The objective of this site is to provide a down-to-earth description of the NBN and of the differences between the version currently being employed and the proposed Coalition version. There is also considerable difference in opinion of the value of this giant project. The author believes that the project will be of enormous importance for the future of Australia – perhaps more so than any other issue raised during the last election. It is important to understand the project and the alternatives in order to take an informed position.
The Coalition proposes a different broadband network. In their version, taking fibre right up to the premise is abandoned for most existing premises. Instead, they propose to keep the existing copper from the current distribution points (called pillars) to the home. The copper from the exchange to the pillars is to be replaced by fiber. According to the preferred scenario in the Coalition’s Strategic Review, released in December 2013, they want to upgrade existing HFC networks rather than replace it with FTTP or FTTN in the foreseeable future.
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The NBN is currently being installed in a large number of sites in Australia. It will provide fibre right up to the home for approximately 93% of Australian premises. Most of this site provides information on how it is to be done, the benefits, the expected cost, the timetable and the current status.
The Coalition Alternative
The Coalition has now proposed an alternative to the NBN. This is to be mainly a FTTN (fibre to the node) solution for at least some (unspecified) part of the country. Mr Turnbull said in the past: “No, the Coalition will not cancel or roll back the NBN. The NBN will continue to roll out but we will do so in a cost-effective manner in particular in built-up areas.” What he did not make clear is that he proposes a FTTN solution rather than a FTTP (fibre to the premises) solution. To call this “the NBN” is quite deceitful.
A FTTN solution is viable and may initially be built cheaper and faster than the NBN (FTTP) solution. It should be considered. On the other hand, a wireless solution cannot be considered seriously. The lack of insufficient radio spectrum and other physical limitations have lead all major Telcos around the world to reject this as a possible broadband solution.
The choice is to continue with the current NBN (FTTP) soultion or to switch to the Coalition’s cheaper (FTTN) solution. Mr. Abbot seemed at least to have moved on from when he proclaimed that the NBN as a “White Elephant” that should be dismantled.
FTTP vs FTTN in a nutshell
The NBN solution provides fibre from the exchange right up to each premise. The FTTN solution provides fibre from the exchange to a node, which is a street-side cabinet. The existing copper cables from the cabinet to individual premises remain in place.
This is the reason why FTTN will be cheaper to install. The copper from the nodes to the premises do not have to be replaced. This will be a big component of the cost for the NBN.
The cabinets used for FTTN nodes are large (about the size of a very large fridge) and require power. The copper is getting old and will eventually have to be replaced.
FTTP nodes do not require power. Because the copper is replaced, the NBN has more flexibility with the placement of the nodes. This is limited because the re-use of Telstra ducts and pits.
It is generally anticipated that the growth of the internet will eventually require fibre all the way to the home. A quick internet search will produce may articles like the one from Growing Optical Fibre Deployments quoted below:
Investments in Fibre-to-the-Home/Building (FTTH/B) will continue to remain crucial to growth in the market. Liberalization of regulatory regimes in several countries and support from government for deployment of FTTH/B bodes well for the market. Globally, the number of fibre-connected homes is expected to increase at robust double-digit rates, driven by significant FTTH deployments by leading operators in North America, Asia Pacific and the EMEA.
If we accept that FTTP is inevitable then “cheaper” FTTN does not look as attractive. If the end objective is FTTP, then the installation of a large number of powered FTTN nodes is an additional expense and the total cost will eventually be much more. Even Mr Turnbull must think that FTTP is superior to FTTN because he proposes that all new estates should be using FTTP.
Some of the copper in the ground has been in for 50 to 60 years and will need replacement soon. This problem will go away if all copper is replaced with fibre which is not susceptible to corrosion. Although fibre has not been around long enough to have accurate measurements of its life span, expectation is that it will be at least as long as that of copper. The cladding used for cable is an important factor which should extend the life of the fibre beyond that of the old copper. Modern techniques are used in cable manufacturing. In practical fibres, the cladding is usually coated with a layer of acrylate polymer or polyimide. This coating protects the fibre from damage. Individual coated fibres (or fibres formed into ribbons or bundles) then have a tough resin buffer layer and/or core tube(s) extruded around them to form the cable core. Several layers of protective sheathing, depending on the application, are added to form the cable.
