Australia Focus: The Wright Way Forward

Mike Wright, executive director of networks & access technologies at Telstra

Australia may be physically located a long way from the pioneering LTE hubs of Europe and North America but in terms of next generation mobile networks it’s on track to become one of the leaders of the pack. caught up with Mike Wright, executive director of networks & access technologies at Telstra and a keynote speaker at the LTE Asia conference to discuss this progress.

In terms of fixed line deployments the Australian government’s bold programme to connect 93 per cent of the population to a fast fibre connection by 2017 is one of the most ambitious in the world – and recently this received a major boost with the news that the country’s largest telco, Telstra, would receive $11bn from the government to acquire its copper network infrastructure, enabling the NBN it to reuse the cabling ducts and pipes to ease deployment of its network.

Telstra has taken a similarly efficient approach with its LTE network roll out, which is currently being deployed across the major cities and selected regional areas, with an expected commercial launch date of the end of 2011. Telstra is going with a hybrid 3G/LTE option that is set to cover over 99 per cent of the population and 2.1million square miles of Australia by the end of the year. Considering the sheer size of the land mass that needs to be covered this is a heavy undertaking even for a major local incumbent such as Telstra, which enjoys ownership over 42 per cent of the mobile market.

As Mike Wright, executive director of networks & access technologies at Telstra explains, the real efficiencies come from the smart use of spectrum through the refarming of its 1800MHz 2G spectrum for use with LTE. The ability to do this stems from having such a strong 3G network in the first place. “We made a pretty substantial investment in 2005/6 where we collapsed three various networks, CDMA, GSM and an early 3G network into a single national network based on HSPA technology using the 850MHz band. That allowed us to build, what was then, and probably still is, one of the largest 3G networks. So our customers don’t actually use the 2G network. It has around three times the area of coverage that our original 2G network had and in fact works better indoors.”

As a result of this solid base Telstra was able to cope with a rapid increase in traffic, which doubled or more every year. This required that Telstra again invest early and move to HSPA+ and then dual-carrier HSPA – all in the name of efficiency. It dubbed this network as ‘Next-G. “[It was] largely driven by the need to get the network as efficient as we could get it to lower the cost per bit”, says Wright. It’s a tide of usage that clearly will not be abating. “As we look ahead and see the emergence of more smartphones, more tablet penetration, more use of data cards, the more use of machine-to-machine; we don’t see the data tsunami slowing down.”

With such a strong track record in moving ahead swiftly to new technologies it’s no surprise that Wright feels that LTE is not the revolution it might be for other operators. “We don’t really see LTE being a radical new technology; we see it as a means of managing the data growth.

“So we look at our network, and the emergence of 4G tech such as LTE, [as] …a strong driver to stay on the technology road map early, to allow us to absorb the network capacity”.

Staying with the efficiency theme, Wright explains that the strength of its 3G 900MHz network meant that it saw that it was able to move its 2G traffic onto that frequency, thus freeing up its 1800Mhz band for use with LTE, a move he thinks all operators with access to that band should be looking at.

“Late last year we came to the realisation that 1800Mhz actually was a viable spectrum. If you look around the world many operators actually own 1800. Our view is that is actually makes sense for a lot of operators to look to re-farm and use it more efficiently”.

Telstra’s made the announcement that it would be deploying at this frequency at the decision LTE World Summit in Amsterdam back in May, a decision that was by far from unilateral. At the same summit three European big players, Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom and TeliaSonera, all declared that 1800MHz was the way to go for LTE – offering as it does a good balance between coverage and in capacity.

But is Telstra not concerned that it will lose out on in-building coverage that using a sub 1GHz frequency would bring? Wright is unconcerned. “If it doesn’t quite get into buildings they’ve (subscribers) also got the dual-carrier HSPA layer to fall back to. When we talk about a hybrid network that’s what we mean… I wouldn’t necessarily expect the customers to care as we already deliver a 4G-like experience with a dual-carrier HSPA network up to 42Mbps”. It’s confident talk.

Wright says that Telstra is not ready to quote specific speeds but seeing how it has raised the bar expectations are high. “We tell customers to expect typical user speed between 1.1 and 20Mbps on dual-carrier HSPA network and over 50 per cent of the population is already covered by dual-carrier – outside of that area you get HSPA+ up to around 93 per cent of the population.”

