Going wireless with the NBN

Among the technologies being employed in the multi-technology mix rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN), fixed wireless and satellite are being used to deliver high-speed internet access to rural and remote communities of Australia.

In its 2016 Corporate Plan, NBN Co stated that it expects its fixed wireless tower build to be largely completed by 2018, while the first of its two satellites, Sky Muster, was launched in October of 2015, with its second satellite set to be launched in the second half of 2016.

The wireless technology being employed by NBN Co does, of course, differ markedly from the other technologies being employed in the NBN rollout, with different methods of broadband transmission being employed and different speeds on offer. While a lot of the attention has understandably focused on the fibre rollout, consumers living in areas covered by fixed wireless and satellite may be wondering how wireless NBN compares to other broadband technologies and what their options are.

What is wireless NBN?

Wireless NBN is basically the alternate NBN connections that do not use the fibre network currently rolling out across the country. Simply put, it’s like a permanent data connection you’d get with your mobile phone, but for your home. It’s especially useful for homes unable to get access to the fibre network, or for those in remote areas. There are two main types of wireless NBN:

  • Fixed wireless
  • Satellite

Let’s see with a bit more detail what these two alternate forms of NBN can mean for you.

Fixed wireless

According to NBN Co’s Corporate Plan, fixed wireless will account for just 5% of premises upon the scheduled completion of the NBN’s rollout in 2020, comprising 600,000 premises. Under the rollout, NBN Co is employing cellular technology in providing wholesale access speeds of up to 50 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload, with internet service providers in turn offering a range of plans.

Fixed wireless uses a technology known as LTE (also known as 4G), with NBN Co explaining that it works via the transmission of signals “to and from a small antenna fixed on the outside of a home or business, which is pointed directly towards the NBN fixed wireless facility”. The antenna will be connected by a cable running through the wall to an NBN connection box located within the premises, NBN explains. NBN states that each of its fixed wireless facilities serves a set number of premises, with the bandwidth per household designed to be more consistent than mobile wireless.

  • The house or building is basically a large 4G network
  • Up to 50 Mbps download, 20 Mbps upload
  • Individual devices then connect as normal to the in-house network
  • This results in a more stable connection, as opposed to mobile wireless that can be spotty and inconsistent

Satellite

Satellite Named the ‘SkyMuster’, NBN’s satellite service is designed for use in regional and remote areas of Australia. NBN Co’s Corporate Plan shows that in 2020, satellite will account for 3% of NBN connected premises, comprising 400,000 premises. A small antenna or dish is installed on the building to send and receive data from the orbiting satellite. It works as many satellites do – the satellite transmits data back to ground stations (large dishes) – and in turn you get internet goodness.

  • There are two NBN satellites with 10 ground stations
  • These ground stations then feature two 13.5m satellite dishes
  • The stations are located strategically to cover mainland Australia, Tasmania and other particular locations: Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Lord Howe Island and the Cocos Islands
  • Satellite NBN will yield 25Mbps download speeds, and 5Mbps uploads

Satellite speeds obviously lack compared to traditional NBN and fixed wireless, but the speeds are still fantastic compared to what many remote regions were receiving before NBN. Currently, NBN Co has been using the Interim Satellite Service (ISS) as a stop-gap. The ISS will shut off once SkyMuster debuts on February 28, 2017. It’s an exciting time for cat videos – especially for regional and remote regions who may have felt like they’ve been left behind thus far.

What’s good about NBN fixed wireless?

There are two glaring benefits with NBN’s wireless services:

  • Ability to reach remote places
  • Improved speeds across the board

Reaching Hard-to-Reach Places

While fibre-to-the-premises and fibre-to-the-node, along with hybrid fibre coaxial, are making up the vast majority of the NBN rollout, NBN Co states that fixed wireless and satellite will deliver high-speed broadband beyond the fixed line footprint. Fixed wireless and satellite will not deliver speeds equivalent to the fixed line technologies being used, however they will deliver a speed upgrade on existing internet technologies. While NBN Co is offering wholesale speeds of up to 100 Mbps download and 40 Mbps upload over NBN fibre, the maximum speeds currently on offer for wireless service are:

To put the sort of speeds on offer into context, NBN Co states its fixed wireless plans operating at 50 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload speeds will be capable of:

  • Downloading a 10 minute lecture from YouTube in 12 seconds
  • Downloading a 2 hour podcast in 3 minutes 12 seconds
  • Downloading a 2 hour HD movie in 16 minutes
  • Uploading a 2 GB document to the cloud in 13 minutes 20 seconds

These two factors in tandem will afford those living remotely or regionally better access to the internet.

