“Wireless can never deliver equivalent services to fibre,” according to network engineering consultant Narelle Clark. But what the Coalition’s “affordable broadband” policy could deliver is a wireless base station at the end of every street in the outer suburbs and country towns.
Unlike most of Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN), which uses optical fibre to deliver data, the Coalition’s Plan for Real Action on Broadband and Telecommunications would see carriers roll out fixed wireless networks where existing fixed-wire networks could not be upgraded. “We will commit up to an additional $1 billion in investment funding for new fixed wireless networks in metropolitan Australia, with an emphasis on outer metropolitan areas,” the policy says.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott continued to talk up the merits of wireless broadband on ABC-TV’s Insiders yesterday. “Let’s not assume that we should put all our eggs in [Labor’s] high fibre basket either,” he said.
In an interview recorded for this week’s Patch Monday podcast, Clark said that because fibre is a contained medium, you can use 100% of the available electromagnetic spectrum.
“In wireless, you’ve got to do a spectrum plan, where you carve up slices of the available spectrum, and only broadcast on the bits you’re allowed to broadcast on,” she said. The limited spectrum is shared by every customer who’s connected via the same cell tower. If fixed wireless becomes the main internet connection for every household, each customer ends up with only a small share of the total — unless you add more towers spaced more closely.”
What would that mean? “In order to get those 100 megabit speeds and beyond you’d need to be installing a base station around about on every suburban block,” she said. “At the end of every street there’d need to be a base station.”
It is possible to design base stations so they look like trees, or like street lighting.
“Certainly if there’s one at the end of every suburban block then you’ll get used to them and they’ll get very good at blending them in,” Clark says.
Narelle Clark is vice-president of the Internet Society of Australia and sits on the board of trustees of the Internet Society globally. She has worked with Singtel Optus and was until recently the research director of the CSIRO’s Networking Technologies Laboratory. (Clark said her opinions are her own and not those of the Internet Society.)