FttB success unearths skeletons in Labor's NBN basement

FttB success unearths skeletons in Labor's NBN basement

Summary: The Coalition is stealing easy runs with a fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) approach to delivering broadband to multi dwelling units (MDUs) that Labor could and should have implemented long ago.


For all of the visionary things that Labor's NBN model represented, its position towards multi-dwelling units (MDUs) was never among its finest.

That a company that achieved so much in its first four years, is still wrestling with the idea of how to deliver broadband to apartment blocks that account for a significant portion of our population, remains a weak spot in the former government's broadband vision.

Skeletons. CC BY-SA 3.0 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:S%C3%A9pulture_de_Teviec_(5).jpg
Labor could have boosted rollout numbers but instead buried fibre-to-the-basement's promise. Image: CC BY-SA 3.0 Didier Descouens

While the likely real-world performance of fibre-to-the-node (FttN) technology is still very much up in the air when it comes to broad deployment across our suburbs, it is hardly drawing a long bow to suggest that the placement of those nodes in the basement of an apartment block would be the most painless way of delivering well-specced broadband to large numbers of people.

The cables between the basement and each individual unit in the block are ideally suited for supporting VDSL2 technology – being both physically short and, in most cases, far younger than the copper network services on the same street if only because MDUs have typically been constructed more recently than the surrounding houses.

Labor's insistence on running fibre to every apartment block represented a blind spot in the party's broadband vision that, while perhaps admirable in its consistency, was also fatally flawed in that its dogmatic insistence deferred what should have been an easy element of the rollout.

There is nothing in the word 'premises', after all, that mandates the delivery of fibre to every single apartment; 'premises' could just as faithfully have been used to refer to an entire MDU, with the aggregate capacity for its usage delivered over one fibre-optic cable that is more than up to the task.

Ex CEO Mike Quigley recently addressed the MDU issue in a speech to TelSoc, euphemistically calling it "a challenge" but noting despite there being just 500 MDUs cabled by mid-year.

However, he added, improving deliver mechanisms meant "well over" 2000 buildings had been fully fibred by the end of September, with around 200 new buildings being cabled per week. "It was following the usual curve of being slow to start, but once the process is sorted out, the output increases rapidly," Quigley said.

While it insisted on following a path consistent with its fibre-everywhere model, Labor could have delivered an entirely acceptable outcome by implementing the fibre-to-the-basement (FttB) model about which communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is now crowing loudly and enthusiastically.

There is nothing in the word 'premises' that mandates the delivery of fibre to every single apartment; 'premises' could just as faithfully have been used to refer to an entire MDU, with the aggregate capacity for its usage delivered over one fibre-optic cable that is more than up to the task.

This approach would have been consistent with Labor's vision and resolved what has become an unnecessarily complicated technological problem, while letting the previous government talk up the tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands more satisfied customers by the time it went to the election.

Now, Turnbull will seize that crown, shouting the merits of the FttB rollout far and wide and reinforcing his argument that his rollout approach is both faster and more effective than Labor's.

It's an own-goal that Labor should never have allowed, and it will be the thin end of the wedge by which Turnbull will extrapolate undeserved merits to an FttN-based NBN model that is still fundamentally flawed for a range of other reasons including copper condition, limited service-provider options, unkown in-home wiring condition, product-restricting revenue shortfalls, and the need to be a monopoly in a way that complicates the Coalition's technological transition models.

The difference between FttB and FttN, of course, is that the conditions of the Telstra network in the big, wide world are much different than the conditions of what must surely be relatively well-preserved internal wiring inside a solid, environmentally isolated apartment block. MDU wiring may have its idiosyncrasies, but logic suggests that it is better known than the Wild West that is the Telstra copper in general.

Using short lengths of existing internal wiring presents little or no issue with asbestos; no flooding, debris buildup, or patchwork fix-it solutions that involve the repair of network issues using plastic bags in a Telstra repair conceit that CEPU official Shane Murphy recently called “a culture of quantity over quality”.

These issues are hinted at in the Strategic Review but remain far from resolved – or, even, quantified. And while the review was quick to take on faith that FttN is a cheaper alternative to FttP, the enduring lack of real, public information about the true cost and extent of copper remediation necessary to fix the network – which NBN Co recently told the government would be four to six times as expensive as fibre to maintain – remains a bugbear for any potential future FttN NBN.

If the current government wants to lend real weight to its FttN case, it needs to publish the figures on copper remediation costs that were suppressed during the release of the Strategic Review (N.B.: If you have a copy of these costs and are feeling magnanimous in this Christmas season, I will of course happily and anonymously look after them for you).

It would be a serious mistake for Turnbull to assume that the findings of the review can be taken as gospel – or that the cheapest option outlined in the report will ipso facto be the best one.

