NBN Fixed Wireless

It has been a landmark week here at Orielton Software GHQ. After three years of relying on 3G wireless broadband for all our internet connectivity, we have now connected to Australia's much heralded, shiny new National Broadband Network (NBN).

This is a big deal. While 3G has kept us going it is expensive, slow and limited. The highest download quota that Telstra offers on 3G is 15Gb per month. This quickly becomes an issue for us when dealing with software updates that are frequently 1-3Gb and sometimes larger. In a previous post I discussed the challenges of upgrading OS X over wireless (4Gb for Lion even using the thumb drive, and 4Gb for Mountain Lion).

So breaking free of the 15Gb monthly limit and improving performance is important to us. NBN has been our only hope, short of doing something really heroic or prohibitively expensive. GHQ is located in the wilds of Tasmania however, so NBN was looking like a distant dream until a month ago when NBN Fixed Wireless was made available in our area.

For the vast majority of people NBN will be fibre. This is partly a testament to how urbanised Australia is. Cover the relatively small number of urban areas and you have covered at least 90% of the population. To put this in perspective GHQ is 35km from the state capital city centre and 7km from one of the fastest growing towns in Tasmania, but we are still 5km or so outside the planned fibre coverage area.

NBN will consist of fibre (93% of the population), fixed wireless (4%) and satellite (3%) - percentages according to iiNet.

So in our area NBN means fixed wireless. This is 4G wireless internet through a fixed installation of an antenna and network termination unit (ie modem) at your premises. The number of fixed wireless installations per cell/tower is limited (apparently to 50 per cell, 200 per tower) which means it should provide better and more consistent performance than mobile 4G.

Fixed wireless is advertised as providing speeds up to 25 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up. Interestingly not all ISPs provide the full 25/5...

Selecting an ISP

The network infrastructure is provided by NBN Co, but customers get there service through an ISP. Virtually all of a customer's interactions will be with their ISP rather than NBN directly.

There are many ISPs reselling NBN. You can get a list of ISPs in your area through the NBN Co site - use the coverage map to locate you area and, if NBN service is available, click the link to find ISPs. The site lists seven ISPs in our area (some of which did not actually appear to support fixed wireless).

Given that all of the ISPs are providing service across the same infrastructure, I was surprised by how much they varied in what they offer. Each offer different plans which vary in:

  • Price: $40 to $140 per month
  • Speed: 25/5 or 12/1
  • Download/upload quota: 20/20Gb peak/off peak up to 1Tb anytime)
  • Shaping: shaping to 256, 512, or 1024KBps if you exceed your quota
  • Peak/off peak: various definitions of peak periods (e.g. 8am to 2am) and some plans do not differentiate
  • Bundling: Many ISPs want to bundle phone services, some just do data
  • Contract term and upfront cost: eg 12 months and $100 upfront, 25 months no upfront cost.
  • Payment and billing options: Some plans are direct debit only, some have additional costs for non-direct debit and paper bills.

As soon as you start looking at ISPs you will see the fibre bias that permeates the NBN. Many of the ISP links take you to a page of fibre plans and you have to hunt around for their NBN wireless plans. Throughout the process with my selected ISP I received any number of SMSs and emails about my "fibre account" and had a couple of bizarre conversations with their tech support folks of the “Trust me, there is an antenna on our roof, it is not fibre” variety. Much of the NBN documentation has a fibre and bundled telephony bias that needs to be taken in consideration when reading it as a wireless internet only customer.

Having selected your ISP you go through the normal ritual of signing up as a customer and fending off all the things you don't want - "No, I don't want a telephony bundle ... Because I don't ... No you will not cancel my existing ISP contract for me ...".

Modems and Routers

Then comes the interesting question of a new modem/router. Of course the ISP assumes that you will be buying their branded modem/router, but do you really need to? I tried to have this conversation with the sales person on the phone, but couldn't get much beyond "You need an NBN ready modem". "NBN ready" is clearly the magic phrase taught to sales reps to fend of customers who might be trying to save some money and reuse existing equipment.

I ended up buying a new modem/router from my ISP, not because I think that I need it but because I see it as the price of ever getting tech support from them. A stiff price to pay to avoid "Sorry sir, but you are not using our hardware so I can't help you with your problem.".

As described in the NBN Fixed Wireless fact sheet, a fixed wireless installation consists of an external antenna cabled to a Network Termination Device (NTD) within the building. According on the government’s NBN site (not To be confused with NBN Co) the NTD functions as a modem, so you could probably survive with a reasonably capable router rather than buying a new one. Of course you would need to prepared for minimal technical support and figuring out the configuration manually.

My ISP supplied modem/router theoretically came pre-configured with my new userid and password, and would automatically configure itself. This wasn't true in my case and a call to tech support was required to get the manual configuration settings (after I had convinced them that I wasn't on fibre).

As an aside - I had a challenge convincing the tech support person that I was not on fibre, mainly because they had not heard of fixed wireless. After consulting with a senior technical colleague my tech supporter acknowledged that I was indeed not on fibre, but that was OK because it was just like fibre just connected via the satellite dish rather than fibre. Of course I had to point out that it wasn't satellite either. This was, however, a minor hiccup and the tech support person was very helpful in resolving my problem.

Installation

The installation of the fixed wireless equipment (antenna, NTD, and cabling between them) is done by NBN (actually a subcontractor of a subcontractor of NBN) rather than the ISP. In my case there was a three week delay between signing up and installation. NBN books a four hour slot although the installers expect to do it in two hours (and did it in two and a half in our case) and arrived a good hour before the appointed time (after calling to check).

Our installer was professional and helpful. My only issue with the installation was that there was no provision for anything out of the ordinary, even at additional cost. Due to the specific issues of our building this meant me sourcing and installing conduit ("trunking") over the internal cabling after the event. This was a minor inconvenience in our case, but would be more of an issue if you were not happy to muck around with ladders, conduit etc.

One aspect of the installation that is glossed over in the documentation is that there is a delay between the installation and account activation. This appears to mainly be due to activities on the NBN side before they notify the ISP that the service is ready. In our case this meant that the account wasn't available until about 24 hours after the installation was completed.

So we are now happily connected to the glorious NBN. So far I have no complaints. The performance is noticeably better than 3G. Download speeds obviously depend on the server you are accessing. Typically downloads seem to be at something like 2 to 2.5Mb per second (for example the latest iOS 7 beta image of 1.23Gb was downloaded in about 9 minutes). Slightly disappointingly my new modem/router (unnecessary/expensive respectively) gives less wifi coverage than my previous unit. Oh well, if I am feeling courageous at some point I might try configuring an old wifi router instead, but that's a project for anther day.

Update

on 2013-08-17 01:14 by John

I finally got around to doing a speed test on our new NBN Fixed Wireless connect, which has been running without a glitch for the last week. The first results (from an iPad connected with 802.11n WIFI) were:

So a little short of the 25/5, but in the ball park.