NBN Strategic Review twists the truth to promote HFC over fibre

NBN Strategic Review twists the truth to promote HFC over fibre

Summary: Weasel words abound in the Coalition's NBN Strategic Review, which cites an industry report to justify its assertion that HFC is a better investment than FTTP. Curiously, the report actually says something completely different.


Few were surprised that the NBN Strategic Review strongly favoured a shift away from fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) technology and a massive reliance on existing hybrid fibre-cable (HFC) networks. However, while evaluating the Strategic Review it is instructive to consider just how far the government's spin machines have twisted language and fact gone to paint its policy in a superior light.

Consider the repeated use of the phrase 'super-fast HFC', which appears several times in the document.

The NBN Strategic Review isn't being totally honest about what its sources say about FTTP. Screenshot: David Braue

"Super-fast" is a word loaded with both subjective judgment and the implication that the contention is somehow supported by fact. It's the kind of weasel word that you'd expect to be immediately seized upon and parroted by the usual assortment of right-leaning radio talk-show hosts, who know nothing about the NBN but aren't prepared to let that fact get in the way of a good opportunity to score one for the team.

Anyone who has tried to use an HFC Internet service during dinner-time and weekend peak times will know that calling it 'super' is optimistic – and that even the word 'fast' is often just incorrect. HFC doesn't even meet the Coalition's promise of delivering 25Mbps to every home in Australia: I don't know about you, but my Speedtest.net runs consistently show a maximum of around 18Mbps downloads over HFC and molasses-speed uploads of around 0.4Mbps.

Telstra and Optus know this, which is why neither one sells their cable services with minimum speed guarantees. NBN Co, however, has been more than happy to gloss over the limitations of the services because it would be inconvenient not to. Even though NBN Co knows it can't meet the Coalition's speed objectives, the Strategic Review goes to great lengths to imply that HFC is somehow equivalent to the fibre that is currently being rolled out.

The nomenclature 'superfast' appears to have been suborned from IDATE, a French thinktank that tracks the global FTTX marketplace and whose IDATE FTTX Watch Service 2013 is cited in the Strategic Review document to support the government's well-worn bon mot that FttP is a technology well past its prime and HFC is a much better option.

Even though NBN Co knows it can't meet the Coalition's speed objectives, the Strategic Review goes to great lengths to imply that HFC is somehow equivalent to the fibre that is currently being rolled out.

It's right there on page 76: "While FTTN has generally overtaken FTTP in recent years, both are losing ground relative to super-fast HFC networks, which have grown rapidly to take a 33 percent share of superfast broadband premises passed."

The thing is: this is bunkum, as a reading of the actual IDATE FTTx Watch 2013 document makes very clear (I'll ignore for now the fact that the Strategic Review opted not to mention that IDATE recognises a higher tier of broadband, 'ultra-fast', to which FTTP and VDSL belong). Contrary to what the Strategic Review wants you to believe, IDATE's conclusion is that the world loves FTTH/B technologies.

Turnbull has always encouraged NBN commentators to look overseas for guidance on the best technology choices, but if you look past his Anglo-centric worldview IDATE offers a much different view of things.

For example, IDATE offers a complete rebuttal of the Strategic Review's assertions about FTTP/H: in a recent market update the firm notes that "FTTH/B remains the leading superfast broadband solution worldwide, way ahead of FTTLA and VDSL".

FTTLA (Fibre to the Last Amplifier), is analyst-speak for HFC, and IDATE notes that it is a leading technology in Western Europe and North America. However, that's not because carriers are rolling out new HFC; it's because they have already run coaxial cable to most premises to deliver cable TV – an infrastructure monopoly that has made them, in IDATE's words, "uncontested leaders in the American high-speed broadband market".

The reasons for that have been well-discussed and date back to the 1970s, when cable was identified as the technology of the future and cable TV became a standard fixture in American homes; even then the telcos knew that existing copper phone services simply weren't adequate for the future.

