Alcatel-Lucent walks fine NBN fibre line

As a network vendor that stands to profit from both fibre to the premises and fibre to the node, Alcatel-Lucent walks a fine line in the NBN debate.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Five years ago, when the National Broadband Network (NBN) fibre-to-the-premises project was first announced by the then-Labor government, Alcatel-Lucent was only too keen to get on board with the government's sell of the massive infrastructure project.

Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

In one promotional video the company put together, Alcatel-Lucent said that the government is future-proofing broadband services through the rollout of fibre to the premises.

"Life-changing and economy-building services will originate from this unheralded and seamless connectivity," the voiceover said in the video.

"Such a massive infrastructure project will no doubt take time, but it needs to be done right the first time."

The video finishes by saying that the NBN is "every Australian's right", and preceded the company's tendering for one of the largest NBN contracts awarded. Alcatel-Lucent went on to win an AU$1.5 billion contract with NBN Co for optical and Ethernet aggregation equipment in mid-2010.

After the election, and the installation of a hung parliament and new Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Alcatel-Lucent retreated from the spotlight. The company seldom commented on the NBN debate as Turnbull spent the next three years criticising the project at every turn, offering his alternative fibre-to-the-node (FttN) vision for what he believes will be a more cost-effective and faster NBN rollout.

Then, last year, as the election drew near, Alcatel-Lucent slowly returned to the debate, highlighting its successful FttN VDSL deployments in a number of locations across Europe and the United States.

Given the government-enforced ban excluding Alcatel-Lucent's largest rival Huawei's technology in NBN Co infrastructure, Alcatel-Lucent stands to do considerably well out of any FttN network contracts awarded as part of the planned overhaul of the NBN. The company has already been involved in two trials of FttN and fibre-to-the-basement technology with NBN Co and Telstra.

While the fibre NBN was once every Australian's right, Alcatel-Lucent's tune has changed, with the company now of the belief that the advances in VDSL technology mean that it is now possible to reuse existing copper lines in order to get the network rolled out faster.

In an interview with ZDNet, Alcatel-Lucent's market strategy director Stefaan Vanhastel said that up until a few years ago, fibre to the home was the simple decision, but advances in VDSL and vectoring, which cuts out cross-talk on copper lines for a better-quality connection, means alternatives are now available.

"It was no longer fibre to the home as the only option for ultra broadband services; you could also operate existing VDSL2 lines with vectoring and still do 100Mbps," he said.

"What we've seen since then is that many operators have adopted a very pragmatic approach. Fibre to the home is the long-term goal. You do fibre to the home where you can, and where the business case works, but when the operators are combining this with an upgrade of existing VDSL networks because that is something you can do very quickly and relatively cheaply."

He said that many telcos around the world are now taking a "pragmatic approach" in deploying a mix of fibre and VDSL technologies based on the most cost-effective way to connect people.

"We strongly believe, and we see this vision being adopted by the market, that the combination of multiple technologies is really the way to go to deliver more broadband to more people sooner," he said.

"It makes perfect sense to re-evaluate options, with VDSL2 vectoring having become available, and, in Australia, the same thing is happening with the multi-technology model."

The company was all too aware of the debate of the quality of the copper line, with Vanhastel stating that Alcatel-Lucent's trials show that even poor copper can be used.

"We've done more than 60 trials, including trials in China and a few other countries that are not exactly known for their good copper quality," he said.

"I've seen pictures of really corroded copper, but the good news is we get consistently good results with VDSL2 vectoring."

But Alcatel-Lucent isn't becoming a VDSL evangelist; the company still has a significant interest in the advancement of fibre technology. The company's fixed networks CTO David Eckard last week gave a presentation to a fibre-to-the-home conference in Sweden on the next-generation passive optical network technology called TWDM-PON that will allow operators to assign multiple 10Gbps passive optical networks on the same fibre.

"Many times, we hear from our customers that they do not want to deploy multiple fibre networks. That's one of the benefits we see with NG-PON2," he said.

"You can grow a 10-gig network in interesting ways. You could actually take two GPON networks and actually overlay one 10-gig network over the top of it."

However, Eckard said that while he is focused on the fibre advancements, it is not the case that it would only ever be about fibre versus copper.

"We're providing a toolbox of different types of solutions, and we have the ability to help put these different components together in such a way that it will satisfy people's network needs."

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