Speed and upgradability
The initial version NBN will be able to provide speeds of 100 Megabits per second ( Mb/s) downstream and 40 Mb/s upstream regardless of a users distance from a node. By only changing the equipment in the Exchange and the premises, these speeds can easily be upgraded by a factor of 10 or 100 and by more in the future. No change in the network is required.
A FTTN solution will be able to provide the 100-40 Mb/s speeds to premises close to nodes. For premises further away it will be less. These limits are unlikely to be capable of being extended significantly any time in the future. All indications are that there will be a requirement for such speeds by the year 2020. This means that by the time the NBN rollout is completed the FTTN solution will be in urgent need for update. The powered FTTN cabinets will be redundant, fibre will have to be extended to the premises and the total cost will exceed that of the NBN.
Time to Build
The NBN is scheduled to take ten years to build. It has already taken three years to get to the point where we are now. Much of this time was spent on getting the rules and regulation in place. This included:
- Wresting control of its “last mile” monopoly from Telstra and how they should be compensated for that.
- Getting approval from Telstra and its shareholders to use its facilities.
- Getting agreement from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on where service providers will connect to the network (points of interconnect or POIs).
- What regulations should be in place to ensure that service providers get a fair deal from the NBN Co.
In addition preparation and planning had to be done:
- The NBN Co had to be created and staffed.
- The NBN Co’s IT systems had to be evaluated, selected and implemented.
- Two major facilities were created for manufacturing fibre in Australia.
- Contractors had to be found and terms negotiated.
- A network control centre had to be built.
- Network equipment had to be evaluated, tested and ordered.
- Exchanges had to be prepared with the necessary equipment, not only for existing areas where the NBN replaces existing networks but for new suburbs being built.
- The network had to be tested and fine-tuned to ensure that best practices are achieved.
All the above was done and the NBN is currently ramping up. The NBN Co monthly rollout plan (this information was deleted from the NBN web site after the election) issued in July 2013 lists the current areas being rolled out. The scheduled rollout for the ten year plan is here.
A switch to a FTTN solution will not happen overnight. The rules and regulation will have to be adapted and re-negotiated and the preparation and planning done again. By the time all this has happened, the NBN rollout would have been far advanced. All this for a solution that will probably be out of date and insufficient by the time it is completed. A switch back to FTTP will then again be required.
The “faster” part of Mr Turnbull’s “cheaper and faster” solution also does not seem to be that compelling!
Private or Public
The Coalition seems bent on returning control of the NBN to private enterprise for ideological reasons. Below is a quote from Rodney Tiffen, professor of government at the University of Sydney in the Sydney Morning Herald in Sept. 2009:
But a private monopoly does not necessarily benefit consumers more than a public monopoly; indeed, sometimes the reverse.
The key policy issue is: what is a natural monopoly and when does competition produce more dynamism and responsiveness to consumers? Since telecommunications reform came on to the public agenda about two decades ago, there had been a bipartisan failure to address this central question.
Under the Keating government we had the unedifying spectacle of Telstra and Optus both frenetically laying out cable (then both just as suddenly stopping), and their decision about where to put cable was overwhelmingly determined by where their competitor was doing it. The result was that less than a quarter of Australian homes had access to cable, but of these about 80 per cent had access to two cables. In other words, for about the same investment, a publicly directed policy could have ensured that almost twice as many homes received access to cable as did under ”market forces”.
The rollout by Telstra since privatization of RIM based solutions also shows how users suffered from a private monopoly in “last mile” communications.
The current ALP plan is that NBN Co should eventually be returned into private hands some time after the build is complete. There may be several government changes before that time arrives and opinions on the need and value of this differs. If the sale does happen at least we would have a well structured, uniform network to start off with!