These days, telcos around the world are dealing with the same recognition, except that this time they're not considering mass cable rollouts. IDATE notes that "several top telcos are still grappling with the choice between an FTTH/B or VDSL rollout, especially in Europe" and calls it "encouraging" that many telcos are pursuing FTTH/B investments "at a time when the EU's telcos are seeing their margins shrink."

IDATE also says that FTTH/B is "clearly the technology of choice in APAC" – which refutes the Strategic Review's contention that FTTN has overtaken FTTP, or that either one is "losing ground" to HFC networks.

The figures in the IDATE white paper – the same one quoted in the Strategic Review – support this contention: there were some 57.9m FTTH connections in the Asia-Pacific region as of December 2011, it tells us, compared with just 738,000 FTTLA services and 510,000 VDSL services. In Eastern and Central Europe, FTTH outflanks FTTLA, 6.96m to 1.04m.

IDATE says that FTTH/B is "clearly the technology of choice in APAC" – which refutes the Strategic Review's contention that FTTN has overtaken FTTP, or that either one is "losing ground" to HFC networks.

IDATE's figures on homes passed also reveals the magnitude of the disparity: some 78.4m homes are passed by cable in North America, while just 24.6m have access to FTTH/B. The Strategic Review will call this a clear victory for cable, but the reality is that most of that FTTH/B will have been rolled out recently and the numbers are only going to grow.

In developing areas where there is a choice between topographies, FTTH/B is the hands-down winner every time. Indeed, IDATE notes that the technology is "firmly entrenched in South East Asia", and that second-place China's heavy investment in FTTH/B is seeing "very strong growth in fibre optic deployment" – which could soon see it passing Japan to become the world's top FTTH/B market.

Latin America – which IDATE notes is "still very concerned about the availability of high-speed broadband for all, which remains one of the major objectives of most of the South American governments" – is jumping on the FTTH/B bandwagon at breakneck pace: compare 350,000 FTTH/B premises (on 4.2m homes passed) with just 20,000 FTTLA homes.

Mexico alone has 1.41m homes passed via FTTH/B on the back of two "massive deployments" begun in 2010 by operators Axtel and TotalPlay; by 2015, TotalPlay is expecting to have 8m FTTH/B homes passed.

In Chile, IDATE tells us, Telfonica has invested $US2.5 billion to deliver FTTH to 700,000 households in a four-year rollout that was scheduled to complete this year.

In the Middle East, IDATE tells us, "VDSL is not the preferred architecture" but a heavy investment within the United Arab Emirates has seen 502,000 FTTH subscribers on 1m homes passed. Qatar created its own NBN Co to roll out FTTH to 95% of homes and 100% of businesses by 2015.

Forgive me, but those stories don't convince me that FTTP is a technology that is "losing ground to super-fast HFC networks", as the Strategic Review puts it.

Or, as IDATE actually puts it: "FTTH/B remains the primary architecture deployed in the region and tends to displace high speed DSL or cable modem access."

So, that's the reality of IDATE's market assessment – and it's a long way from the Strategic Review's assertion that FTTP is "losing ground" and, by extension, somehow unworthy of investing in.

This is just one example of the need for caution when interpreting any guidance from the current government: when read outside of the reality distortion field where the Coalition's NBN policy lives, they are a ringing endorsement of FTTH/B topographies. It's just another example of how the Coalition's spin machine is working overtime to lend legitimacy to justify a pre-ordained conclusion – no matter what its implications.

Topics: NBN, Broadband, Fiber, Government AU


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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  • HFC Experience

    Survey of 1?

    I have Telstra Ultimate HFC cable and consistently get over 100Mbps (around 118Mbps down and 2.5Mbps up). This will be any time of any day.
    • Come on.....

      @fictillius, granted you may be on a HFC network that doesn't pass many homes and provides above average speeds, congratulations.

      Problem is, this definitely is not the case for many other Australians.

      As you know (or I'm guessing you know) HFC is a shared cable network, meaning, if you have to many people using that infrastructure every one slows down.

