FttN cabinets, skills significant threats to Coalition's NBN: NBN Co

Summary:NBN Co advice for incoming minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that issues around the deployment and electrification of fibre-to-the-node (FttN) cabinets, as well as problems retraining NBN Co and subcontractor staff, would contribute to the project missing key milestones.

The reliance of fibre-to-the-node (FttN) technology on individually powered 'nodes' will demand "a higher degree of skills" than FttP and present major issues for the Coalition government's alternative NBN plan, advice prepared by NBN Co for incoming communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has warned.

The NBN Co-authored 'Blue Book' – which contains over 500 pages of background and advice for the incoming minister on the national broadband network (NBN) and other issues across his portfolio – continues to be suppressed by Turnbull despite widespread calls for its release.

An extensive draft report – prepared during by NBN Co at the request of the former Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), and intended to form part of the Blue Book – indicates that the need to retrain the workforce of NBN Co and its many subcontractors would pose a significant risk to the rollout.

Powering the nodes would not only require completion of negotiations with power companies to physically deliver the power, but would introduce major retraining requirements and delays as rollout of the FttN cabinets came under scrutiny of local councils.

The report, excerpts of which were obtained by Fairfax Media, warned that the project was "unlikely" to meet Turnbull's election promise of delivering 25Mbps to all Australian premises by 2016.

Turnbull's secondary goal, of deploying 50Mbps to 90 percent of premises by 2019, was also likely to be missed unless a long list of complex and significant issues was resolved within approximately the next 18 months.

The report says the design and deployment of the FttN 'nodes' – 50,000 to 70,000 of which will be installed throughout Australia's suburbs under the Coalition's model – is one of those major issues for several reasons.

Powering the nodes would not only require completion of negotiations with power companies to physically deliver the power, but would introduce major retraining requirements and delays as rollout of the FttN cabinets came under scrutiny of local councils.

"The current process for approvals for the existing FTTP fibre build could potentially be modified to enable a VDSL2 rollout," the report warned.

"However, there may be greater sensitivity from communities and local government around the placement of larger (compared to an FDH in an FTTP rollout) powered cabinets that would be required to house the nodes of a VDSL2 network."

The size of the FttN nodes has been a focal point for the network's critics, with comedy show The Chaser going so far as to roll one of the nearly 2m-tall cabinets outside Turnbull's electorate office in a pre-election sketch. (video below, skip to 15:45)

There were more serious issues with the cabinets than just their size, however: because the nodes require individual power, the NBN Co guidance warns that their installation will require field technicians to have a higher level of skills than those on the current FttP rollout.

"Existing FTTP contracts with workforce resource providers may potentially be re-directed towards a VDSL2 rollout," the report advises, "however a higher degree of skills would be required for an FTTN network rollout given the need to connect active equipment to power in the field."

"Changes in scope would lead to re-negotiations of contracts and may impact on project costs and timing. Additional Program Office resources may be required at NBN Co to manage the changes in network design."

Difficulties in recruiting, training and keeping subcontractors had already been rife during the existing NBN rollout, with unions agitating for more money and staff issues contributing to the August decision of former NBN Co contractor Syntheo to walk away  from its contract. Unions have argued that telecommunications-industry training should focus on building broad skills for the industry rather than focusing on the NBN alone. 

Topics: NBN, Australia, Broadband, Government : AU

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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