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Voda wants NBN access to boost regional 4G spread

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Vodafone has said it's hoping that the rollout of the National Broadband Network will give it the chance to improve country mobile services.

In evidence to the Joint Parliamentary Inquiry into the National Broadband Network on Friday April 19, the junior member of Australia's three-strong mobile carrier club identified Telstra's near-monopoly over some regional backhaul routes as a constraint to competitive service outside Australia's cities.

While several fibre owners provide inter-capital services on Australia's eastern sea-board, and three – Telstra, Optus and Nextgen Networks – reach from the east to Perth, competition falls dramatically as distance from the coast rises.

Public policy chief Matthew Lobb told the committee that Telstra has an automatic advantage in the country: it already has backhaul available in regional locations, often for so long that the asset has been depreciated, and only needs to set up a mobile tower to offer services.

By comparison, he said, for players like Vodafone and Optus, “the backhaul charges are extremely high”, with consequent impacts on what services they can offer.

According to The Australian, Lobb hinted that affordable backhaul could see the company take its 4G services to regional areas.

The threat that the NBN might become an alternative service provider to the mobile networks has already met resistance from others in the industry, with TPG's PIPE Networks putting a submission to the committee arguing against the idea.

However, Lobb told The Register he believes the NBN could offer significant opportunities for existing transport network providers, since one of the greatest costs for any location is providing the new fibre connection from the site to the backhaul network.

In Vodafone's proposal, he explained, a new mobile tower could use the NBN fibre as far as the nearest NBN Point of Interconnect (POI), where it would be transferred to the network of an existing backhaul provider like Telstra, Optus, Nextgen, AAPT or Pipe.

“We think the NBN could provide a powerful role in carrying traffic to places where contestable backhaul exists,” Lobb said.

In cities, that would provide a growth opportunity because, he said, mobile carriers are moving towards heterogeneous networks with larger number of small cells needed to support burgeoning data demands.

Outside the cities, he believes, the NBN would offer opportunities to connect locations that carriers like Vodafone can't currently serve.

He gave the example of the town of Molong, which is around 100 km south of Dubbo.

Although the distance is greater, the model is the same, he said: the NBN would only be used to carry the traffic from the remote location to the POI, after which Vodafone would contract with one of the existing backhaul providers to complete the connection back to its own network.

In towns like Molong, where the only long-haul connection available is from Telstra, “it's a real inhibitor” to competitive mobile carriers entering the market, Lobb told The Register. He noted that when the Regional Backhaul Blackspots Program network (being built and operated by Nextgen for the government) reached Darwin, “we saw a dramatic drop in the prices we were paying.”

“It's not just a mobile base station issue,” Lobb said. “Wherever access fibre is needed, the NBN could play a role – electricity meters, traffic lights. There's a lot of possible applications.”

“We're not advocating that the NBN become an end-to-end backhaul provider. But they could provide services that allow us to make more use of our existing backhaul services.” ®

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