What do solar panels and high-speed internet have in common? Quite a lot, according to Melbourne businessman Jeremy Rich. After selling his solar panel business, Energy Matters, to US juggernaut Sun Edison, Mr Rich has created a new company, and has the government-owned NBN in his sights.
Lightning Broadband uses a mix of fibre-optic cable and wireless technology. Mr Rich said this allowed the company to deliver speeds up to three times faster that the NBN, which is steadily being rolled out across Australia.
Asked why he was jumping on the internet after solar panels, Mr Rich said it wasn’t as big a leap as most people thought.
“There are a lot of parallels to energy. Broadband is being classed as an essential service,” he said.
“In energy, there is also a transition from fossil fuels to renewables, which is gaining huge momentum. The same is happening in broadband with the change in copper, coaxial cable in the ground to fibre-optic cable and trying to connect all the homes and businesses in Australia to that high-speed network.
“There is a lot of fibre in the ground. It’s just a matter of connecting individual residences, new developments and businesses to that fibre-optic network in an efficient and effective manner. That’s where the opportunity exists to be able to connect homes to high-speed internet. And it’s a short window of opportunity before others start to do that.”
Mr Rich said the challenge most businesses faced was funding the “last mile” of fibre network from a home to the “backbone” of the internet, which can be expensive.
But here’s where another parallel with the energy sector can help.
“Interestingly enough, a lot of the energy distributors run fibre cables in line with their poles and wire infrastructure. Obviously they want to get capacity utilisation of that fibre because that increases their returns dramatically.
“And typically fibre is not even close to being used at its full capacity, so they’re happy to share those networks with you – but it only gets you so far.”
And this is where the wireless technology comes in.
“If it’s a multi-dwelling residence and you have a lot of users … and businesses, you light up the whole building with a fixed network, but if it’s dispersed, you use a high-speed, short-range wireless technology.
“Typically you can get up to 300 mbps, which is three times faster than what the NBN is claiming.”
Mr Rich started connecting homes in Melbourne’s outer east, where internet reception was generally poor, with people relying on 4G mobile connections. It is now slowly spreading closer to the CBD, operating in St Kilda and with Hawthorn and Richmond to be connected soon.
But the wireless technology, while being more cost effective than installing fibre-optic cable and able to operate during extreme weather, is limited by a home or business being in the line of sight of one of the company’s towers.
“It’s not like mobile technology in that it can bend around hills etc,” Mr Rich said.