NBN Co takes 5G leap with $750m fixed wireless network upgrade

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NBN Co takes 5G leap with $750m fixed wireless network upgrade

Extends range, boosts speeds to 100Mbps-plus.

NBN Co will spend $750 million on upgrades to and expansion of its fixed wireless network, making it capable of 100Mbps-plus speeds.

The upgrade is backed by a government injection of $480 million, with the remaining $270 million to come from NBN Co’s “own funds”.

The aim is to both boost the speeds but also extend the reach of the fixed wireless network in a bid to “overbuild” part of the Sky Muster satellite footprint.

The company will then encourage Sky Muster users to move to fixed wireless connections instead, in the hope that “frees up capacity on the satellite network”, which can be used to boost data allowances for the remaining customers.

“We will commence detailed planning shortly," NBN Co's chief development officer for regional and remote Gavin Williams said.

"After that is completed, we expect the rollout will take around two and a half years (subject to further assessment through the detailed planning process)." 

Federal communications minister Paul Fletcher said that the fixed wireless network would be upgraded with “the latest 4G and 5G wireless technologies”.

A move to 4G massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) and 5G millimetre-wave technologies have been on the upgrade roadmap since 2018.

NBN Co said it would "5G-enable its network of more than 2200 fixed wireless infrastructure sites and more than 22,000 cells in semi-rural areas and across regional and remote Australia."

It said it would "use the very latest 5G technology to vastly extend the range, speed and capacity" of the network, as well as reduce latency.

The upgrades would be "primarily delivered using the existing network of wireless towers"; NBN Co has been testing 5G millimetre-wave as a range extender since 2020, after showing interest in the technology back in 2018.

It is understood that NBN Co will make hardware and software updates to the network to increase the coverage and performance from existing tower locations.

This will extend the current range limit from 14km up to potentially 29km or more, although it is dependent on line-of-sight and topography. 

Some premises will also wind up being serviceable by multiple towers, providing NBN Co with options for future network capacity management.

The upgrade plan comes just one month after a regional telecommunications review (RTIRC) made the exact same recommendation.

The government said that the fixed wireless upgrade would mean "up to" 100Mbps speeds “to all 750,000 premises able to access the new, expanded coverage footprint”.

It also intends to offer an "up to" 250Mbps fixed wireless service “to 85 percent of premises” in the expanded footprint.

No more 6Mbps congestion threshold

At the other end, the upgrades should also mean a boost to speeds at times when the network is most congested.

The government also said that “the typical average speed in the busy period” on the fixed wireless network “is expected to rise to at least 50 Mbps”.

This would allow NBN Co to move away from a long-running design constraint of the wireless network that made 6Mbps the measure of whether a cell was congested or not.

The government added that the baseline improvements meant something for all fixed wireless users, “even if they do not order a higher speed plan, as they will experience a sharp increase in the actual speed of their current plan.”

The upgrades - including the near half-billion federal government funding boost - come just a week before the budget, and in an election year.

At the end of last year, Labor made NBN an election issue with a pledge to get more fibre-to-the-node users off the unpopular access technology and onto gigabit-capable lines.

The upgrades to the fixed wireless network also coincide with a period where fixed wireless and satellite users have increasing commercial options available to them, from commercial 5G and small wireless internet service providers (WISPs), to Elon Musk’s Starlink service, which continues to make in-roads.

As reported by iTnews, NBN Co recently started to lose some of its regional customers as Starlink’s coverage footprint improved.

Footprint expansion

NBN Co's current fixed wireless footprint encompasses 636,474 premises, according to the company's most recent weekly update.

With the expansion set to bring fixed wireless service to 750,000 premises, that means around 113,500 premises currently mapped to the Sky Muster footprint will have an option of wireless instead.

NBN Co said that up to 120,000 satellite users may ultimately be able to shift to wireless.

Satellite boost

The government said that users that remained in the NBN satellite footprint would also benefit.

"Because some existing NBN satellite customers will move to fixed wireless, this will free up capacity on the satellite network," the government said.

"As a result, NBN Co will be able to offer an almost immediate increase in average data allowances for NBN Sky Muster satellite users.

"Average monthly data allowances for standard Sky Muster plans will increase to 55GB in the short term, increasing to 90GB once the fixed wireless upgrade is complete".

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