NBN: Fibre to the world

NBN: Fibre to the world

Summary: In this feature, ZDNet explores how fibre deployments across the UK, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States are being achieved, at what cost, whether they have been successful, and how they compare to Australia's NBN.


Independent MP Tony Windsor said famously in deciding to support Prime Minister Julia Gillard in forming a minority government in 2010 that "you do it once, you do it right, and you do it with fibre". Following the Coalition's defeat, newly appointed Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull set out to prove that doing it with fibre was not how the rest of the world was actually delivering better broadband.

(Highly detailed planet Earth image by Anton Balazh, Shutterstock)

It's true that Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) is like no other project in the world, but no broadband investment in any one country is the same.

There are many factors that determine why a company or government decides to move away from a copper network to a fibre network. All have the same basic premise underpinning it: Provide faster internet services to the public to allow them to do more things online that have not been possible with the existing networks in place.

And whether it be fibre to the premises (FttP) or fibre to the node (FttN), you can find just about every sort of major fibre network rollout occurring in many countries across the globe.

Some are backed by governments, some are funded through the private sector, and some are a mix of the two. The reasons vary, and for all the differences that Australia's AU$37.4 billion network has with the rest of the world, there are many familiar reasons why governments and businesses have been pushing for faster broadband.

The method usually comes down to one factor: The economics. Australia's ambitious NBN was announced in the depths of the global financial crisis, when government investment in building infrastructure was seen as a good way to turn the economy around. In many countries, however, governments and businesses have opted for what they perceive as the cheapest option to get as fast speeds as they can out to as many people as possible, while still making it commercially viable.

Network types

FttN or fibre to the cabinet (FttC) involves replacing the copper network up to a certain point, either on each street through a cabinet or at one point up to a few kilometres from each premises. From there, the existing copper lines going from the cabinet or node are used to provide VDSL broadband services to each premises.

Although the speed on the copper is limited compared to fibre, based on the distance from the node or cabinet to each premises, the upgrade is considerably cheaper in the short term, as it doesn't require installing a new fibre line into each premises. For this reason, the upgrade can also take considerably less time to complete.

Speeds range up to a maximum of 80 megabits per second (Mbps) down, depending on the length and quality of the copper line. Anywhere farther than 300 metres from the cabinet or node sees a massive reduction in speed.

A new method of getting even higher speeds across the copper, known as vectoring, cuts down the noise on the copper line, allowing those higher download speeds of over 100Mbps with upload speeds of up to 40Mbps. A number of telcos have committed to introducing vectoring.

Generally, across the world, the deployment of FttN has been done by the owner of the network, and it is commonly run with just the one provider on the network. The introduction of vectoring makes it harder to have an open-access wholesale network in the way it is done today, with the telco accessing the copper line and putting its own equipment in the exchange. Alcatel-Lucent has said that it is possible to wholesale a bitstream service directly from the owner of the network, similar to how NBN Co wholesales its fibre product today.

FttP involves fibre at every step of the way, from the premises to the network core. This can be achieved either with a direct fibre for every connection or a passive optical network that shares connections through the use of a splitter at some point in the field, as NBN Co has rolled out with its Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON). The speeds on offer over FttP are much higher than anything on the copper network, and can travel a much greater distance. Higher speeds are constantly being pushed out on the fibre every day. Services available to end users currently sit at a maximum of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).

Both types of network are common across the world. Network vendor giant Alcatel-Lucent told ZDNet that it has supplied equipment to more than 100 FttP networks across the world, including Verizon, France Telecom, China Unicom, and China Telecom. It has also worked on more than 80 FttN VDSL2 deployments with companies such as Telecom NZ, Telmex, AT&T, SK Telecom, and KPN. Alcatel-Lucent is deploying vectoring with Belgacom and Telekom Austria.

Chinese network giant Huawei told ZDNet it has been selected to roll out a number of national networks across the globe, including BT's mixed network, Singapore's FttP network, Telekom Brunei's FttP network, New Zealand's FttP network, and Malaysia's FttP network.

One of the main criticisms of reporting about the NBN from Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is that Australia's project has not been compared to what is happening in the rest of the world. In this feature, ZDNet sets out to compare and contrast the NBN to the networks being rolled out in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada.

But first, we need to look at where the debate began in Australia.


  1. Australia
  2. The United Kingdom
  3. New Zealand
  4. The United States
  5. Canada
  6. What it all means

Topic: NBN


Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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  • USA

    Considering the USA is the land of the free market i always find it funny there is a duopoly and i have the choice of time warner cable or slower dsl from verizon....and thats it.