The as-yet-unknown quantity that is Telstra's network is a glaring problem that, by extension, taints the validity of the whole rest of the document – and remains fundamental to evaluating whether Turnbull's mixed-technology vision is indeed able to be delivered at the costs suggested.

Remember that NBN Co itself recently suggested that delivering any sort of guaranteed speeds over FttN would require extensive testing of in-home wiring that will, in most cases, be far older than that in the MDUs where NBN Co is now doing its FttB testing.

Then, there is the issue of the network termination device (NTD) – and the method by which it will be delivered to customers. NBN Co advice has already identified the NTD as another significant issue, representing a material cost in terms of additional truck rolls and the establishment of an extensive, complementary customer-service and technical-support infrastructure.

The review offers many options and leaves many questions still unanswered. These will be the subject of intense debate in the months leading up to the revised NBN Co Strategic Plan, and it would be a serious mistake for Turnbull to assume that the findings of the review can be taken as gospel – or that the cheapest option outlined in the report will ipso facto be the best one.

But it is a beginning – and so is FttB. It's not as good as fibre, but in very specific circumstances it unsurprisingly delivers the kind of performance that will support many of the usage models for which fibre is so very well suited. The willingness to proceed with FttB rollouts will help Turnbull put runs on the board – effectively stealing goals from a Labor effort that should have seen the strategic value in thinking just a little bit laterally.

What do you think? Will a rapid FttB rollout give the Coalition's broadband plan some real momentum? Should Labor have compromised its technical absolutism a little to put more runs on the board before the election?

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Fiber, Government AU, Australia


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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  • Superb article. Basically sums up most of my thoughts on the FttB topic. FttB is a good solution for MDUs because running fibre from individual apartments at a later date would also be a possibility. At the end of the day however numbers in spreadsheets are really cool so FttB will give the coalition political momentum but nothing more and it could also end up biting them in the ass. As I alluded to in another article the problem with conflating FttB with FttN is that some people will expect those "blistering" speeds everywhere a node is planted. When it doesn't happen they'll be wondering why and looking for someone to blame.
    Hubert Cumberdale
  • Great article

    I too thought this to be a great plan. The fact that the strategic review quietly suggests FttN with premises actually further than 400m from the node (supposedly to reduce the amount of nodes, in turn to save money) really is a disheartening fact. Utilising current HFC areas (for tone and money savings), FttB for large MDUs, and FttP for the rest really does sound like the best model.

    I didn't mind the idea of FttN (if done right) but considering the unknown quality of copper and that they suggest over 400m loops, it's hard to see the speeds they suggest for the majority of premises passed.
    Andrew Hargrave
  • An unfortunate case of matter over mind

    Labor should never been so dogmatic. They should have let NBNCo. decide the best technology solution, FTTB or FTTP, for each MDU on a case-by-case basis. That way, the largest number of actual premises could have received a jump to >100Mbps (all Labor offered to begin with) and still got 400 or 500 thousand premises passed by the election, instead of the dismal 186 000.

    The Coalition now using these as a measure of "success" for their "pan" is actually devastating. Not for Labor (frankly I don't care), but for Australia. They'll continue to sell the idea that FTTN is just FTTB, but for SDUs.....and then people will have it connected and be lucky to get 25Mbps (recently refused to be guaranteed by NBNCo.) because of the loop length & poor copper quality.

    The Coalition will be able to use FTTB as the "previous success" story....right up until FTTN timeframes and costs blow out ludicrously....but it will be too late to change by then.
    • Case by Case

      And with MDU's it really does need to be case by case. A unit I own in Qld would be totally unsuitable fot FTTB as would many "6 pack" style MDU's as there simply isn't a basement, and the effort in running fibre to each unit isn't significant. An old 4-10 story vertical brick MDU though would be a nightmare to run fibre up old-school risers that had no thought put to comms apart from a 100 pair phone cable. It was as everyone has said, the one blind point in Labors strategy. But this new MTM model is not about flexibility, it's about re-skinning a tired old dog and spending $40bill for 30% of the population.
  • Transpaarency when it suites them.

    The FTTB is fantastic for all those unit dwellers most of whom, live in the big cities but it is of no use the rest of Australia especially county and regional Australia where there are no or very few unit at all..
    It's obvious the tactics of this Government is to, whenever they has anything positive to brag about, have it out to the public faster than lightning. Everything else is kept close to their chests and everything negative blamed on the previous Government.
    I can bet that the FTTN test results will be fudged and only the best outcomes revealed to make them seem acceptable and any poor results will not be published. By the time most houses receive their FTTN broadband and wonder why it is so slow, it will be too late. Fraudband will have arrived.