Labor questions whether NBN is 'abandoning' HFC network

Despite 1Gbps HFC costing the same per premises and less in capex as 100Mbps FttN, the footprint of the former has been reduced by up to 13 percent in favour of FttN.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Shadow Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has accused the Coalition government and the National Broadband Network (NBN) company of "abandoning" the hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) network in favour of a slower-speed fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network that costs the same to roll out.

While NBN earlier on Friday announced a AU$2 billion drop in its peak funding, Rowland said this was simply due to "significant wriggle room left in the last Corporate Plan".

"We know that under his [Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's] plan, HFC was supposed to be one of the big game changers for the NBN," Rowland told media on Friday afternoon in Sydney.

"In 2013, in fact, he said there would be 2.6 million premises connected to the National Broadband Network via HFC by the end of this year. That is simply not going to happen, and the figures in this Corporate Plan released today show a significant decline in the number of HFC connections to be compensated by a far inferior fibre-to-the-node copper connection.

"Are they abandoning HFC because the costs have blown out from their original estimates in favour of a far cheaper and far inferior fibre-to-the-node copper technology?"

NBN's 2017 Corporate Plan revealed a significantly reduced HFC footprint; under the old plan, 34 percent of Australian premises were slated to receive an HFC connection, while 38 percent would be covered by FttN, fibre to the basement (FttB), or fibre to the distribution point (FttDP).

Under the new plan, however, this has been changed to between 43 and 54 percent being covered by FttN/B/DP, and between 21 to 27 percent by HFC.

According to NBN CEO Bill Morrow, the HFC footprint was reduced due to a higher cost in rolling it out than anticipated.

"The forecast CPP and capex costs for HFC has increased from last year's Corporate Plan due to further understanding of network planning and design; delivery arrangements; the move from a demand drop to build drop model for lead-ins; and the move to DOCSIS 3.1 technology," the Corporate Plan states.

According to the Corporate Plan, FttN users can attain speeds of just 100/40Mbps, while Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) 3.1-enabled HFC "will provide capability to increase wholesale download speeds of up to 1Gbps".

The cost per premises (CPP) of rolling out FttN and HFC is the same -- AU$2,300 -- despite this significant difference in download speeds.

HFC capex, meanwhile, is forecast to cost AU$0.6 billion less than FttN capex during FY17; AU$1.2 billion less in FY18; AU$0.7 billion less in FY19; and AU$0.1 billion less in FY20.

NBN last month said it will launch DOCSIS 3.1 services on its HFC network during the second half of 2017.

"The arrival of full-duplex DOCSIS 3.1 is extremely exciting news for NBN, and a real game-changing moment in the ultra-fast broadband market," NBN CTO Dennis Steiger had said.

"We ... are excited about the potential this offers for the 4 million premises that will receive their NBN services via our HFC network."

Taking out the 30 percent of Australian premises that Morrow said are multi-dwelling units requiring FttB, up to a quarter of the population will still receive FttN unless it is shifted to FttDP -- which the chief executive said is still in its trial phase.

However, with only "several hundred thousand candidates" being eyed for FttDP, that still leaves more than 2.5 million premises on the receiving end of 100/40Mbps FttN.

NBN declared its first HFC network ready for service in June, following leaked NBN documents from November last year showing that Optus' HFC network is "not fully fit for purpose", with 470,000 premises in the footprint needing to be overbuilt by either Telstra HFC or fibre services.

In regards to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids over the NBN leaks, Rowland questioned the supposed "top secret" classification of the documents.

"It would certainly be interesting to know what elements of the NBN Co would ever be considered to be top secret," the shadow communications minister told ZDNet.

"And if they have this sort of information that is top secret, then I suggest that the onus is on them to demonstrate what is in fact secret about it. There is certainly nothing that has come out in the public domain that cannot be shown to have indeed supported Malcolm Turnbull having stuffed up on the NBN.

"Malcolm Turnbull ... is a stuffer upperer of Olympic class."

Earlier this week, NBN claimed top-secret classification on the documents behind a series of damaging leaks on the state of the broadband network rollout, according to Senator Stephen Conroy. The AFP raided Parliament House, with Conroy's office notified that national security matters were involved in the process.

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