    .....so much for "the land of the free"
    • Re: Considering the USA is the land of the free market

      Few markets need careful regulation in order to remain free. The US has somewhat neglected that side of it, to its cost.
  • Vectoring

    This article good, but still there are facts more. I was conference recently, Alcalu said 0.5m vectoring shipped and commercial lines working. 11 customers.
    Hans van Zitvlak
  • Transmission monopoly.

    Vectoring REQUIRES a monopoly at the electrical level too. Fibre, even GPON, holds the longer term possibility of un-bundling.

    Over the short term, there is a requirement for a monopoly at the transmission level with the NBN, but the longer term path, I recall roadmapped somewhere, did indicate the expectation that wavelength and physical unbundling are likely.

    This means that NBNCo over the longer term should shift to a model very similar to the current ADSL market where providers can lease a line (or wavelength) and operate their own infrastructure.

    Vectoring cannot do that. You will have one transmission monopoly forever.
  • Node to Wireless

    The alternative not being discussed is FttN + Wireless with the option of FttP as needed and cost effective. "Time" magazine reported last year that during the Obama re-election campaign, the organisers made the discovery that - wait for it - less than 50% of those under the age of 30 actually had a fixed line number! They live - quote - in the "cellular shadows". We seem to be using a philosophy of the post WWII time - the mass development of suburbia and the "gorgeous 'ome" - to quote Dane Edna - and so on - rather than looking at just how people live today. If I am renting a flat or house, as many younger people do, will I sign a 2-year ISP deal for NBN based services? No!

    Now, in addition, let's suppose I have my new NBN FttH will I rewire the house with Cat 5 or 6 cabling to make use of its speed or just let cables dangle over the floor from my NBN cabinet to my - well - what iPad / Android tablet, TCP/IP HD-LCD-TV, etc.? Guess what? I'll use my WiFi hub!!! Hold on? The "last metre" is wireless and more likely so with the massive acceptance of smart phones and tablets.

    So what about - rather than have everyone in the street trying to administer their own 802.11(x) wireless network - why not high speed wireless to/from the node? (Yes - we know all about congestion, etc. but remember that NBN line is also shared under GPON).
    Wireless from the node could also be used with backhaul from the node via satellite (See KaComm !) Ok - but what about 1080i HD video - OK - but are all home users connecting to the NBN cabinet via a cable to their lounge room or wherever? I doubt it! Once again - wireless.

    Let's rethink what makes sense - economically and with a faster delivery schedule (latest results from Mr Quigley seem to indicate that for many of us in outer regional areas, such as the Gold Coast with those old RIM boxes with their Telstra ADSL-2 "sort-of" "Top Hats", will be well and truly gone by the time we ever see a fibre cable from NBN.) No - we are NOT in the NBN satellite area.

    Time for a massive rethink!
    • Interesting points

      You make some interesting points, but to counter that, there are a few other things that need to be taken into consideration.

      Firstly, that 50% under 30 report. Namely that it conveniently doesnt go into any details about how many are still at home, how many are sharing, be it with friends or Uni, and several other key bits of information.

      It IS important to understand that more and more of the emerging generation is going mobile, but to leave out details to prove a point is only helpful in the short term.

      People have to live... somewhere. While they are there, they are still going to be using the net on a day to day basis. Yes, more and more net use is through mobile devices, but its been shown several times that over 90% of data transmitted (either 92% or 96%, not certain) is done over fixed line connections.

      Mobile devices are the fast food of net usage. You check in with facebook, or check emails, or some other quick relatively quick task that doesnt take long. But for anything taking more than 5 minutes, you wait til you get home and do it there.

      Then theres entertainment. You cant stream a show or movie to a mobile device when out and about. At home, yes (we'll get back to that), but out travelling, no. Its just not possible and it gets very expensive.

      Why? Mobile broadband and home network wireless are two very different things. One relies of a limited amount of bandwidth that needs to be spread about all users in the area (several square kilometers), so a premium is placed on it. The other is a similar amount of bandwidth, but only over about a 100 square meter area. Your home network.

      There is a difference. To expect one to account for everyones needs is naive and self defeating.

      Your second paragraph is good. Its important, and its where a lot of use will be done. But that use of your wireless hub is NOT the same as a 4G tower out in the city.

      And because they are different, wireless from the node to the premise wont work. You're asking everyone to drive down a 1 lane road at the same time.

      What makes sense? Rolling out a system that wont meet our needs in 5 years, or roll out a system that meets our needs for the next 50 years?

