NBN Co reveals mobile backhaul trial

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NBN Co reveals mobile backhaul trial

Can a residential fibre network be repurposed?

NBN Co plans to conduct a technology trial to determine whether its fibre infrastructure can be used to haul traffic to and from mobile phone towers.

The trial is expected to begin as early as this month, and NBN Co is prepared to offer the trial backhaul service until mid-May.

NBN Co is hoping the trial with an as-yet unnamed mobile carrier will help it gauge the "loading and traffic demands" of mobile telephony and broadband infrastructure.

"This information will provide insights for the potential longer term development of a cell site access product and also indicate whether or not a residential grade fibre service is sufficient to provide connectivity to cellular network infrastructure," the company said in a product brief sighted by iTnews.

The network builder has been canvassing mobile telcos to participate since 13th December 2013, according to a "test agreement" posted on NBN Co's website. (pdf)

The agreement seeks "active and periodic feedback" from any participating carrier, and notes that the company is prepared to haul mobile data for one or "a limited number of cell sites" in the trial period.

The identity of the trial mobile telco is likely to be known later this week. The test agreement states that participants must have signed agreements and be on-boarded with NBN Co by Wednesday.

New NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow — formerly of Vodafone Hutchison Australia (VHA) — is a staunch advocate for NBN Co to enter the mobile backhaul game.

VHA commissioned a report in November last year calling for a rejig of the NBN to aid the expansion of commercial mobile networks, particularly in regional and rural Australia. This could include as a backhaul operator or by sharing NBN tower space, which NBN Co already does in a limited capacity.

NBN Co has been considering possible entry into the mobile backhaul market since at least the beginning of last year.

However, its trial is most likely to be the influence of the new Coalition Government, which had committed to exploring the reuse of NBN Co's assets to aid mobile operators in the broadband policy it took to the federal election in September 2013.

"Wherever possible, the Coalition will ensure that NBN Co assets such as towers or backhaul will be made available to carriers to facilitate improved services," parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Communications, Paul Fletcher, said in a speech to the NBN Rebooted conference last year.

"Under the previous government, however, it seemed NBN Co had little appetite to sell backhaul to mobile operators.

"We take a different view, and if NBN Co can make the economics work we will certainly not be standing in their way."

Any permanent move by NBN Co into the mobile backhaul or tower-sharing space is likely to place it on a collision course with existing commercial players in the space.

TPG-owned Pipe Networks said last year that any involvement by the taxpayer-funded network in mobile backhaul would send negative investment signals to existing players.

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