About 10 years ago, when the original plan for a mostly fibre NBN was first famously sketched on the back of a serviette by Kevin Rudd and Stephen Conroy, streaming TV was not a thing.
Even then delivering super fast broadband to some via fixed wireless was part of the mix.
It promised to bring the NBN to regional and rural customers who were just too hard to reach on the fixed-line network, which connects premises via fibre, copper and cable.
About 7 per cent of all NBN customers were always going to be connected to the NBN via fixed wireless or satellite, with fixed wireless servicing 75 per cent of that 7 per cent.
Fixed wireless promised so much — the ability for high-tech businesses to base themselves almost anywhere in Australia.
But then along came Netflix and everything changed.
“What we saw in 2015 was the introduction of Netflix within Australia and that was a catalyst for change,” Sam Dimarco, head of stakeholder relations at NBN, told 7.30.
“On all of our networks — including fixed wireless — we saw usage behaviour and consumption accelerate, which put pressure on the network in terms of how it was designed originally.”
But the so-called “Netflix effect” did not stop the NBN making bold promises for the future of fixed wireless.
NBN’s 2018 Corporate Plan boasted of “plans to boost the wholesale speeds available on its fixed wireless network from wholesale speed tier plans of up to [50mbps download speed and 20mbps upload speed] to up to [100 mbps download speed and 40 mbps upload speed], due for launch in 2018”.
That would make the performance of fixed wireless match the best speeds currently available to NBN customers on fixed-line connections.
Significantly the NBN also promised it would “not require substantial new infrastructure deployment”.
But by May 2018 the dream of super fast fixed wireless was suddenly pronounced dead by the NBN’s then-CEO Bill Morrow.
“When should we expect 100mbps to become available over fixed wireless, Mr Morrow?” Labor senator Deborah O’Neill asked in Senate Estimates.
“We killed it,” Mr Morrow replied. “Never … well maybe, never say never, but it’s not on the roadmap any longer.”
The Netflix effect was causing unanticipated congestion on fixed wireless, Mr Morrow explained, and that meant high speeds would not be possible without spending a mind-boggling amount of money.
“You would be blown away at the cost, it just would never happen … billions and billions that we would have to invest in this,” Mr Morrow said.
And that is not the end of it. Later this year the NBN is even abandoning its 50/20 offering — that is the service promising 50mbps download and 20mbps upload speeds.
It will be replaced with what has been called Fixed Wireless Plus. This will deliver many users even better than 50mbps downloads, but it is also an admission that 50mbps cannot be guaranteed to all fixed wireless users.
Every connection must hit 25mbps — at least momentarily
In fact, far from its high-speed dreams, because of the Netflix effect, the NBN now considers a 6mbps download speed to be acceptable for some of its users, some of the time on its fixed wireless network.
Or as Mr Morrow put it to Senate Estimates on May 24 last year: “For a certain amount of customers, during the evening hours, which is when the busy time would be there, they could be restricted to 6mbps.”
This is interesting when you consider the Federal Government’s Statement of Expectations, the key document governing what it expects the NBN to deliver:
“The Government expects the network will provide peak wholesale download data rates (and proportionate upload rates) of at least 25 megabits per second to all premises,” it said.
You could be forgiven for thinking that this means all Australians on the NBN are guaranteed to get minimum download speeds of 25mbps.
In fact the sentence does not mean that at all.
The NBN has confirmed that it means a “speed of at least 25mbps downstream and 5mbps upstream at least once per 24-hour period”.
Even if it happens to be at 3:30am.
That is why the NBN can say that 6mbps is acceptable for some customers, some of the time, using its fixed wireless service.
Digital divide: Fixed wireless good for some
When fixed wireless works, it can work really well and does enable businesses to operate in remote locations.
A good connection helped Greg McLoughlin-Wilden set up an online training business in Coramba, a 20-minute drive inland from Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales mid-north coast.
“Brilliant, absolutely no problems at all,” Mr McLoughlin-Wilden told 7.30.
“If we didn’t have NBN fixed wireless this business would be in an office, it would be in town.”
But in the rush to complete the NBN by next year, fixed wireless has not only been used in remote locations.
Parts of built-up towns all over Australia are being connected to fixed wireless, even when their neighbours might be connected by some of the best fixed-line NBN connections available.
Jason Errey moved to Bellingen in mid-northern NSW because of the lure of super fast broadband via fibre-to-the-premises.
He is a geophysicist who has developed world-leading technology to map the ground.
“When we first came to Bellingen it was slated to be fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP),” Mr Errey said.
“That made it an ideal opportunity to set up a cutting-edge business and be in perfect contact and communication with the rest of the world.”
Mr Errey never got the fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) connections that most of Bellingen did. Instead he is being offered fixed wireless.
Using his digital ground mapping tools, Mr Errey showed 7.30 that his house is in a part of town that does not get the “direct line of sight” that good fixed wireless connections require.
So he is fighting to stay on his old ADSL connection to meet his business’s needs.
“I know what I’m going to get 24 hours, seven days a week,” he said.
“You can’t guarantee that clarity to be able to do video conferencing on fixed wireless. And that was the real killer for us.”
One neighbour, Rebecca Taylor, was told she would get up to 50mbps download and 20mbps upload speeds on fixed wireless.
At 8pm she is getting about 13mbps for downloading and less than 1mbps for uploads.
“Watching movies and things like that, it just drops out,” she told 7.30.
“It’s really dropped since this afternoon, and you’re getting nowhere near what you paid for,” Mr Errey told her as he tested her internet speed.
Across the road, Donovan Craig is getting even slower speeds.
“It’s about 3 megabits down, that’s what we’ve come to expect here,” he said.
“Sometimes down as low as 1 megabit.”
‘They’ve rushed into it’
It is not just Bellingen having problems.
In the Adelaide Hills, John Knight and his neighbour Lance Hewitt are considering installing a 15-metre-high antenna to improve their fixed wireless connection.
“I think the maximum promised was 25 mbps, and I think we’ve had it up to about 15,” Mr Knight told 7.30.
“And then it drops out and then comes back again.
“I think the speed’s OK. It’s the frequency when it keeps dropping out is the annoying part.”
Mr Knight and Mr Hewitt think a hill is getting in the way of the fixed wireless connection.
“They should have done a bit more research into dead spots like the hills here, or put more towers up,” Mr Knight said.
“They’ve sort of rushed into it. They just wanted to get the job done.
“And I’m stuck. Like, what now?”
Watch Geoff Thompson’s story on 7.30 tonight.