      One last thing to consider. 4G wireless (and friends) convert your wireless signal to a fixed line signal to do most of the work. To realise the speeds people seem to think wireless can deliver, the fixed line has to be that fast as well. And right now, FttN barely meets the current generations needs. It wont meet the next generations needs.
    • Not same thing

      Inside your house you can use WiFi and ethernet.

      We have 100mpbs and yes to get the full bandwidth to any machine I took some of our wireless computers to gigabit ethernet.

      The remaining machines on WiFi are functioning much better than before - for instance the watching of iView is now reliable over our WiFi where it was always dodgy on 16mbps.

      If theere is more than one user in the home then the benefits of the shared speed are not the speed to a single computer.

      WiFi demontstrates the reason wireless internet can never handle dense population areas. The bandwidth per device/user is limited due to the total bandwidth being shared.

      So no - there is no need for a rethink - there is need for a more educated user base to avoid such misunderstandings of the basic math and physics of the problem.

      GPON Fibre has a high bandwidth and it is shared minimally. The signal is constrained to the fiber and does not interfere with adjoining signals (like copper) or any other signals in the area (like wireless).

      In your house you may be sharing your WiFi channel with the householders. Alternatively you could be sharing your wireless internet with several hundred households. Which would you think works better?
      • Also reason

        I should mention that I replaced the wifi only where the wifi signal was variable between 2 and 20 mbps due to the nature of the building.
    • Towers

      It's already known that the number of towers under that situation would have to roughly equal the number of cabinets for either GPON or VDSL.

      That's roughly 50,000 towers.
      Do you want a 30m tower a the end of every street?

      Given the number of communities already trying to block the NBN's wireless towers, do you really think this is even possible?
    • Look behind the argument

      Logic question: Flat sharers are prepared to sign a one year residential lease but not a two year ISP contract? What happens if RSP contracts are reduced to one year? Hopefully under the wholesale/retail NBN model switching RSPs will be streamlined and much easier for all concerned.

      It’s one thing for 50% of under 30s not having a fixed line for voice but what about for all other purposes? If your fixed line data speed is sub-optimal reluctance to have one could be because the offering is not attractive...but if the service were better might it not get more use?

      I have found a good way to deal with the ethernet cable on the floor issue is to take the cable through the ceiling. Neatly finished holes in share house ceilings could make a such a house an attractive proposition for landlords and their prospective tenants.
      • There are Monthly providers

        One is Club Telco
        Completely transportable, leasing a holiday home for a month, just switch locations.

        Abel Adamski
  • Fixed Wireless

    Is being rolled out to place's in Country Australia, I'm assuming that will be Firbre to the Nobe and then Wireless to the home.
    • no fttn

      that's fibre to the wireless tower, the tower covers large areas just like a cellphone tower
      • Thanks for clearing that up!

        Regard the Fttn issue, but regarding the Wireless, my understanding is it won't be like a Cell tower (or for us Aussies mobile tower) Rather it will be fixed Wireless, ie each connection will be a dedicated Wireless connection.
        • Tried to post a link to the

          Information on the NBN co's website the AGAIN the profanity filter kicked in when it was not needed.
        • Yep

          It will fixed wireless, it's the exact same technology that Optus and Telstra are rolling out for mobile wireless data; that is LTE, or 4G in marketing speak. The difference between mobile LTE and fixed is that you have a fixed antenna on your house which has a direct line of sight with the tower, that way they can give a guaranteed service.
  • Woops

    Should be "Fiber to the node"
  • LOL at 1km


    100m 100 Mbps 5%
    200m 65 Mbps 20%
    300m 45 Mbps 30%
    400m 42 Mbps 45%
    500m 38 Mbps 60%
    600m 35 Mbps 70%
    700m 32 Mbps 75%
    800m 28 Mbps 80%
    900m 25 Mbps 85%
    1000m 24 Mbps 90%
    1250m 17 Mbps 95%
    1500m 15 Mbps 98%
  • FttN Power supply.

    One thing that must be considered with FttN is that every single one of the possibly tens of thousands of cabinets will need power. I have seen figure (either on ZDNet or somewhere else) that state possibly three new powers stations would need to be built to supply the electricity. Not to mention the costs of getting the power to the box, wich depending on its location, could cost from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars per FttN box. (allowing for digging up and resurfacing, under road boring, connection to the grid, traffic control, plant and material costs, etc.) Sorry if someone else has mentioned this, but I only had time to skim through the previous coments all the comments.
    Why Knot
    • FTTN - Not Exactly Green is it?

      The power consumption of the FTTN cabinets alone should be ringing alarm bells for anyone who wants to protect our environment.