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Queensland backhaul provider QCN Fibre is working on a “master proposal” for the $83m Regional Connectivity Program that will draw together projects across rural Queensland into a unified application for the federal co-funding initiative.

The telco is seeking expressions of interest to be part of its proposal.

The state government-owned carrier has around 12,000 kilometres of fibre, which eclipses most backhaul providers in Queensland, CEO Derek Merdith told CommsDay. “With most of these issues, it all comes down to backhaul,” he said. “You can put up a local wi-fi service in any town, but if you can’t get the backhaul the business model fails.”

He said that in regional Queensland there was both demand for better services and the technical capability among wireless ISPs. “It’s the cost of bringing the backhaul that kills the business model,” the CEO said.

The master proposal would cover the extension of QCN’s fibre into towns its network currently passes as well as the infrastructure needed for a local Wi-Fi provider to deliver services.

An example of the kind of project that could be included would be Warwick in south east Queensland, where QCN earlier this year announced it had partnered with Channel Wireless to connect the town.

At the local meat-processing plant, an NBN fixed wireless connection had delivered around 35/8Mbps for a 500-strong workforce. The co-funded wireless rollout now means they’re hitting around 600Mbps downlink, Merdith said.

“Without our involvement, that business model just failed,” he said. “There’s no way that that wi-fi provider could bring the service in because of the cost of the backhaul into the town and the cost of the building the wi-fi infrastructure. So unless we get involved and take a long view of our investment, a lot of these [projects] just don’t happen.”

INTEREST IN PROPOSAL: Merdith told CommsDay there has already been “significant” interest: “It’s everywhere from the Gold Coast to Bundaberg, out through western Queensland, up through the north into Richmond and Julia Creek; it’s everywhere.”

He said that in many regional areas, even if NBN has used a fixed technology to connect a regional town centre, the outskirts are served by fixed wireless or satellite. “The industry tends to be on the periphery of the towns,” the CEO said.

He added that by working alongside the smaller ISPs, QCN could use its “much louder voice in the market” to help get support for projects.

VOCUS DISCUSSIONS: Merdith said that QCN had also approached Vocus, which operates a transmission link funded under the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program, about potentially making a unified proposal to the government.

“Because we’re not competitive — we’re a wholesale backhaul provider — we can talk as a peer to Vocus to say, ‘Let’s partner and do something here,’” the CEO said.

He said that although QCN operates as a for-profit organisation, it had a fundamental social objective of breaking down the digital divide and improving connectivity in regional Queensland. “So as a carrier agnostic backhaul provider, we don’t have competitors in the market — we’re there to fix the problems,” he said.

DIGITAL PIONEERS: QCN has established a LinkedIn group — Digital Pioneers Queensland — which Merdith said hoped would bring together the telco sector to address shortcomings in regional parts of the state.

He said there had historically been a “fragmented” and “ad hoc” approach to addressing regional connectivity.

“What we’re seeing is there’s a lot of issues in pockets but they’re not getting the voice that they need,” he said. “So the idea of the Digital Pioneers is get everyone to talk together as a group and let’s find a common set of objectives and then we’ll work together — whether that’s going to a local council, state government or back up to the feds.”


Article in Communications Day – 8 October 2020 – Reporter: Rohan Pearce