Right now, Wright is more concerned with spreading the word to other operators about 1800MHz and Telstra is actively doing so. Says Wright; “we established a 1800 focus group in conjunction with the GSMA and GSA and we had around 70 CTO’s come to our first set of workshops and meetings. The objective is to educate other operators that 1800 is a viable band and there are a number of reasons why it is. It’s quite a lower frequency than the 2600 that other operators will use – so it will often have better coverage than 2600 in many cases – and in fact it’s a lower frequency than the 2100 that a lot of 3G networks operate at. The idea is that other operators are made aware of the opportunities and the pros and cons of doing it. If we get their interest, they connect to it, then the handset vendors follow as they go where operators go – so that will mean a greater availability of devices”.

Terminals and devices have long been a stumbling block for uptake of next generation mobile connectivity but Wright again is confident it won’t be an issue. “We’re in one of the best positions that we’ve ever been in terms of having the silicon and the capabilities in the eco-system – but the faster we can penetrate our customer base with these new technology devices, the more efficiently our network operates”.

While Telstra is the biggest player on the Australian market, it has very little presence internationally. That said, it does own the Hong Kong operator CSL that has already rolled out an LTE network and Wright confirmed that Telstra was very much involved. “We spent a lot of time with CSL. In fact we worked closely with them and shared our engineering learning and capabilities.  We do share our LTE engineering experience. But if you look at the two architectures, most of Hong Kong is above the 13th floor, which is very different architecture and density to what we see in Australia”.

Even though it has yet to go live with LTE, Wright says Telstra is even keeping a close eye on what comes next, as befits a company that is known for its early mover strategies.  “We’re certainly looking at spectrum aggregation for LTE Advanced; it needs to be pursued. So we have a long-term watch and a short-medium term watch as to what we will build.”

Of course, the LTE market isn’t just about Telstra. Erstwhile competitor Optus demoed LTE using 10MHz of 2100MHz spectrum in July 2010 in the metropolitan areas of Sydney, using early sample USB dongles and achieved speeds of 50Mbps on the downlink and 20Mbps on the uplink. Fitting in with Telstra’s way of thinking, a second phase of testing is currently underway using the 1800MHz band.

Vodafone Hutchinson Australia (VHA) has also conducted LTE1800 trials, using 10MHz of spectrum. Top line speeds were even more spectacular hitting the heights of 74.3Mbps. The operator is currently beginning an extensive upgrade program of around 5,800 2G and 3G base stations and like Telstra, the first commercial LTE services are expected to be deployed by the end of 2011. VHA will have a lot to prove to its existing customer base though, quite aside from attracting new customers – the operator managed to draw the lion’s share of complaints to Australia’s ombudsman in the first quarter of 2011 – and when the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) described the telecoms sector as the country’s “most hated industry”, that’s not an especially proud record to have .

Utilities supplier EnergyAustralia also has its own LTE plans, and will conduct trials at 15 sites in 2011, with the aim of migrate to a full LTE network. EnergyAustralia was chosen by the Government to lead the Smart Grid, Smart City demonstration project to test Australia’s first fully integrated, commercial-scale smart grid.
Where there’s LTE, there’s usually a Wimax operator looking to make the switch and sure enough, Vivid Wireless trialled LTE TDD in Sydney for two months from December 2010 in urban areas. It expects to launch commercially by 2012.

All players will also be looking at the government plans to release a further 126 MHz of digital dividend spectrum (694 – 820 MHz) by the end of 2013. As Telstra’s Wright says, moving forwards all operators will want to expand by obtaining additional spectrum and by using it more efficiently. “It’s really an industry and government job to continue to look for new spectrum opportunities and new technologies that are going to be more and more efficient”.

Wright is also confident about the state of the Australian market as a whole. “It’s a robust competitive market and there’s plenty of competition and plenty of scope, so in that regard we’re doing quite well I think. The whole world is struggling to some extent in maintaining the yield with the growth in volumes to match that growth. So as an industry, not just in the Australian market, we’ve got to look at way to differentiate services on the network, and create varied levels of value that customers are willing to pay for”.

Mike Wright will be a keynote speaker at the sixth annual LTE Asia conference, which takes place in Suntec, Singapore, on the 5-7th September 2011

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