NBN rollout could become cheaper, faster with new fibre-optic cable technology

New fibre-optic cable technology will potentially halve the cost of joining cables and speed up network delivery, according to NBN major provider Prysmian.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

National Broadband Network (NBN) major cable provider Prysmian has unveiled a "revolutionary" new fibre-optic cable design that it says will halve the cost of joining cables.

The new line of fibre-optic cables, named Prysmian FlexTube, provides network builders with an alternative to ribbon fibre cables, allowing more fibre and closures to fit into the underground duct networks.

Prysmian said it is also simpler to handle and install, meaning the cost and speed of building out the NBN will be diminished.

"We expect FlexTube to become the stranded optical cable of choice in the Australian telecom industry within the next three years, with the Dee Why factory's capacity on track to exceed 1 million fibre kilometres by early 2019," Frederick Persson, CEO of Prysmian Australia and New Zealand, said.

"The FlexTube line will provide more options for network providers, as it significantly lowers the cost of building and owning networks."

The cables will be constructed in Dee Why, north of Sydney, meaning the company is on hand to supply NBN and other network builders with cables more quickly than foreign providers.

"Today's launch is a great example of innovation in the telecommunications industry, leading to new product offerings and greater efficiencies, which will ultimately improve outcomes for consumers," Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield said at the launch of the new fibre-optic cable technology.

"The Coalition government is committed to using the most appropriate technology to deliver the NBN sooner and at least cost to taxpayers, and we welcome the development of new product offerings in the industry."

Prysmian has so far provided over 5 million kilometres worth of fibre-optic cable for NBN, having initially been awarded a AU$300 million contract back in January 2011.

In October last year, NBN CEO Bill Morrow revealed that Prysmian is also the main supplier for the 1,800 kilometres of copper to be used in the deployment of NBN's fibre-to-the-node (FttN) rollout.

NBN is replacing copper lines where necessary in rolling out its FttN network, which was switched on in September last year. The legacy Telstra copper lines from the node to homes will remain in place, while copper between the node and the pillar will be installed.

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 premises.

According to the chief executive, 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," Morrow said during Senate Estimates.

"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, amd more copper will be added where there is not enough to service the homes in that area.

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, fibre to the building (FttB), and fibre to the distribution point (FttDP); 34 percent with hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC); 5 percent with fixed wireless; and 3 percent with satellite services.

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 a spate of leaks over the past six months having shown FttN to be taking longer, costing more, and providing slower speeds than first expected.

Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare said the leaks provide confirmation of the "second-rate" status of the Coalition's NBN.

"Thousands of Australians are still waiting for the NBN that Malcolm Turnbull promised them they would have by now," Clare said in a statement on Monday.

"Malcolm Turnbull's second-rate copper NBN is a complete failure."

Other industry players this week complained, however, that too much time has been spent debating and criticising the broadband technologies being used for the rollout, instead of realising its benefits.

"This is a multi-technology mix. I don't care what technology they deploy. I think it's a secondary debate, and one that's not important," said Vocus COO Scott Carter on Tuesday.

"It's not a debate that I need to be having. Technology will change. Technology does evolve."

Optus VP for corporate and regulatory affairs David Epstein added that the debate has unfortunately been "reignited" by the ongoing "de facto election campaign", which is unlikely to die down until after the federal election later this year.

"Dare I say it: Think beyond debate about NBN rollout methodologies, notwithstanding what Jason Clare had to say."

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