Why the HFC is no NBN alternative: A sob story

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.

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TOPICS: NBN, Telcos, Optus, Telstra
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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, Telcos, Optus, Telstra

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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Talkback

57 comments
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  • Wow I beat Richard to poll position...

    Yes, I think everyone but the most ardent Coalition stalwart accepts HFC is obsolete.

    And almost as obsolete as the copper that the MT also clings to.
    RS-ef540
    • David presents a convincing argument

      I wonder if Turnbull will take-up his offer? :-)
      Wakemewhentrollsgone
    • Except that...

      I've just recently upgraded to HFC over ADSL 2+ and now have a wonderful 116Mbit/s that I wouldn't normally have over ADSL (too far away from the exchange), AND NBN is not going anywhere near my address which is in the 'burbs of Adelaide.

      So I'm for one VERY HAPPY with HFC thank you.
      tropolite
      • Err

        And it's all about you...
        RS-ef540
        • All about me, and others

          in this situation it is.
          My point is HFC has a part to play in the grand scheme of things. If it wasn't available there is no way I'd have access to NBN even at completion as it isn't planned in my part of the 'burbs, and there are many others in that region too.

          There are those that could benefit from HFC and FTTH and Sat. No 'one' option will do for all...
          #Justsayin
          tropolite
          • SO it was about you

            Really, 93% of Fibre Australia would get, which is much higher than other countries that Malcolm has been peddling (New Zealand, UK, France, USA to name a few).
            DanielZenno
          • Come again

            You're saying you're in a suburb with HFC that's not planned to get NBN fibre? If so, I will stake my life and all my possessions that you're wrong.
            karl_w_w
      • HFC is used to deliever high speed broadband in many markets

        Presumably the author believes his issue (thankfully the NBN never has them;-) is worth spending $63b to fix.
        Richard Flude
        • The term "USED"

          At what point do you believe the NBN will ever be $63 billion to fix?

          Telstra sale was $50 billion just to "sell".

          And The Coalition Party think's it all GOOD.
          DanielZenno
        • Wrong again, Richie FUD

          "spending $63b"
          It's not spending, it's investing.
          It's not investing $63b, it's investing $40b.

          "HFC is used to deliever high speed broadband in many markets"
          Yes, in markets where it was built long ago and remains capable of decent speeds. Nobody is investing in new HFC now because it is old hat, are you saying we should spend $40 node splitting HFC when it will only last 5 years? $30b? What about $20b? What, do you think upgrading HFC is free? Heck, in a lot of places it needs an upgrade to become acceptable NOW, let alone acceptable when you add millions of people to it and expect it to last for even a short-term future.

          "Presumably the author" I would assume so, most smart people do.
          karl_w_w
        • Summary translation of all of Richard's comments into one - here...

          Richard has become incensed that we, without any proof whatsoever of course... but asked for many times :/ …do not believe his claims that he is a high flying ICT businessman.

          So let's be fair and indulge Richard for a moment in that context, by summarizing and translating all of Richard's comments (with full explanatory notes) into one...

          What Richard has said so far...

          _______

          "The NBN is a waste of (place laughable inflated figure supplied by MT&Co here) taxpayer money from this hopeless Labor government who couldn't buy a r**t in a brothel swinging a wad of $100's. It will fail and be an unmitigated disaster, as all Labor projects are.

          I have no evidence to support any of this, but it's a given... because I said and I am the most knowledgeable, experienced (and handsome ;) person to ever grace ZDNet!

          With my experience and brilliance as CIO (later inferred to be CEO) of a company who rolls out IT projects (which later morphed into rolling out comms projects...) the likes of which you script kiddies could only dream about, you leftist scum should all bow down to my comments accordingly... I also have (again unproven) a Masters in Commerce, head a larger and better company than you could ever be involved with and I make lots of money. You obviously do not.... take your dole money and go get a haircut.

          Anyway, bring on 2013 when this folly of Labor wastage and mismanagement will end and the Coalition's (with a man's, man PM ;) FttN, which I accept is inferior to FttP, will begin.

          Now relating to your strawman/ad hominem/personal attacks... no I am not biased at all in relation to this hopeless Labor government and their endless procession of lies, they simply suck as Labor always have and always will. All I am saying is, these leftist liars who suck, know absolutely nothing about anything. As opposed to the practically perfect in every way Coalition (whom I do not favour at all, what ever gave you such an idea, can you read)... Well, perfect, apart from not having a detailed comms policy, which I accept, but I know there’s will be better anyway, even though I do not favour them whatsoever, because they simply have all of all of the answers, all of the time, amen.

          Sp as the CIO (or CEO, what day is it) of a company who rolls out comms projects, I can tell you that your tax revenue should come straight from your own hip pockets (not borrowed money to repaid by NBN access and ergo not income taxpayer revenue)... to pay for FttN. All we need to do is reduce the budgetary money spent on say, hospitals and schools. Then these funds/subsidies taken from hospitals and schools, should be channelled (by the wonderful and eminently more capable Coalition government - who I am not associated with or biased towards in any way) to private companies who roll out comms projects.

          Companies, much LIKE MINE, for example... so that I CAN BUILD AND OWN your FttN comms network, using your direct tax revenue. That way I will own a valuable asset and will profit from it, not you the taxpayer.

          Of course, when FttP is required, we simply repeat the steps directly above and I will once again place my snout snuggly back in the trough and build and own that too!

