NBN Co has registered at least 650 fixed wireless sites to operate in what is now prized 5G spectrum, complicating demands by Vodafone for the spectrum to be reallocated for commercial mobile use.
An investigation by iTnews shows for the first time the level of use of the 3.5GHz spectrum that NBN Co was given first right of use over back in 2014.
The 3.5GHz spectrum spans five metro and metro fringe areas and is now extremely valuable, courtesy of auction results in adjacent ranges at the end of last year.
While NBN Co can license the spectrum for $0.03 per MHz per member of the population ($/MHz/pop) in a given area, commercially it is now worth up to 64 times that price.
The huge price growth is due to 3.5GHz emerging as a favoured option worldwide in which to harmonise forthcoming 5G services.
Vodafone last year suggested withdrawing any remaining allocation from NBN Co and repurposing it for 5G.
It has ratcheted up the pressure this year, calling for NBN Co to either lose the spectrum or pay a higher rate for it.
Vodafone has put forward several proposals to clear the spectrum for reuse.
One is to migrate NBN fixed wireless cells to operate in adjacent bands “which are not primary candidates for 5G”.
A second option would use some of the auction proceeds to switch affected fixed wireless users into the fibre-to-the-node footprint instead (given ADSL services remain active in fixed wireless areas).
NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow said earlier this month the proposals were “possibly” technically and economically feasible.
“There are so many things that are possible. It comes down to cost, the time to do so, and the disruption that it causes to the end users that are out there,” he said.
The quantum of the move
iTnews can now go some way to quantifying the level of disruption that this might cause NBN Co, should there be political or regulatory appetite to reallocate the spectrum.
NBN Co is understood to have already registered 650 sites to operate in the prized 3.5GHz spectrum. The number is expected to increase significantly as the build progresses.
Somewhere in the region of half of those sites are active and carrying traffic, with the remainder in planning.
The active sites are believed to be serving multiple thousands of users, though an exact figure is hard to calculate.
This is, of course, a relatively small proportion of NBN Co’s total fixed wireless base: according to the most recent numbers, NBN Co has 573,569 premises ready to connect in the fixed wireless footprint, of which around 220,000 have connected.
The vast majority of NBN fixed wireless users are in genuinely regional areas and have their services operating in 2.3GHz spectrum.
A smaller - but not insignificant - number of fixed wireless users are based in a zone that sits between the metropolitan fringe and what might be considered regional Australia.
These users are served fixed wireless via the 3.4GHz band, which was formerly Austar spectrum.
The 3.5GHz band is for users that will be even closer to the metro or metro fringe.
Publicly searchable databases show NBN Co has over 2100 individual spectrum licenses in the 3.4/3.5GHz bands.
The 650 number is likely to be a subset of these 2100 licenses, though it isn’t clear whether all or only some are included.
If Vodafone was to get its way and force NBN Co to vacate the 3.5GHz spectrum, it remains unclear exactly what would be involved or how much it would cost.
It would almost certainly involve truck rolls out to cell sites to get antennas to operate using new frequencies and/or perform updates on customer premises equipment (CPE) used to receive fixed wireless signals.
iTnews did not receive responses to questions on the engineering challenge from several parties by the time of publication.