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

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, Broadband, Government AU, Australia


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  • Here's how we can stop this half-NBN

    QUOTE: "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's it!

    Rally your local council government to prevent these unsightly cabinets going into your street.

    It's better not to get the fiber-to-copper "half NBN". It's better to have no NBN at all. It should be 100% glass fiber or nothing. The half NBN will prevent you from getting fibre when the government changes in the future.
  • six and half dozen

    I would have thought that powering nodes wouldn't be as difficult as powering optic fibre to copper terminating devices in each premises.
    • Training and logistics issues

      Powering the nodes requires new underground power lines, which are sometimes easy to provide and sometimes take a long time for authority approvals etc. But the issue NBN Co identified is that providing skilled engineers to work in a powered FttN environment requires particular electrical certifications etc. – you can't train just anybody to do these FttN installations.

      So, NBN Co won't just be able to automatically have every current FttP installer suddenly start installing FttN into powered nodes. The sort of reskilling required is (a) time-consuming and (b) difficult given the long lead times and extant lack of skilled technicians.

      When there are 60,000 FttN cabinets to do, it gets really hard, really quickly.
    • Plug it into the power point?

      You just plug the network terminating device into an existing mains power socket. Like this:

      Anyone who's capable of plugging an electrical appliance into a power point could do this task. More complicated than installing mains power to a street cabinet?
    • Additional

      Powering the nodes is in addition to powering the customer equipment which will still need a power point to plug into.

      The node will need a new electrical connection and power meter from the mains supply. As such it is no different to getting power connected to a new house. If you have ever done that, you will understand why repeating the exercise 70,000 times is no minor undertaking.
    • No Power Required

      Optical fibre is a passive device all the power comes from the laser at the exchange, there's no modem just a router and a back up battery for black outs, don't need any qualifications to install.

      While FTTN cabinets need 8 to 10 car size batteries, battery charger, air con and heaps of modems and all of it will need replacing every 8 years.
      Mike Keir
      • Always missed

        "all of it will need replacing every 8 years" -- this is always missed. The FttN rollout creates a market scenario where the hardware has a limited lifespan, but because its part of the overall option list, will need to continually be maintained and replaced.

        Maintenance of the 70,000 fridges over the lifespan of FttN will not be insignificant.
    • Cabinet Power: information

      I plan and design the FTTP cabinets so I can give you actual case-scenarios and knowledge of what we are actually installing.

      1/ FTTP Cabinets are large and require a new power supply. To those saying they do not - you have no idea what you are talking about so please stop spreading misinformation.

      2/ from the FTTP cabinets we have FDH's which are not powered, are tiny and can be placed in most nature strips.

      3/ FTTN cabinets are as large as the FTTP cabinets BUT are required where the FDH usually goes. This is a huge issue as placing a FTTN cabinet at a location you would normally place a FDH is an entirely different set of criteria and guidelines.

      Currently - developers (Greenfields areas) do not even like the tiny FDH's and we often need to reposition them in our designs to satisfy developers who worry about amenity and it's effect on sale prices of new lots. Imagine the issue with 2m tall FTTN nodes? ... major headache I do not want.

      The idea that 60,000 odd FTTN nodes will need to be installed is ludicrous.
      If you live in an urban area with existing copper (Brownfields) - just go out in your local streets and look for your local pillar then try and imagine a cabinet being positioned somewhere near this pillar that would be acceptable to council and local residents....now you see the issue.

      As to the copper?
      Leave the copper in the ground as was decided under the FTTP - its a mess.
      I worked on the Telstra CAN prior to NBNCo and the national fibre plan - the people that entered our industry in the last 1-2 years to ride on the NBNCo government contract have very little to zero copper experience or training. Training the current fibre-designers/builders to go back to copper is an enormous task.

      For NBN to take control of Telstra's CAN and manage it has got to be a cruel joke no? Telstra has a hard enough time managing it and they own it, built it and know it's history. For NBN to even attempt this would be corporate suicide and a stain on Australia's name as we become the point of reference for how NOT to do things.
  • took a year.

    Whirlpool members for all know about the powering cabinets issue, as they have looked at "UK Model".

    See: http://www.ispreview.co.uk/index.php/2012/11/bt-openreach-criticise-uk-power-networks-for-costly-fttc-cabinet-installs.html

    Note the article points towards the following:

    "Garfield, whom yesterday denied that BT itself was a monopoly in the superfast broadband market where Virgin Media’s coverage is still technically bigger (at least for a little while longer), warned that the estimated cost of upgrading a cabinets power supply could sometimes jump from around £2,000 to a whopping £25,000 and make the cabinet “non-commercially viable“. Indeed this is one of the issues that affected the Haywards Heath cabinet, which we covered yesterday (here)."

    However, this was all ignored by the usual suspects, in attempt to hide the problems.

    Anyone who thinks that installing nodes and plotting power in is a simple task, you need to get your brain checked.
  • Security to Nodes?

    The intended node cabinets WILL require the complexities of power, air-con, etc. Major operations and maintenance costs and issues, and failure to any one component would cause loss of communications. However, it must be asked - what about the additional consideration to physical and electronic security to the intended Node cabinets and risk to our national communications infrastructure?

    I did a major defence project which relied on O/F to cabinets (I should say no more). Defence had major concerns for security to cabinets "ON BASE" - i.e. only defence personnel allowed to the area. In their mind - anyone could act as man in the middle and manipulate the data, damage the cabinets, etc. Some simple concerns are - Who holds the keys? What physical protection is required? More design considerations on a case by case basis (and at 60K times so)

    Security on the ON THE STREET corners will no doubt be pretty basic and cabinets will be vulnerable.

    For goodness sake - the NBN is critical infrastructure and should not be available to those that could seek to harm our nation. The coalition is constructing something that is jeopardising security to our national (and critical) infrastructure - and this is something I thought would never happen.
    Brian Kelly