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Complications and roadblocks: the nbn experience

NBN Cooks Hill

© Nbn

  • Fibre’s superiority to the premise may involve a faulty premise
  • The fibre fetish and why it might be holding the industry back
  • To say that fibre might not be the ultimate solution is to commit heresy, so we won’t

It’s notable that even when launching an FTTx product, the launchers will almost certainly genuflect in the direction of the ‘f’ word. “Of course,” they’ll say, “we all know and accept  that the optimum solution in the long run is full fibre to the premises.” They will then lay out what sounds rather like a whole bunch of economic and operational reasons why, in fact, FTTP is not necessarily the long-term, gold-plated optimum solution for everyone.

To say so, however, is to commit heresy, so in keeping with industry wisdom we won’t be saying it here (just post your hate messages below).

In fact there should be a reappraisal now, especially in Australia, where experience seems to show that a mix of ‘fibre to the...’ technologies to suit different operational and customer circumstances gives you a much better chance of building a broadband network that everyone can love.  

Yesterday we explored the history of Australia’s nbn and its latest announcement of support -  this time for G.fast FTTC technology. Today we’ll highlight the nbn experience as gleaned from a conversation with nbn’s  Executive Manager of Corporate Media, Tony Brown. If there’s a lesson here it’s that a broadband network deployer might be best forgetting about technology down at the bits, bytes and acronyms level, and think about the complexity of that deployment instead. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a need for more flexibility and more broadband options to give customers what they actually need.  Just saying.

So here are the problems and complexities in no particular order

“Nature strips,” says Tony. These are the strips of land - complete with grass and trees - between the footpath and the road. “Homeowners are convinced it’s their land so they get a nasty shock when an ugly cabinet appears on it. Then they find out it’s actually council land and they get twice as angry. Then, when it needs to be remediated after muddy boots etc have been all over it, they expect it to be turfed. But the installers don’t go around with a mountain of turf on their trucks -  they reseed. So that’s a big problem.”

But the most difficult areas are not classic suburban streets but in semi-rural areas and on the city fringes where the houses are spread out, from the road and from each other.

“Big difference between the nbn and any other network in the world  is that with nbn it’s  mandatory to connect. Back in ‘P days’ (when nbn was laying fibre to all ‘P’remises) those living in semi rural areas on say 1.5 to 2 acre blocks tended not to site their houses by the road -  they could be several hundred feet or more back from the road and that meant huge expense to dig your way up their drive.  But you had to do it, whatever the cost.”

Likewise in towns and cities. “Getting permission to do things is really complex and councils were rightly protective of their high value heritage areas -  any damage had to be fixed up.” Again, very expensive.  

“Every premises had to get a fibre connection, even the retirement homes.  On one such home in Western Australia we had about 500 premises and it was going to cost $1 million to connect it.  That’s just silly.” Each resident had a little room and each little room got a fibre ONT. The majority probably didn’t want broadband anyway.

What about wireless broadband to the home - is that a solution?

“No, we don’t have the spectrum and even if we did, it’s problematic. Taking people off a fixed line connection and putting them onto a wireless one, even one that performed just as well as their old fixed one, would be perceived as a mickey-mouse step down.”

But fibre is sometimes the least expensive option too!

“Where there is no mains power to power the micro-node you had to go back to PON and fibre. With one example we had to drag fibre up a 678 meters’ long  drive at a cost of A$45,000.

“Then again, getting power to the node can be extremely expensive in semi-rural areas too, sometimes up to $200, 000,” he says.

Grrrr. Don’t come to my premises!

“People hate other people coming into their premises especially when they’ve been ‘forced’ to make this change when, in many cases, they were happy with the limited solution they had - such as just a phone. They hate having to make an appointment when that appointment might be missed by either side.

“So the goal with fttc in the longer term is to have a self-install mechanism in place with smooth activation that takes five to ten minutes of disruption at a maximum.”

So forget about the technology again for a moment. A major advantage to an FTTx install process is that it doesn’t mean burly men with boots and utility belts must come tramping over your roses and into your property.  With FTTN and soon with  FTTC, customers will get near gigabit speed without the angst. The key, says Tony,  is to be flexible with the access technology. “

So yes, FTTP could be expensive, but most heartbreaking of all, it was just so slow to arrive and there were some terrible sob stories, said Tony.

“People had to drive back to their office in the evening to help their kids do homework.  Others had to make plans to move because they had to work at home and they needed a broadband connection. This brought home to me  the crucial nature of the technology  -  and they didn’t care whether it was fibre or wire.

“Now (that it’s not just fibre) we have a flexible approach to broadband and we can install quickly.  By installing a micronode on a street that could previously only be serviced by very slow ADSL we can keep the cost down to about A$5000 per household  -  that’s still very high by international standards. , but  if we  had to dig up every drive to lay fibre the cost would have been $10,000 to $15,000 -  and, just as important, the pace of roll-out would have had to be much slower.

My bet is that if and when the copper data  technology runs out of steam (and there may be some way to go before that happens) the next step will not be that dreaded dig up the drive but wireless-wireline aggregation with a radio connection added to at least double top end  speeds, with the added attraction of providing a second channel for resilience should one of the two drop out.

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