A 5G Optus tower in Canberra. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
A 5G Optus tower in Canberra. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Is 5G better than the NBN?

Australians frustrated with unreliable service from the National Broadband Network may soon have another option.

The rollout of the 5G network around Australia promises to deliver benefits not just for mobile phone users, but also for home internet services.

Until now the mobile system, using 4G, hasn't been widely used to connect to the internet at home. Most Australians have experienced the frustration of slow speeds on their smartphones while trying to watch a video or connect to video chat which 5G also promises to make a thing of the past for those on the go.

The 5G network is now promising to deliver wireless internet coverage that's competitive with the NBN in terms of price, speeds, and data allowances, a development that will be welcomed by those who have been plagued by dropouts and buffering during peak times.



In November, Optus launched a 5G package that provides a network for home broadband.

The plan offers unlimited data for $70 a month, the same price as its unlimited NBN plan. Optus has also promised a minimum speed of 50 Mbps and customers can get out of their contract without any extra fees if they aren't satisfied.

The package could offer a lifeline to NBN customers struggling to get the speeds they are paying for during peak periods.

NBN customers are only guaranteed a speed of 25 megabits per second if they are connected via fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), which most people are, and it's possible this is all their homes will be able to get if they are located more than 800m away from the node.

According to Finder's Consumer Sentiment Tracker, about 18 per cent of Australians still aren't happy with their broadband speed and had daily issues with streaming services such as Netflix and Stan.

So is 5G a better option?


When it comes to 5G, one thing to understand is that it's mainly a marketing term.

The mobile phone network is constantly being upgraded and the term 5G actually refers to a number of improvements including new antennas that have been bundled together to provide better speeds.

It will be delivered in two phases, the first involves upgrading existing 4G services to add extra features.

The next phase, which will begin in October next year, will see the rollout of "new radio" and this will be when some of the more exciting new services come online.

Australians with a 5G smart handset will be able to use the upgraded network to connect to the internet on their mobile phones at much faster speeds.

The new network will also enable people to use it for wireless broadband in their homes with a simple plug-in and connect modem, rather than waiting for a contractor to come out to set up your new connection.

Households will also be able to get fixed wireless through 5G but this will require getting an antenna attached to the roof.


Optus chief executive officer Allen Lew holds one of the company’s 5G wireless modems.
Optus chief executive officer Allen Lew holds one of the company’s 5G wireless modems.



One reason for dissatisfaction with the NBN is that those connected via FTTN can experience slower speeds the further they are from the node.

Associate Professor Mark Gregory of RMIT University said those who were stuck with "really crappy services" were starting to look at alternatives.

For these people, 5G could seem attractive if it's available in their areas.

Optus already has 300 5G sites across Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Canberra, as well as other key locations in NSW, Victoria and Queensland.

By March 2020, it plans to have 1200 sites but its focus will largely be on metropolitan sites.

There doesn't seem to be any incentive for telcos to roll out 5G in rural and regional areas, where some residents are experiencing the biggest problems.

Many don't have access to a fibre connection and already use a fixed wireless service provided by the NBN, which has been criticised for offering inferior speeds.



NBN may also upgrade this fixed wireless service to 5G so it doesn't seem likely that 5G services offered through telcos such as Optus will improve on this.

Prof Gregory said if someone already received a good service using the NBN with speeds of 100 Mbps, the fastest consumer plan currently available, there would be no reason to switch to 5G.

But for many others, it could provide a tempting option.

The green cabinet or ‘node’ where NBN fibre optic cables connect the network to copper wires from people’s homes.
The green cabinet or ‘node’ where NBN fibre optic cables connect the network to copper wires from people’s homes.


Prof Gregory said 5G could definitely take customers away from the NBN, especially those in metropolitan areas who were unhappy with their broadband speeds or were experiencing regular dropouts.

Much of these problems stem from the Coalition's decision to roll out FTTN technology, rather than fibre to the premises (FTTP), which would have delivered speeds of up to 1 gigabyte per second (Gbps).

Fibre to the node has instead left many people stuck on inferior speeds of about 50 Mbps with a maximum speed of 100 Mbps. The services are also prone to congestion during peak times.

Prof Gregory believes this means 5G can now compete with the NBN.

He said companies were already offering plans with faster speeds and higher download limits compared to the NBN so were "essentially taking on the NBN head to head".

Officially telcos are suggesting that 5G home wireless broadband and the NBN complement each other.

"Some customers want a take-home service that can achieve high speeds without the need for wiring up their property and 5G Home Broadband is the perfect solution for this," an Optus spokeswoman said.

Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has also noted the huge increase in data use on the NBN and said this suggested it would continue to have a role despite the growth of mobile internet.

"I think it's very consistent with the government's view that the NBN and 5G are complementary technology," he told Nine newspapers. "NBN can deliver large volumes of data at a cost per gigabyte, which is considerably lower than mobile technology."

However, Prof Gregory believes the fact the NBN was not rolled out as a FTTP network, as originally proposed by Labor, means it will have to compete with 5G.


5G could support interesting new technology.
5G could support interesting new technology.


If FTTP had been installed, the 5G network could have continued to function in much the same way as 4G, with a focus on offering choice to customers and providing internet coverage to people who move around a lot and want flexibility.

It would also have allowed the NBN to support innovative new technology such as 5G "small cells" within people's homes and small businesses.

Small cells include a mobile access point that acts like mini version of a mobile phone tower and base station and can provide coverage of between 200 to 400 metres.

They are expected to play an important role in linking connected devices, such as cars, to the network.

The number of these devices, dubbed the Internet of Things (IoT), is expected to grow dramatically and they will all need to connect to the network regularly to transmit data.

Instead of having hundreds of these devices in one street trying to send data to an NBN node located 800 metres away, experts believe a "small cell" that uses 5G technology can be placed in someone's home or nearby to collect the data.

This saves electricity because the small cell is located closer to appliances and other connected devices.

Small cells in homes and businesses could then transmit the data to the network via a NBN connection.

They could use the existing NBN infrastructure, but they may not.

"Instead of economising and using the NBN fibre, we could see infrastructure installed by Telstra, Vodafone and Optus, which is pointless. It's better that infrastructure is shared."

This scenario can already been seen in areas around Australia where the mobile phone towers of rival companies sit next to each other.

"They will essentially be rolling out the fibre that NBN should have been rolling out," Prof Gregory said.

"A reasonable person would see this as a farce because NBN should have put fibre into the streets, no one benefits from this, least of all NBN."

This would also provide an incentive for Telstra and Optus to take customers off the NBN.

"If nothing changes, I think we are going to see mobile companies take the opportunity to take as much business off NBN as possible," he said.

"Because the NBN technology is so poor and the business model is skewed to providing an expensive service that provides less than what people want."

Do you have 5G or are you considering it? Continue the conversation @charischang2 | charischang@news.com.au

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