The NBN Backflip Might Be Due to 5G Concerns, Former CTO Believes

The NBN Backflip Might Be Due to 5G Concerns, Former CTO Believes
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The NBN Co’s former chief technology officer (CTO) has said the rise of 5G technology is likely behind the federal government’s spectacular backflip on its plans.

On Wednesday, the federal government and the NBN Co announced that half of the country’s fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections would be to full fibre by 2023.

It means up to eight million households will now be upgraded to the faster technology, which could eventually deliver download speeds of up to a gigabit per second.

"The 2013 decision by the Coalition to roll out the NBN quickly, then phase upgrades around emerging demand, has served Australia well," communications minister Paul Fletcher said in a media release.

"This is the right time for this network upgrade. There is a long term trend of broadband demand growth — with a very significant spike this year as COVID-19 has changed the way we use the internet."

The change in policy is a major departure from the government's initial decision to dump Labor's full fibre proposal back in 2013. The backflip has left many wondering why the sudden change of heart.

But the NBN Co's ex-CTO, Gary McLaren, told Sydney Morning Herald it was likely the incoming 5G speeds that pushed them to change their tact.

"They changed pretty dramatically in the last two years ... the question is what has changed," McLaren said.

"They've talked about COVID and that is one factor but the key thing is the competition from the wireless companies is about to ramp up and they need a differentiator."

Those alternative technologies — 5G and upcoming satellite connections, like Elon Musk's Starlink — are still mostly in their infancy but could leapfrog speeds delivered on the ageing NBN infrastructure within years.

Both Telstra and Optus have been working on getting their 5G networks up and running and with a number of 5G-capable devices entering the market, it's becoming a more viable and cheaper alternative.

The NBN Co's changes are a welcome but long overdue step. Whether they'll come in time to avoid being eclipsed by other options will be a space to watch.