FttB success unearths skeletons in Labor's NBN basement

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.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

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?

Editorial standards