How do I connect to an NBN wireless service?

To arrange for a fixed wireless or satellite broadband plan, you will need to get in touch with your preferred internet service provider (ISP) to find out whether your premises is eligible before ordering your broadband plan. As explained by NBN Co, to be eligible for fixed wireless “customers’ premises must be within the NBN wireless coverage area and have a line of sight between the closest or most appropriate NBN fixed wireless base station”.

Customers will need to arrange for a technician to visit their home. As explained by iiNet, an outdoor antenna on the roof of the customer’s premises will connect to a designated wall outlet for an indoor NBN connection box to plug into. Service provider iiNet makes the following recommendations as to where NBN equipment should be installed:

  • Within 1.5 metres of an electrical outlet
  • In an office or study, or near any existing phone sockets
  • A cool, dry and ventilated area with no sinks or water outlets
  • Away from busy areas where it may be knocked or damaged
  • A place where the equipment can be easily reached
  • A place where you’re not planning any major renovations

Customers will also need to check modem compatibility with their ISP, with some offering modems with their respective plans.

With regard to satellite broadband installation, as explained by NBN Co, a qualified technician will install a dish, typically on the user’s roof or wall, generally either 80 cm or 120 cm in diameter depending on the user’s location. NBN states that the receiver and transmitter are mounted on the dish, with two cables to be used to connect the dish to the user’s satellite modem, located inside the premises.

Which providers offer wireless NBN?

As the NBN is a relatively new enterprise, many providers are coy about any potential wireless NBN plans in the future. However, there are two key providers that offer wireless broadband – Optus and VividWireless.

Optus, as we all know, is one of the foremost ISPs in Australia with a large network covering much of Australia. However, if you’re not in a location that receives regular old NBN yet, wireless broadband from Optus may be more up your alley. Its only plan is $80 per month, but has a reasonable 200GB of data to see you through. What’s more, Optus promises next-day delivery, no lock-in contract and fast set-up – after all, it’s wireless!

Another provider is also chomping at the bit to offer wireless broadband – VividWireless. Vivid is a relatively new and small ISP but it offers pretty good value. Its cheapest plan is $29 a month, but is only good for 10GB. While this is cheaper and likely better quality than any data you can get on your mobile phone data plan, the data likely won’t be sufficient for anyone but the lightest users. Vivid’s largest plan, however, is $89 a month and comes with unlimited data – this is fairly solid value by any stretch, but for wireless it’s outstanding, particularly compared to Optus.

Although there are only a handful of ISPs offering home wireless broadband, we suspect that number will increase as the NBN grows larger with more people connected.

Is wireless NBN good value for money?

Wireless NBN is a great premise, but those in metro areas likely won’t find much use out of it because:

  • They have a range of other broadband plans on offer
  • They don’t qualify for it anyway i.e. they aren’t in a regional area

Wireless NBN has a promising future, but in its infancy there are a few setbacks. The main drawback is the price inequality compared to the other main broadband types. It’s a new technology; it’s naturally more expensive by the gigabyte. The other drawback is speed; NBN Co promises 100 Mbps download speeds with its fastest fibre plans, but the most you can achieve with its wireless network is 50 Mbps. While this is great considering the method of delivery, the reality is you might be able to find faster plans for the same or less money.

While you do not have the same range of speed options as available under NBN fibre plans, you should first determine your budget. This will then determine how much data you will get. While NBN currently is not exactly a ‘value’ option, this is only further exacerbated by the wireless plans.

As for wait times, customers in satellite areas will need to wait until January 2017 for NBN Co’s satellite plans to launch. NBN Co recently advised that it plans to launch end-user trials to around 200 premises in regional Victoria, conducting further testing of the service ahead of its full commercial launch.

The wait times for wireless NBN in combination with prices mean you should shop around for the best options across all broadband types. You’ll need to keep in mind your likely usage and the potential for this to rise over time. With the advent of new and more data-demanding media services, the likelihood of a larger plan in the future may make it necessary to future-proof your broadband connection.

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