NBN Co has clarified that its pledge this week to invest in capacity upgrades on its fixed wireless network is simply already planned work that will cost more than initially expected.
The network builder on Monday said it would “further invest in an upgrade program to expand the capacity of our wireless towers”.
The announcement was a reaction to user anger after it was revealed that NBN Co did not consider towers to be congested enough to warrant action until users saw 6Mbps or less on average in peak times.
However, iTnews has since learned that the upgrade program involves work that was already planned and is simply being “accelerated and prioritised” to deal with the rise in congestion issues.
An NBN Co spokesperson said there was “an additional investment” involved but noted that it still “sits within our overall budget envelope".
“While these upgrades have always been a part of our ongoing maintenance of the network, we recognise the need to boost our existing activity, which is why we are investing in resources to improve the network and help to provide access to a better experience for end users in affected areas as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.
The admission that NBN Co will invest more to fix congestion - while not expanding the upgrades to encompass more towers or cells - is likely to keep pressure on the network builder to commit to a wider remediation program.
Aussie Broadband last year called on NBN Co to halt fixed wireless sales and fix performance issues in the network.
ACCC circles on speed issues
The fixed wireless congestion issue is understood to have caught the eye of regulators this week, with the ACCC believed to have written to NBN Co seeking to clarify the 6Mbps congestion threshold.
The ACCC declined to comment on specific outreach but in a statement to iTnews, chairman Rod Sims warned the regulator was watching NBN Co’s response to the issue closely.
While RSPs were pinged by the regulator over their behaviour in the NBN market throughout last year, NBN Co could face similar action on its fixed wireless congestion problems.
“It’s fair to say we will continue to keep a very close eye on these issues and won’t hesitate to take action in the form of further court-enforceable undertakings or court action for breaches of the Australian consumer law,” Sims said.
RSPs’ problems last year stemmed from selling plans on NBN lines that could not support the plans’ topline speeds.
It is unclear how RSPs selling on the fixed wireless network may be able to avoid running into similar issues.
Towers running at 6Mbps average peak speeds per user - thereby triggering action for upgrade - are showing only half the possible speed of a basic 12/1Mbps service, and fractions of the speed of a 25Mbps or 50Mbps plan.
That could place both NBN Co and RSPs in the regulatory firing line, depending on how much of the fixed wireless network is congested, and by how much.
Currently, that is hard to determine. NBN Co has currently revealed only nine towers nationwide that it deems to have a “critical” level of congestion, or 3Mbps or below per user in the busiest hour of the day.
NBN Co would not comment on how many towers and cells are being remediated so they won't hit the upper threshold of 6Mbps per user at peak.
“We don’t have this figure available,” an NBN Co spokesperson said.
But this is unlikely to wash with regulators or senators when NBN Co fronts up to estimates next week.
NBN Co claims to have “detailed internal systems that track and predict network traffic and capacity in the fixed wireless network” and that predict dates into the future for when it believes cells or sectors will dip “below expected performance”.
“Part of the internal systems that track network capacity and end user take-up is a database that shows the current state of the network sections and their capacity, the date they will require an upgrade and the date of upgrades when they are scheduled,” the company recently said.
No standards to violate
One of the lingering issues for NBN Co's fixed wireless customers is that the network builder isn't actually violating any specific rules around wholesale performance when it comes to levels of congestion.
However, this could soon change. The ACCC is engaged in industry consultations around a proposal to subject NBN Co to a new set of service standards.
It has indicated it is likely to regulate, and the consultation will simply determine how stringent the new rules foisted on NBN Co will be.
Last year's discussion paper specifically raised questions about whether or not NBN Co is effectively managing capacity across its network, particularly during busy periods.
"We are currently exploring issues relating to NBN Co’s wholesale supply commitments for network utilisation management as part of our NBN wholesale service levels inquiry," Sims said.
"We encourage those with an interest to make a submission to the ACCC’s inquiry by 2nd March."