It was telling to watch the media reports of the Telstra announcement today. Suddenly, Telstra’s next generation mobile network became a threat to the NBN, with media outlets claiming it would be put “in direct competition with the National Broadband Network“; it was “a challenge to NBN“; and even that it “makes [the]NBN unviable“.
It's a mind-boggling scenario. Because it shows a fundamental lack of understanding for how things work.
Wireless technologies like LTE don't magically connect you to the internet at lightning fast speeds. They connect you to a fibre backhaul that gives you access to the wonders of the web. It's like plugging in your shiny new 802.11n wireless router at home - if it's only connected via dialup, it's still going to take an age to download iTunes, regardless of how fast the wireless connection is. Having a fast, fibre-based infrastructure is only going to help wireless services like LTE perform to their best.
No matter how fast and how good wireless networks get, there are always going to be issues affecting the speed and latency. The number of devices accessing a tower will impact the speeds you get on a device, and too many people trying to access the network can leave the service unbearably unreliable - ask all the customers who are currently filing a class action against Vodafone about how that feels.
But the most frustrating thing about this debate is the emphasis pundits are placing on whether or not one technology is better than another, or whether wireless will "hurt" the NBN. The fact of the matter is that the two technologies need to work in tandem to give us connectivity wherever we are. As communications expert Paul Budde told ABC radio, some services just wouldn't work if they had to rely purely on a wireless connection.
Even in the US, where President Obama's recent "Win the future" speech demanded the rollout of high speed wireless to 98% of the American population, there's still a huge demand for high-speed cable internet - which they already have thanks to the prevalence of cable TV networks and phone connections. If the US only had Australia's reliance on ADSL2+ (or ADSL in some places) and a single HFC cable down the west coast, wireless wouldn't be on the agenda.
As Telstra said it themselves:
"Wireless and fixed networks are complementary – our customers use both depending on need and circumstances and Telstra continues to invest in both."
The sooner we stop trying to make wireless and fibre fight eachother to serve a political agenda and recognise that both are crucial for the future communications infrastructure in this country, the better off we'll all be. Because Wireless + NBN = Awesome.