As millions of Australian homes wait for the NBN to reach their door, Lightning Broadband is deploying a wireless network promising fibre-like download speeds to suburban users.
Starting in Melbourne's inner suburbs with plans to extend to other state capitals, Lightning Broadband is connecting homes and businesses via 5.8 GHz microwave links capable of delivering 100 Mbps download speeds. The links also support 100 Mbps upload speeds, outpacing uploads on the National Broadband Network's fibre connections. Here's what you need to know.
The service has already signed up its first customers in Melbourne's inner east and the rollout will be guided by demand, with the telco accepting registrations of interest online from potential customers, says Lightning Broadband's Australian founder Jeremy Rich.
"There's huge interest in high speed broadband but the NBN was announced back in 2007 and we got sick of waiting for it to arrive," Rich says. "I think a lot of people are disappointed by the NBN, not just with the speed of the rollout but also the performance — some people get very high speeds because they're close to the nodes but other people are very disappointed."
"We're not just interested in the NBN's fibre to the node areas, I think anyone who is not satisfied with their internet connection — no matter what the technology — is a potential customer for Lightning Broadband."
The service offers unlimited downloads, with residential customers choosing from one of four speed tiers starting at 25 Mbps up and down for $75 per month, topping out at 100 Mbps up and down for $120 per month. Lightning Broadband also offers Voice over IP, but not standard home phone services.
Lightning Broadband is deploying microwave transmitters on tall buildings, connected to the telco's core network via 24 GHz microwave backhaul links to main towers which are connected to gigabit fibre.
Residential customers within a two kilometre radius share a microwave transmitter, requiring a microwave dish on their roof which is installed as part of the $499 set-up fee (which comes with a two-year contract). Internet traffic is not relayed between homes as a rule, meaning each home generally requires direct line of sight with the transmitter, although relays have been set up in a handful of locations.
Business customers can sign up for a dedicated 1000 Mbps microwave link which doesn't share a transmitter with other users. Lightning Broadband also offers services to developers and body corporates.
The service promises speeds of "up to 100 Mbps" to residential customers, with low latency ping times typically less than 5 milliseconds. Lightning Broadband performs a site survey before installation, Rich says, and will only sign up customers for speed tiers they can realistically achieve allowing for their distance from the transmitter and the terrain. The telco will meet its performance commitments by not allocating too many homes to the same microwave transmitter.
"Melbourne is a great starting point and Adelaide shows a lot of potential," Rich says.
"Topography is obviously more of a factor in a city like Sydney, but there's also a high population density which makes it easier to find a critical mass of potential customers in a small area so their nearby transmitter doesn't have to reach as far."
Lightning Broadband's 100 Mbps offering sounds impressive - and mainstream media is taking notice.
Lightning Broadband launches as the NBN enters its second major construction phase which will connect another three million premises by September 2018, adding fibre to the node and HFC pay TV cables to the Multi-Technology Mix. The NBN faces competition from several metropolitan fixed-wireless broadband operators, although residential-based services tend to rely on 4G mobile network rather than short-range microwave links which are generally reserved for business-grade services.
With Australia abandoning a nationwide fibre to the premises rollout, microwave has a role to play, says Australian telecommunications analyst Paul Budde. It's been one of the most resilient network technologies over the last two decades and continues to improve.
"In metropolitan areas fibre optic networks are increasingly replacing microwave links, but outside these areas microwave will still have at least another decade of life in it. In the end it will continue to exist as a niche market technology for specific terrains and specific services," Budde says.
"Other point to point fixed-wireless technologies are also making inroads in densely populated metro areas. The recently announced high level spectrum auctions (25GHz+) in the USA will open the way for yet another set of wireless technologies, as will the various flavours of 5G."
While a microwave-based service could potentially cover an entire city with fibre-like broadband speeds, Lightning Broadband's Rich says the economics would not stack up in some areas.
"Everything comes at a cost, sure you could cover an entire city with Lightning Broadband but you'd need to put up a lot more transmitters and towers, even in places where it might not be economical because you're only servicing a few customers," he says.
"In those areas cables would make more sense but of course fixed-line cabling can also be expensive, so it's really a matter of looking at each area and choosing the right technology for the job."