For the last few years, Australia has been positioning itself to become a major global technology hub. The government has doubled down on policies intended to support the push, including the Ideas Boom, investments in publicly-funded education, and partnerships with technology companies that share their vision. At the same time, however, the nation’s internet infrastructure hasn’t exactly kept pace.
Despite the grand vision of a national high-speed internet backbone promised by the now-troubled NBN, Australia’s tech sector has been hobbled by a lack of progress towards the kind of internet connectivity that will be necessary to support the kind of growth envisioned by all involved.
The only real saving grace has been the pending arrival of the latest in wireless technology, known as 5G, which is expected to be a quantum leap forward for Australia’s more than 20 million internet users. Now, that arrival seems imminent. Here’s a look at what’s happening.
On January, 31st, Australian wireless provider Optus announced that it had activated the first three sites on its fledgling 5G network. Two of the sites are located in the Canberra suburbs, with the third in Sydney, but they represent just an opening act in a much larger play. Optus expects to have a full 60 5G sites activated by March, en route to a total of 1200 by 2020.
Crucially, the initial rollout seems like a shot across the bow of the NBN, since the Optus 5G network is launching with home broadband customers in mind rather than mobile users.
Optus is offering 5G home internet service at $70 per month, including a guaranteed minimum connection speed of 50Mbps. That’s already double the speed that the original NBN plan aimed to provide to Australian customers, and it is available right now.
Optus isn’t the only Australian wireless provider that’s gearing up to usher in the 5G era. In fact, Telstra already had 200 5G sites activated by the end of 2018 and has signed exclusive deals with handset manufacturers to provide 5G-ready smartphones by the middle of 2019.
Telstra, in contrast to Optus, is targeting their 5G rollout to wireless customers, with an eye towards picking up market share against its smaller regional rivals.
Together, the two rivals expect to blanket most of Australia in 5G coverage by the end of 2020, providing an enormous boost to both the capacity and reliability of internet access nationwide.
It’s important to note that the Optus and Telstra 5G networks won’t be using the entire broad wireless spectrum that designers expect will unleash the true potential of the technology – at least not right away.
The initial deployments will not include millimetre-wave (mmWave) transmission capability, owing mostly to the fact that the licenses required to use that part of the spectrum still have to be sorted out.
Already the NBN is trying to lock up crucial parts of the spectrum, which could hinder deployments for the major wireless providers. If the impasse isn’t resolved, the lack of mmWave access could lead to bottlenecks on the new 5g networks, when data-hungry apps and users start to exploit their new unlimited data plans.
Any way you look at it, 5G networks seem poised to shake up Australia’s internet market in the very near future. It’s still too soon to tell if their long-term ability to keep up with customer demand (depending on how they’re allowed to upgrade) will be enough to truly power the revolution that the nation’s tech businesses expect, but the prospects are good. That should be considered good news, both for Australia’s tech sector, as well as the millions of Aussies that use the internet for work and play every day.
Soon, Australia’s internet infrastructure could be a model for other nations to follow – and that would be a positive development for all.