NBN: 'supercharged' copper needs no replacing for FttN

NBN's usage of the legacy copper network has been successful to date, with consumers able to get high speeds while utilising the widely panned fibre-to-the-node network.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The company rolling out Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has claimed that it has not had to replace any of the legacy copper in installing its fibre-to-the-node (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 on Thursday.

"We are supercharging existing copper network lines and pay-TV cables."

Following the Coalition's election at the end of 2013, NBN 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 Australian 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.

ISP consumer group Internet Australia added that there are "serious concerns" about using the outdated copper network to provide high-speed broadband across the country.

"Our expert members have serious concerns about the long-term viability of using the old and ageing Telstra copper network to provide a 21st century service," CEO Laurie Patton said.

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.

NBN CEO Bill Morrow recently claimed that adding FttN to the stable of technologies being used in the network would improve broadband speeds and reliability in Australia, saying that once the rollout is complete, the NBN will put Australia "on an equal if not better footing than most of our global peers in terms of broadband delivery speeds".

Turnbull also claimed that it would cost less and be delivered faster than Labor's full FttP rollout.

"The corporate plan shows that the multi-technology mix remains the most cost- and time-efficient means of completing the NBN, delivering upgrades six to eight years sooner, and at around AU$30 billion less cost than an all-fibre to the premises alternative," Turnbull said in a joint statement with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann in August.

"The government's broadband policy is technology agnostic. NBN Co is free to use whatever mix of technologies is required to get the job done as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. The company therefore has, in the light of its extensive experience building FttP, determined what the peak funding requirement and time to complete would be for an all-FttP build.

"The company's conclusion is that an all-FttP approach, as proposed by Labor, would have a peak funding requirement of $74 billion to $84 billion and would not be finished until as late as 2028."

Clare admitted that should Labor come into power at the next election, he would not be able to reinstate a full FttP network.

"I can't fix the mess this government has made with the flick of a switch, or pull out every node or stop all the work NBN is currently doing without potentially causing more problems and wasting a lot of sunk investment," Clare said.

"If anyone thinks I can just click my fingers the day after the election and we can go back to the way it was, they will be disappointed."

However, he did promise that the FttN rollout would be canned under Labor.

"Fibre to the node will be gone. It's not a question of if this will happen. It's when it will happen and how it will be done," he said.

"If you vote for the Labor party at the next election, you will be voting for more fibre. For more details you will have to wait until a bit closer to the next election."

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