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Last-generation NBN may soon be overtaken by 5G

May 14, 2018

Australia’s $50 billion National Broadband Network is due for completion by 2020, but it may already be on the road to obsolescence.

The grand vision of the NBN was to make high-speed internet available to all Australians for the first time, but technology has advanced in leaps and bounds since it was conceived in 2007. For example, the 3G mobile technology in use back then has since been succeeded by 4G, and now 2019 will see the roll-out of Australia’s first 5G services.

The Federal Government says 5G will have such a huge impact that it will significantly boost the national economy, and it is working closely with industry to facilitate the roll-out.

Many Australians are already turning away from broadband in favour of mobile data, and 5G will only accelerate this trend. Which begs the question: how much longer will there be a demand for the fixed-line data service of the NBN?

What is 5G?

5G relies on the same technology as today’s 4G mobile networks but can achieve far higher upload and download speeds thanks to improved radio technologies, increased allocations of radio spectrum and much larger networks of base stations.

Data speeds of up to 50Gbps have been demonstrated with 5G – enough to stream 2000 Netflix movies simultaneously in ultra HD.

Early 5G mobile networks won’t achieve anywhere near such speed – for example, US telecoms firm T-Mobile says its 5G network will initially only be 25 to 50 percent faster than its existing 4G service. But future 5G mobile networks are expected to deliver 1 to 10Gbps – 10 to 100 times faster than the 100Mbps of the NBN’s premium Tier 5 service.

Australia’s major telcos have all announced 5G rollout plans: Telstra, Optus and Vodafone will all be offering 5G services before 2020.

At the same time, mobile data prices are falling rapidly in Australia, and some providers are now offering ‘unlimited’ data plans. How the NBN will attract customers once mobile data can compete on both price and speed is not clear. As consumer watchdog the ACCC warns: “We consider there is potential for this new (5G) technology to disrupt fixed broadband services.’’

Government backing

The government says 5G could increase Australia’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita by $2000 per person in a decade, and for this reason it is keen to get the ball rolling.

Federal communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield says 5G will be “an inflection point not just for the telecoms sector but also for the entire Australian economy”.

In March, the government approved the auction process for 5G spectrum, which it expects will begin in October.

The recently formed 5G Working Group is intending to bring the government and industry together to ensure uptake of the technology is speedy and seamless. A key focus of the group is to identify regulatory enablers and barriers for 5G’s use in Australia, Fifield said.

“We are working hard to modernise the policy and legislative framework which will support the early uptake of 5G in Australia. The government should ensure that there are no unnecessary roadblocks for carriers seeking to deploy 5G networks,” he said.

5G hurdles

5G is not without its challenges. For one thing, the higher-frequency signals it relies on don’t travel as well as lower frequencies, so multiple antennae will be needed anywhere 5G is offered.

Unlike today’s networks that are built using large towers scattered every few kilometres, 5G will require a very different infrastructure, says Marcelo Claure, CEO of US telecoms giant Sprint.

“In a neighbourhood block for example, there may be dozens of small, unobtrusive shoe box-sized cells mounted on street lights, buildings and other public infrastructure,” says Claure.
For this reason, 5G will become available in densely populated urban areas first.

Uses for 5G

Once this required new infrastructure is in place, 5G will make new technologies possible and replace some existing ones. With 5G will come new types of devices suited for low-power applications, enabling an increasing number of objects such as wearables to connect to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Higher data speeds will also enable new applications such as 4K/8K video streaming, virtual and augmented reality, and emerging industrial uses such as driverless cars and robotics.

For the AV industry, 5G will enable HD video streaming and conferencing from anywhere, on any device, to multiple displays or installations. Users such as professional eSports players are keenly awaiting the arrival of 5G, for its low latency as much as for its bandwidth. 5G’s new technological capabilities will spark demand for entirely new services and applications, in turn inspiring breakthroughs in infrastructure development and in content creation that we can not yet foresee.

At the same time, the market for current technologies will be disrupted. Already 17 percent of Australian households are mobile only when it comes to data, and by some estimates this proportion could reach 40 percent by 2020 based on 4G uptake alone.

With mobile data prices on the way down and the government backing the rapid roll-out of 5G in Australia this trend can only accelerate, putting increasing pressure on the viability of Australia’s last-generation fixed-line NBN.

Experience the future of sight and sound at Australia’s premier light and sound expo this 27-29 August 2019 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre. To be part of the experience click here.

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