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Telcos And NBN On Collision Course Over 5G

Australia’s third-largest mobile provider Vodafone is pushing for the government to release a large swathe of the unused 5G spectrum it says could lower the cost of 5G services, in a move that sets them on a collision course with the national broadband network.

Vodafone said the NBN, which has exclusive access to this unused band, is not using a large portion of it, and that there is no justification for preventing other telcos from accessing it for their own 5G networks.

“Ultimately, without access to this additional spectrum, consumers will miss out on earlier access to 5G, better network performance, lower costs and a more competitive 5G market in Australia,” Vodafone chief strategy officer Dan Lloyd said.

But the NBN said it needed the spectrum to provide its fixed wireless broadband, and that as things stand, giving commercial telcos access to the supposedly unused spectrum would cause unacceptable interference.

“There is no possibility today of other operators using NBN Co’s spectrum assets without risk of interference to NBN fixed wireless subscribers,” an NBN Co spokesman said.

The scrap is the latest in ongoing tensions between the government-owned NBN and the commercial sector, which include complaints about the NBN wholesale price, and threats by commercial telcos to compete directly with the NBN with fixed wireless products.

The spectrum issue particularly affects Vodafone, TPG and Telstra, which could theoretically bid for the unused spectrum to improve their 5G service. Optus would likely be barred from an auction because it already owns one-third of the total available spectrum in the 3.4 to 3.7 GHz band, a byproduct of its acquisition of Vividwireless in 2012.

Spectrum concerns

However, Optus also called for a change, saying historical transactions had seen the 5G band unevenly split up. A spokesman for the Singtel subsidiary said “defragmenting” the band should be a “priority”. Telstra declined to comment.

Lloyd said he was “concerned” the amount of spectrum that had so far been made available to the commercial sector put Australia behind other countries.

“While we were pleased to acquire substantial 5G spectrum holdings via the joint venture with TPG at the recent auction, we are concerned there will be far less spectrum available for 5G in Australia that is being made available in most other countries,” he said.

“Only 125 MHz of 5G spectrum was put to auction in 2018, despite the fact that there are an additional 75 MHz of the same spectrum band lying unused in metro areas.” That 75 MHz is held by NBN Co.

On NBN Co’s claim that using the spectrum would cause interference, Lloyd said the Australian Communication and Media Authority had issued a direction in July 2018 that “removed the last possible excuse for the spectrum to lie unused by requiring fixed wireless networks to ensure interference is eliminated”.

5G standards

Internationally-agreed standards set one of the key 5G spectrums at the 3.4 to 3.8 GHz frequencies. In Australia, 25 percent of that available spectrum has already been allocated to the NBN for its high-speed fixed wireless services, which substitute for fiber optic cable in areas on the edge of cities (about 4 percent of the population), where building fiber does not make commercial sense.

But while the NBN only uses this spectrum in these peripheral areas, the government has reserved the same bands for the NBN in metropolitan areas as well. That means these valuable bands – which could be used by commercial telcos to provide more capacity for mobile users, which Vodafone claimed would lead to better data packages at more affordable prices – will be going unused.

A spokesman for NBN Co said: “NBN Co has current spectrum holdings across metropolitan areas including the five major capital cities in Australia. The nearest sites in operation today across these metropolitan areas are within around 30 kilometers of the CBDs.

“As such, there is no possibility today of other operators using NBN Co’s spectrum assets without risk of interference to NBN fixed wireless subscribers. NBN Co is working with the industry to investigate possible spectrum interference mitigation techniques.”―Financial Review

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