to the node (FTTN), which connects the fibre network to the copper network via a street cabinet; fibre to the curb (FTTC), which installs to the Telstra distribution point; and hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC), which links nodes to properties via the old pay TV network.
Fixed wireless and satellite (originally planned to be 7 per cent of the rollout) also feature, particularly in regional areas. However, fixed broadband will not deliver the 100 Mbps speeds initially promised, although NBN Co is trialling 5G tech to improve network speeds and capacity.
Watkins explained that the long lengths of copper network in FTTN installations limit connection speeds. This goes some way to explaining why Australia’s average internet speed (11.1 Mbps) was rated 50th globally in last year’s Akamai state of the internet report. South Korea, the world leader, had an average connection speed of 28.6 Mbps.
The complexity of the MTM model has also led to significant cost increases and schedule delays. According to Watkins, the NBN is a step up from what we had before, but it’s taken so long and cost so much that the kitty has run dry.
“Where does the next step come from?” Watkins asked.
Watkins said around half of the NBN is FTTN, which is difficult to upgrade for future bandwidth requirements. For a small number of high-bandwidth users, 5G could provide a solution. But Watkins thinks it’s “risky” for NBN Co or the nation to assume that 5G can satisfy the demand for data over and above the NBN’s currently formulated capacity.
“History has told us there’s been an increase in demand and there is nothing to say it’s going to slow down,” he said.
While some experts believe the NBN is “doomed”, Coutts is optimistic about the potential of the engineering process to deliver better performance if politics doesn’t get in the way.
“You have a vision, learn from your mistakes and improve things. But the political process doesn’t allow for that,” he explained.