HFC not as 'mature' as fibre: Fifield

Despite HFC being available from Telstra in Australia since last century, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield has claimed the technology is less mature than fibre.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The pause in rolling out hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) by the National Broadband Network (NBN) is due to technical issues caused by HFC not being as mature a technology as fibre, satellite, and fixed-wireless, according to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.

"What we have in the case of HFC is some technical issues. HFC as a technology isn't as mature as fibre to the node, or satellite, or fixed-wireless," Fifield said during Radio National Breakfast on Tuesday morning.

"With those other technologies in the initial rollout, there were issues to be worked through. That's the case with HFC, there's no problem that's been identified that can't be fixed, they will be fixed, and HFC is a terrific technology. It can get gigabit speeds, people will certainly be able to get 100 megabits per second.

"In the United States, most people who are on broadband are on the HFC pay TV cable network."

Despite referencing the prevalence of cable broadband in the US, however, Fifield's statements that HFC is not as mature a technology as fibre flies in the face of the fact that US providers have been offering cable broadband access since the late '90s.

Telstra additionally rolled out its HFC network in Australia around the same time.

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has meanwhile argued that the delay could cost between AU$420 million and AU$790 million "based on analysis previously approved by the NBN board".

While NBN CEO Bill Morrow on Monday said it is too early to calculate such costs, Fifield remained adamant that the network issues can be repaired without the network having to be abandoned.

"It absolutely can be fixed ... there are many people on the pre-NBN network who [already] access their broadband over the HFC pay TV network," he said.

"The problems can absolutely be fixed, they're to do with essentially two issues: One is some taps or connectors as they're called, which join things between the cable in the street and the cable that goes to someone's house; and the other is an issue of spectrum frequency where there's some interference between the various users of the cable.

"Those things are all very fixable, and they will be fixed."

NBN over a year ago already chose to replace the "not fit for purpose" Optus HFC footprint with its new fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) technology, with the current issues stemming from the Telstra HFC network.

NBN in May had additionally revealed in response to Senate Estimates Questions on Notice that a portion of its HFC network will be new cabling laid by NBN itself, with the company in-filling almost 14 percent of the Telstra HFC network with newly laid cabling in order to fill gaps and degraded segments.

"The estimated percentages of new premises to be serviced within the HFC footprint is 13.9 percent," NBN said at the time.

"The total purchase of copper will vary with final rollout technology mix, as each technology has unique characteristics that affect copper cable utilisation."

Rowland had on Monday argued that NBN and the Australian government are "too scared" to proceed with their HFC rollout, and are "hiding something" from the public.

"We know now that NBN, that this government, that this prime minister is too scared to be rolling out HFC because it's not working," Rowland said on Monday afternoon.

"I know this government is hiding something ... there is a reason why this was announced today. We actually had a spillover Senate Estimates hearing late last week. This was not mentioned. You would have thought that this was something that was being contemplated for some time, that this was an important piece of information that NBN Co might want to share with the Senate, but no.

"Something very mysterious is being hidden from the Australian people here. There are more questions than answers."

Morrow had announced on Monday that the company would be delaying the rollout of its HFC network until it can repair various issues, including dropouts.

"We're going to delay the rollout of the HFC network until we can adjust issues on the network to give quality services," Morrow said.

According to Morrow, the HFC network has seen a faster-paced rollout than any of its other technologies, with NBN unable to correct issues fast enough to keep the impact on customers at a minimum.

With 3.1 million premises in the HFC footprint, Morrow told ZDNet that 370,000 are already connected and an additional 50,000 are queued to be connected. All remaining premises slated to be connected by HFC will see delays of between six and nine months.

The delay will taper down over the next 18 months, he explained, and as a result "will not jeopardise the rollout being complete by 2020".

"Effectively, it is just strengthening the integrity of the network medium itself to be sure that we can operate at that frequency band with no interference," Morrow said.

"By the time we open those homes back up to receive orders, this network will have a higher quality of service that we are planning for it, we will see improved processes across the board, as well as the data integrity we are sure will improve their experience."

The rollout of DOCSIS 3.1 in late 2018 will help with the issue, Morrow added.

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