      To even try and label HFC as a "superior" technology to optic fibre is the most absurd thing I've ever heard.
      Andrew Ward
      • Just sharing my experience

        The article implied everyone on HFC gets a bad experience. Obviously that's not true.

        I understand how HFC works and I live 8km from the Sydney CBD in a densely populated area so it passes plenty of homes.

        The shared part of the network applies only from the Optical node that pushes out onto the coaxial part of the network (down the streets) how many homes are served by the node I am on and how many are connected I do not know.

        Telstra can quite easily serve fewer houses on a node by installing more nodes around the HFC network, so to say that HFC is dead in the water to deliver faster broadband is wrong.

        In an area like mine here there is substantial cost in tearing up roads and footpaths to install fibre (there is no grass nature strip, just road and concrete footpath and the copper ducts are too small to pull fibre through) then it makes sense to make use of what is already there to get faster broadband sooner.

        Anyone using ADSL in my suburb is a long way from the exchange and the speeds would be woeful. I'd rather the HFC network was utilised now for the NBN than wait another 10 years to get fibre installed to the home.
    • I call BS

      Post a result from speedtest.net or your statement is invalid/incorrect/lie. I have T1 NBN and I dont get 100Mbps Down, tho I get nearly 40Mbps


      My result:

      • Not BS

        Telstra overprovision their cable service by a small amount to cover the overhead, so the speedtests give around or just over 100mbps.
        • BS

          Proof or no bananas.
      • Here you go

        Not home at the moment but here's one from a few days ago. This was done over WiFi too

        • good speeds for me, but...

          100/2Mb/s at roughly 6pm on a weekday, I get these kinds of result consistently and with little variation.

          Telstra server: http://www.speedtest.net/result/3249768184.png
          Internode server: http://www.speedtest.net/result/3249788241.png

          I live in an inner city 'up and coming' suburb, I doubt there are many on my loop...

          All the speedtest result in the world don't change the fact that even state of the art HFC tech can 'only' do 10Gbps/1Gbps per loop (and I'm under the impression that's not even a real product yet)... I'm taking a guess here but I say there's probably at least a couple of hundred houses per loop (?), once everyone is on the 'NBN' it aint going to be pretty...
    • Watch your speed drop

      Watch you speed drop as they add more people to your cable if the coalition get there way
      • Not just people to your cable

        The coalition seems to assume one PC user per house, but even with my 30Mbps Telstra cable that quickly disappears in a household with multiple PCs, tablets, phones, internet TVs and whatever those people are doing on the internal network.

        100 Mbps should be the base minimum with options to increase it.
    • Fictillius...that sounds like Fiction!

      1. Please post up a copy of your Speedtest results for several times of the day, say 9am, 1pm, 7pm and 10pm, can't wait to check them out!

      2. Even if your claims are true 2.5Mbps UP is truly said in this day and age. My relatives in Japan get results like the following 24/7/365 for about $40 a month (w/ unlimited dload)...
      http://www.speedtest.net/my-result/2878063698 Yep....FTTH baby. This is what the bulk of the 93% of Australians passed up.
      • One day...

        1. When I'm home for all those times one day I will get you speed tests if it makes you happy.

        2. No one is saying HFC is anywhere near as good as FTTH and that it ever will be. However I'd much rather see it be utilised more now until FTTH comes along. ADSL in my street is less than 6/1. So why wouldn't you offer much better speeds to hundreds of thousands of people across the country for relatively little cost. Spend the time building FTTH now where there no other alternatives, then get FTTH to the HFC customers later.
    • I have Telstra Ultimate HFC cable and consistently get over 100Mbps

      Agree. I have seen people on Telstra Ultimate Plan get 100Mbps. However what will happen when that cable network is shared with other ISP's under the Coalition Model? There is risk that you may not get your 100Mbps any longer. Remember FTTH labor model gets you a 100Mpbs with up to 1000Mbps today.
    • Interesting Article... :|

      I have Cable Ultimate at home.

