The company rolling out Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has revealed that it is replacing copper lines where necessary in rolling out its fibre-to-the-node (FttN) network.
NBN CEO Bill Morrow told Senate Estimates on Tuesday that while the legacy Telstra copper lines from the node to homes will remain in place, copper between the node and the pillar will need to be installed.
"We have to put new copper in to run to the pillar that serves all of our homes from our node to that pillar. And that could range in distance between right next to each other ... it is a short section, but it is new copper that has to go in the ground that doesn't exist today," he said in response to a question from Senator Stephen Conroy.
Morrow explained that putting in new copper is necessary in order for the company to be able to gain access to the nodes to deliver broadband to the homes.
"So today, there's a feeder copper cable that goes into our neighbourhood entry point, where a pillar stands up out of the street, usually near the footpath. We want to access that pillar, because it has a distribution network that goes to each one of our homes. Now, we want to access it with our optical technology that we're delivering with fibre to the node, but ... if it is across the room or down the block, we have to put copper to be able to get to that node," Morrow said.
"There is copper there that we're not going to use."
According to Morrow, copper has to be used rather than fibre-optic cable in certain cases depending on the distances being covered.
"We're going to run fibre to wherever our node can be, ideally right next to the pillar. But that ideal is not always something that we can do. So when it has to be a couple of homes away, or half a block away, then we need to be able to access the copper that's in the pillar and tie it to the electronic sets in our node, and we wouldn't run our optics to do that, because if we could do that, we would stand the node up next to the pillar, so we've got to extend the copper over to the node."
Morrow added that defective cabling could also be replaced, with more copper also added where there is not enough to service the homes in that area.
"The other area to where we could be putting copper... is that if there are defective joints that are out there that have a trouble rate that's too high, we'll need to go ahead and make that investment to replace that joint as it stands," the chief executive said.
"And then in the other case that I mentioned, if it turns out that there's not enough pairs going down the street to be able to serve all the homes that are there, then we may actually have to add pairs in that path to be able to get to each one of the homes."
Morrow's comments came on the heels of those made last week by NBN that it has not had to replace any of the legacy copper between node and home in installing its FttN network, with end users able to achieve high speeds while relying on existing infrastructure.
"So far, in our FttN deployment, we have not had to replace any copper or perform any substantial remediation work to the copper running from our street cabinets to end-user premises," Tony Brown, the public affairs manager at NBN, said in a blog post last Thursday.
Following the Coalition's election at the end of 2013, NBN had moved away from Labor's full fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) rollout to the present so-called multi-technology mix (MTM), which proposes to cover 20 percent of the population with FttP; 38 percent with FttN and fibre to the building (FttB); 34 percent with hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC); 5 percent with fixed wireless; and 3 percent with satellite services.
The MTM NBN is expected to cost up to AU$56 billion in peak funding, and is due to be completed in 2020.
The wide-scale rollout of HFC and FttN services was approved by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in June, with a revised AU$11 billion deal allowing NBN to take ownership of Optus' HFC network and Telstra's HFC and copper assets.
NBN switched on its FttN network last month, claiming that trials in Belmont have seen customers achieve download speeds of up to 100Mbps.
Customers whose premises are located in an FttN-designated area will see fibre-optic cable rolled out to a node nearby, with copper lines then delivering the broadband into their premises.
There have long been criticisms that the FttN would be a slower-speed network than FttP, with Shadow Minister for Communications Jason Clare arguing that the copper being used for the network is so old that it is having to be replaced.
"I have been talking to some contractors in the field recently to get a feel for how good the copper network is, and how much of it needs work or needs to be replaced. They have told me that NBN's working assumption is that 10 percent of copper pairs in fibre-to-the-node areas will need remediation," Clare said at the CommsDay Summit in Melbourne on Wednesday.
"But in places like Newcastle and the Central Coast, closer to 90 percent of the copper pairs have needed work. In some places, the copper is so bad it has to be replaced. One contractor told me in Newcastle and the Central Coast 10 to 15 percent of the copper lines are having lengths replaced.
"And this is not just happening in Newcastle or the Central Coast; another contractor told me in Campbelltown in Sydney that NBN has had to recently replace almost 3 kilometres of old copper with new copper."
According to Brown, however, claims that the copper is in a poor, aged state are "misleading, or just plain wrong".
"To date, we have not had to replace substantial lengths of existing copper with new copper; what we have been doing is necessary work compressing copper at the street pillars (located next to our street cabinets) in order to enhance network performance," Brown explained.
"Conducting this type of work does not constitute 'replacing the copper' -- the lines themselves are being left in place -- all we are doing, for example, is replacing two lots of 100-pair cables with a 200-pair cable in order to free up ports."
The Senate also recently called for the government to reveal NBN operating plans and financial forecasting out to 2022, particularly in regards to how much an FttP rollout would have cost.
NBN is planning to connect 500,000 premises with FttN by mid-2016, growing this to 3.7 million by June 2018. More than 20 RSPs, including Telstra, Optus, TPG, M2, Exetel, AAPT, SkyMesh, and Harbour ISP, have already signed wholesale broadband agreements to sell FttN NBN services to end users.