Does 4G Remove The Need For An NBN?

Telstra has announced it will be rolling out a new 4G mobile network by the end of 2011, boasting downstream speeds up to 70Mb/s. The announcement has been met with a range of responses, none of which have been in the least bit surprising. 


Optus and Vodafone have announced that their 4G offerings are coming soon. Their customers have announced that soon is not soon enough. The federal opposition has declared Telstra’s announcement to be another nail in the coffin of the National Broadband Network. 


The federal minister Stephen Conroy has taken to the talkback warpath, determined to explain exactly the same thing he’s explained countless times before, namely that wireless broadband, whatever the number preceding its G, will not match the capabilities of a fibre network. It is a debate that refuses to progress, because no matter how often it is explained, we are forced to return to the premise, much like the climate change debate, where a single dissenting voice allows the media to push their 'Disunity' barrow.

So here we go again: does 4G wireless remove the need for an NBN? Astoundingly, for some people, the answer is a resounding yes! These people can be broadly split into two groups. People in the first group don’t use the internet, and 4G will represent merely another in a bewildering array of choices they don’t care about. 


The second group are those living next door to a transmitting base station, who only use the internet between 2.30 and 4.30am, when no one else is on. If Long Term Evolution (LTE) can indeed deliver its promised speeds, then yes, the NBN might well be a waste. I suppose there is arguably a third group, populated by those who prefer their internet to crawl along as a comment on the breakneck acceleration of modern life, a kind of Slow Net movement. Going wireless will permit them their follies.

It can’t be stressed enough, especially if you’re in the Liberal party: The NBN will always be faster than a comparable wireless network. Fibre is a dedicated medium that is exceptionally scalable. Wireless broadband is not dedicated, but shared, and it isn't scalable (on its own). Being a shared medium, wireless grows heavily congested, and performance can degrade based on any number of atmospheric conditions. 


Telstra has declared that 4G downstream speeds of up to 70Mb/s are not out of the question. As ever, the ‘up to’ part is more important than the actual number, since it represents that amorphous grey area between marketing and the actual end experience. Already a sizable chunk of bandwidth is devoted to ‘up to’ - my wireless connection peaks at about 15Mb/s shy of the advertised maximum - and this figure is only increasing. 


(‘Up to’ is a growth area in the wireless sector, far outstripping the actual products themselves. Expect to see a number of dedicated ‘Up To’ providers appearing in the coming months, selling nothing but the difference between what we’re promised and what we get. Now that I think about it, those companies already exist.)

A detailed explanation of why wireless is not a realistic substitute for fibre can be read here.