Why the HFC is no NBN alternative: A sob story

Summary:If you're going to design a network and call it consumer-grade, it actually has to be able to cope with the massive data demands of your average consumer.

Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband Malcolm Turnbull has tried to generate a popular insurrection based on NBN Co's decision to buy Optus and Telstra out of the cable internet business. He has shouted until was nearly blue in the face that our Asian neighbours would never consider such a move with their cable infrastructure. But he has never been to my house at around 5:30pm on any weekday, or at nearly any time over the weekend.

HFC is barely present-proof, much less future-proof.(Grapvinesnail picture by Jürgen Schoner, CC BY-SA 3.0; F-type connector picture by Colin, CC BY-SA 3.0)

If he had, I reckon he would simply stop mentioning the HFC networks altogether. Because, as anybody who actually uses our shared HFC networks knows all too well, their real-world performance has degraded over the years and, if current trends continue, will be so thoroughly bogged down that the only alternative will be the NBN — Labor's fibre one, that is.

I know this because the Optus technician — who came out a few days ago to check out my HFC service and try to figure out why it was inexplicably throwing errors and was basically refusing to let me on the internet — told me so.

For some time, I had noticed that the speed and responsiveness of the service had been suffering noticeable lags (and by lags, I mean that it was so slow that Chrome was regularly reporting that it was unable to connect to the internet).

Web pages would half-load, if at all. Pages with Flash elements would have big, gaping holes in their midst. Smartphone, iPad, and desktop applications that require online connectivity simply couldn't function. At all.

You can understand my excitement when, after a protracted support session in which an Optus technician said that the connection seemed OK, but the modem was making an unusually large number of attempts to re-home onto the network, I thought I had identified the cause.

And you can imagine my disappointment when the aforementioned tech came out, poked his head, flipped a few switches, and proclaimed that the modem was working absolutely fine.

"It's just congestion," he said during the post-investigation wrap up. "Every night, the kids come home from school and turn on the Xboxes, and start streaming movies, surfing on their iPads, and Skyping each other."

"Will Optus fix the situation, and if not, what could we do about it?" I asked, already knowing full well what the answer would be.

"We'll have to wait for the NBN," he laughed, and drove off to his next job.

That's well and grand, but like most Australians, my home is in an area that's not even rating a "coming in three years" designation on the NBN rollout map. That's OK: I understand it takes time. But in the meantime, I — along with what I gather are hundreds of thousands of other Australians — will just have to tap our fingers while our party-line broadband services continue fighting the neighbours for usable bandwidth.

Shelling out a few billion for a network that reaches about 1 million homes might seem logical to Turnbull, but buyer's remorse would quickly set in when the heavier loads send the HFC network into a tailspin. It would be like finding and buying your dream beach home, then finding it's irreparably infested with termites.

Cable can perform well when nobody's using it. As someone who works from home more often than not, I'm quite happy with the responsiveness during the daytime hours, when people with office jobs are all in the city, surfing the web using their employers' fast broadband connections.

Optus will no doubt raise the point that home cable broadband is a best-effort service that is designed for consumers, but doesn't offer guaranteed SLAs, as do business services. That's why they're cheaper, of course; you get what you pay for.

This may have been a valid excuse in the past, but it no longer really flies. Optus (and, I assume, Telstra, to which I do not yet subscribe) may think its cable is a consumer-grade service, but it was designed for the consumer of 1997 — not the consumer of 2012, 2022, or 2032.

If you're going to design a network and call it consumer-grade, it actually has to be able to cope with the massive data demands of your average consumer. And that means dishing up streaming video, online games, good-speed broadband, bandwidth for mobile devices, and more. Simply hanging up the "closed" sign when demand gets a bit challenging isn't good enough — even on a consumer service.

In his defence, I suspect Turnbull's blind allegiance to our 15-year-old HFC infrastructure comes from a sort of unintentional ignorance. Like most politicians, after all, he's travelling near constantly, and probably doesn't get much of a chance to experience the real performance of what I assume is a cable service in his home. His much-loved iPad promiscuously attaches itself to whatever Wi-Fi network (connected to some building's fixed-broadband service) is near him, and Turnbull loudly proclaims that HFC is going to save us because he hasn't actually had to deal with its idiosyncrasies.

Optus, which has practically jumped at the opportunity to offload its cable network, knows them better than most. It's been coasting along on HFC momentum for some time, particularly as a growing number of people defect from the fixed-line services that have crumbled to dust underneath them. But with a clear sunset date on the horizon, I doubt we can expect much in the way of HFC upgrades any time soon; there is just too much more 4G kit to be bought and installed.

Optus may think its cable is a consumer-grade service, but it was designed for the consumer of 1997 — not the consumer of 2012, 2022 or 2032.

Would a Coalition-run NBN Co renegotiate with Optus to buy its HFC network, just as it seems ready to do with Telstra's copper? I certainly hope not: shelling out a few billion for a network that reaches about 1 million homes might seem logical to Turnbull, but buyer's remorse would quickly set in when even heavier loads send the HFC network into a tailspin.

It would be like finding and buying your dream beach home, then finding it's irreparably infested with termites.

I'm not the only one with grave concerns about a mooted reliance on HFC long-term. The other day, I heard Graeme Samuel — the Graeme Samuel who headed the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for eight years, and enjoyed a notoriously combative relationship with the intransigent Sol Trujillo —  get stuck into his own cable service .

Samuel joked (at least, I think it was a joke) that he intentionally tells his neighbours that Telstra's HFC service is "hopeless," just so they won't sign up for it — and he will have less contention to fight. Of course, they believe him; wouldn't you?

What Samuel, I, and countless others are relating is the reality of HFC in this country: it was designed in the late 1990s for traffic volumes that are orders of magnitude less than what networks are now carrying. It has become a refuge for people who, like me, have found their ADSL services horrendously wanting , and just want to be able to get online when they want to.

HFC is great for carrying cable TV, and better than a kick to the head when it comes to broadband. But it is barely present-proof, much less future-proof. And yet, somehow, despite these facts, despite its extremely limited footprint, despite the fact that it will never be expanded, it has become a key pillar in Turnbull's NBN alternative policy.

Call me cynical, but HFC is not going to save Australia's broadband. It may hold us over until a proper NBN can be put in place, but without a longer-term vision, our love of internet-connected gadgets is going to end up creating a digital logjam as we suffocate on our own bandwidth.

It's a worrying future, and one that I would be happy to demonstrate to Turnbull at around 5:30 any weeknight. Come on down, the kettle's on the boil.

What do you think? Is there still life in HFC? Should the government buy Optus' HFC network and somehow make it work better? Or is it, indeed, headed down the gurgler, one new streaming-media TV at a time?

Topics: NBN, Optus, Telcos, Telstra

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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