          Seriously how can you not see this is the best way to go, leftist NBN zealots.”

          ___________

          Think that about covers it.
          RS-ef540
          • Eloquently put...

            But I wouldn't even bother indulging him. He's somewhere between a troll, biased, completely misinformed, or simply an outright moron- with multiple personality disorder to boot.

            It's really not worth your time responding to the drivel he comes up with, and as you can see from the majority of other comments about the NBN, he isn't fooling anybody anyway. Save your breath.
            RealismBias
          • Indeed...

            "But I wouldn't even bother indulging him. He's somewhere between a troll, biased, completely misinformed, or simply an outright moron- with multiple personality disorder to boot."

            I think you just said what I did RealismBias, but much more succinctly... LOL

            Good point too :)
            RS-ef540
          • Jees

            Eloquently put? Unfortunately that's the problem with Australia today - you think the ramblings of some 20-something is eloquent?

            There was no argument in that spittle filled post other than this:

            'not borrowed money to repaid by NBN access and ergo not income taxpayer revenue'

            That's the only argument I ever see for proponents of the NBN. The rest is always drivel about left vs right and injected supercilious comments.

            I got news for you - regardless if its borrowed money, or taxpayer money. It still needs to be paid back.

            I agree on one thing though, he should save his breath.
            PipBoy78
          • Gee missed this one...

            My my, a new one (ahem) who sounds just like all the old ones :/

            Spittle filled post and drivel...?

            I see your own hypocrisy about eloquence and making valid points (hint - you did neither) has gone straight over your own head. GOLD. All that was missing for you to be the complete hypocrite, was to cry personal attack/ad hominem/strawman/troll as the other (ahem) naysayers with NFI always do... (after having just done exactly what they are sobbing about themselves) *sigh*

            20 something...LOL. Back in my day son... back to the 50's with you... oh sorry you never left did you?

            Unlike other infrastructure which may be built by debt, the government is guarantor for loans to build the NBN which will be repaid by NBN patronage... I.e. ROI... NOT TAXATION REVENUE! Got it now?

            If you want to debate the issues time to harden-up and get some facts. Sad part is, once you dinosaurs have the facts and realise you are wrong, you are in too deep, too set in your ultra-conservative ways and just too dam stubborn to admit you're wrong.

            I'm yet to see even one rational anti-NBN argument, but feel free to give it a shot (that's your cue to go MIA - tiger).
            RS-ef540
          • Time to put your money where your mouth is

            I've never claimed labor couldn't buy sex in a brothel, indeed they had until recently a member that did exactly that using union funds. VIC police expect charges to be laid soon, far too long IMO. Thomson is not alone.

            Labor list of failed projects is unprecendented, eclipsing the terminally bad Whitlam government.

            I've never been a member if the Liberal Party.

            I've never claimed to be a CEO, I am a CIO of an ITC company. My successful career spans over two decades.

            I have a B.App.Sci(ComSci), GradDipEcon and MComm.

            It is clear from your posts that you've little to no commerical experience. Your arrogance only exceeded by your ignornace.

            I've tried to be polite. I'm happy to wager AUD10,000 my claims are true. Remembering there is no anonymity on the Internet I ask you agree in this forum for ZDNet to waive your privacy and make available to me their web server logs. I'm happy to meet you with documentary evidence supporting my claims in any Australian capital city. I believe the above wager, if accepted, to be a contract defensible in our courts.

            Over the decade I've been on ZDNet posting under my own name I've never witnessed the patheic standard of debate as that surrounding this NBN topic. I believe it to be a clear reflection on the failing standards of education in our country.
            Richard Flude
          • Blah...

            LOL... wouldn't it be easier for you just to tell us ALL which company and your conquests...?

            Remember, it is you who started this by mocking my anonymity (as I am rightly allowed) and YOU making these unfounded claims.

            I have claimed nothing here except that I know more about the NBN and comms history than you. The fact I had to educate you, as you didn't know basics such as the Panel of Experts or that NBN specific bonds/securities aren't available yet, proves it.

            Now it's your turn walk the walk... instead of squirming the squirm.

            And if you aren't the CEO, perhaps you shouldn't infer that you are - 15/10 - "I lead a company with over 10k data acquisition devices in the field"!

            Lastly, I agree with you...

            "... I've never witnessed the patheic standard of debate as that surrounding this NBN topic. I believe it to be a clear reflection on the failing standards of education in our country."

            Good thing we are getting an NBN to solve "your" problem :)
            RS-ef540
          • I take it that's a no

            I didn't think so. At least now we know. All hot air.
            Richard Flude
          • Oh, please my sides are splitting with laughter...

            LOL, deflect it back to me...nice strawman and great tap dancing...

            You refuse to back your big mouth... apparently it's all my fault for YOU mouthing off and talking *&^%... GOLD.

            READ MY LIPS - I choose to stay anonymous, your mouth has shot off...now back the mouth! We are waiting, man or mouse????

            BTW - haven't seen you mentioning your $4K per house for the NBN since Mr NuSkope told you his company could charge as much as $15K... sigh

            Sorry Richard you are now categorised as ZERO CRED... so as per your previous comments (in your name) here at ZD relating to operating systems, please stick to what you do best, bagging MS and leave the NBN to us men.

            Thank you
            RS-ef540
          • http://www.beonic.com.au

            well there is a guy called Richard claiming to be the CIO of this company.

            It sells equipment which counts traffic
            Yettie79