After a relatively slow start, the roll-out of 5G in Australia is gaining pace, with several major telecommunication companies competing to set up national networks.
So, what took them so long? “Deploying technology like this at a national scale is costly,” explains veteran telecommunications consultant Geof Heydon. “To generate revenue, the telcos began by upgrading their networks in the inner city, where many of the most demanding customers are.”
Now that 4G has been upgraded to 5G networks, which cover the CBDs of most Australian capitals, and additional revenue is starting to flow, telcos are beginning to roll out the technology to other areas. As their 5G networks expand, revenue will increase, facilitating more rapid growth. That means hundreds of LGAs, both urban and regional, will soon face a range of deployment-related issues, if they haven’t already.
For those IPWEA members still grappling with this topic, Heydon has answered the most pressing questions regarding 5G and how it will impact local government.
What exactly is 5G?
5G simply means the ‘fifth generation’ of mobile phone technology. The basic concept is the same as before – 5G is a network that transmits and receives information – but the performance has been improved.
“Think of the first wave of 5G deployment as an upgrade from 4G,” says Heydon. “Everything has been improved a bit. You get more bandwidth; you get improved latency, which is the connectivity speed; and you get slightly better coverage.”
For users, these improvements will seem minor, Heydon says. But from a technical point of view, the changes are fairly significant. “What makes 5G different is that it allows for three completely different frequencies to be used to deliver different kinds of performance depending on what the user wants to do,” he explains.
Those three frequencies, or bands, have different advantages. The highest frequency offers the most impressive performance but only works over short distances. The lowest frequency works over wide areas but is much slower. The mid-band frequency, which the telcos are setting up first, is a compromise between these two extremes, acting like an improved 4G.
What do the telcos want from councils?
While some 5G infrastructure can be installed on sites that telcos already own or control, the full roll-out of all three 5G bands will require significantly more antennae than the current 4G networks.
“When we get to the high-band deployment, the antennae will need to be about 100 metres apart for each carrier, whether it’s an urban or regional area,” says Heydon. “So, the main street of a little town, if it’s one kilometre long, will need 10 antennae along that street for each carrier.”
Telcos have already begun trying to secure additional antenna sites in some LGAs. “They’re putting in applications to councils like crazy, trying to secure the best sites for this high-performance band,” says Heydon. “Obviously, that’s a worry for the councils, because they don’t want their towns and cities to look like antenna farms.”
“The amenity of the people who live there is a real concern. And, of course, the more visible these things are, the more people get worried that there might be some danger involved.”
One possible solution is encouraging telcos to share some 5G infrastructure. “5G is designed to support what’s called a ‘neutral host model’, which allows carriers to share the same equipment,” explains Heydon. “But the carriers don’t like it because they all want to have complete control over their gear. That said, neutral hosting is an approach that is going to be ultimately cheaper to deploy and more widely supported by councils so perhaps there will be room for negotiation.”
What are the 5G revenue possibilities for councils?
Heydon says reports that 5G could be a cash cow for councils have been greatly exaggerated. “For one, the carriers are under continual pressure to lower their operating costs and generate revenue from this very expensive deployment,” he says.
Councils aren’t the only bodies with sites to rent. “The state governments are involved, as are energy suppliers and water suppliers. Everyone is thinking: ‘We can sell capacity and locations to telcos and make lots of money.’ But the process will be competitive. There’s just not as much money to be made as some people think.”
What 5G myths need to be debunked?
Heydon notes that conspiracy theories about 5G contributing to all manner of ills, from coronavirus to cancer, seem to be fading away. But councils are still likely to face questions from constituents about the state of the 5G roll-out and whether it’s even necessary.
“For starters, there’s a significant percentage of people who think they’ve already got 5G,” he says. “Partly, it’s because there’s already been a huge amount of advertising.”
The vast majority of Australians can’t access 5G yet. “Even if they are in an area with coverage, most current phones don’t support 5G,” Heydon says.
Heydon believes some constituents may question the need for more high-speed infrastructure, given the ongoing NBN roll-out. “They might say: ‘If you’ve got 5G, why do you need the NBN?’ And vice versa.”
The answer, according to Heydon, is that neither technology has the capacity to support the needs of the entire population. “If everyone used just one, it would be disastrous. You need both.”
Geof Heydon will be a featured speaker at IPWEA’s International Public Works Conference in Adelaide where he will hold a ‘5G Masterclass for Councils and Other Infrastructure Managers’ on Wednesday 3 November.