      What concerns me is this: "I don't know about you, but my Speedtest.net runs consistently show a maximum of around 18Mbps downloads over HFC and molasses-speed uploads of around 0.4Mbps."

      It looks like you have a technical support issue David that you should maybe think about solving. On my account I consistently get 108 to 115mbit down. 2.5mbit up regardless the time of day. There seems to be something else that might be impacting your service....

      Cable Broadband is a great product, is available today to 2.8m residents and has a nice upgrade technological path to 800mbit without sneezing.
  • The government would be better to do nothing

    If they did nothing at all, and just left everything as it is, then the population would be better off than if they install crazy "half-NBN" networks that use old copper or HFC to the home, instead of optical fiber.

    By installing an inadequate NBN, they are sabotaging the economy, and preventing a better future network from being built.

    If the government can't put fiber to everyone's home, then I urge them to just stop and do nothing and forget about the NBN. More people will be happier if they do nothing, than if they do a poor job.
    • The government would be better to do nothing

      Agree. It is a big problem. There will be a continuation of different networks, offering various grades of service and reliability. No real level playing field here. And then the hardware connectivity headaches for over the top service providers. Consider Alarm Monitoring Companies, eHealth, and so on. The cost of end user equipment could be higher due to the vast amount of different hardware equipment that may be required to provide end user access for particular over the top service. You may save $500 to $1000 per household by changing the NBN Build, but it may cost everyone more in the long run.

      Telstra should have been structurally separated back in the day, however the political stuff up cost everyone by forming a new wholesale provider NBN Co. Looks like we are going to have a repeat with the NBN Build now!
      • I should point out

        that I am not expecting 100Mbps speeds over cable as I don't subscribe to that package (I had it years ago but was thoroughly unimpressed because of the lack of upload speeds on the other end meant there was no appreciable speed improvement).

        My point about HFC is not, as some have read, that it is a thoroughly inadequate technology – it does work although capacity, coverage and regulatory issues will pose real constraints (as will the fact that NBN Co doesn't actually own any HFC networks over which to deliver this service).

        In this piece I was focused only on highlighting that (a) in its default configuration (as I have) it will not meet the government's 25Mbps speed promise and (b) the Strategic Review went out of its way to support the government's HFC romance by trash-talking FTTP through the use of a report that actually says FTTP is more relevant than cable.

        The only geographies where cable is strong in that report is North America and Europe. Yet ISPs in those areas aren't using cable because it's the better technology – they're using it because it was installed nearly everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s, so it makes sense to get what data services they can get from it rather than trying to build their data business on top of some other operator's copper network.

        If cable were equally ubiquitous in Australia – rather than a limited-scope rollout that ignores most of the country and cherry-picks the most profitable customers – we wouldn't be having anything like the same discussion.
    • Payback Time

      Don't forget they owe Murdoch a massive debt that's now to be repaid by donating at least $41B into outdated privately owned networks to protect Foxtel's massive profits from competition for at least a decade by killing the national fibre roll-out.
      Received your latest glossy Foxtel brochure yet?
  • "super fast"?

    Telstra uses these words too and charge $20 a month more for the privilege. This reminds me of the words the tobacco industry used to sooth your experience while poisoning you. The oil companies used to do it too till the price of oil went up, service stations closed in large numbers and price became more important that additive speak. Fictillius' upload speed is still less than 3% of the download speed at best — not very helpful if one has large upload needs.
  • What's the Point

    What's the point of the article?

    FTTP is better than HFC? Well stab me vitals cap'n. Who could have seen that comin'.

    A government has commissioned a report that says what it wanted it to say? Steps back in amazement! Sir Humphrey told us about that.

    Howling at the moon about the technical advantages of FTTP over HFC over FTTN isn't going to change anything. There is no technology debate. Everyone agrees which technology is best. This is a financial debate. Focus on the financials of the various options or be just so much background noise.