Why the NBN can do without fibre-to-the-node

NBN Co has quietly sent out tenders for a national FTTN rollout using obsolete VDSL2 technology. This week in Business Spectator what this means is discussed and why NBN Co should drop VDSL2 and move to FTTdp/G.Fast. If copper is to be used then NBN Co needs to focus on competitive technology, not obsolete FTTN/VDSL2. Morrow's failure to take NBN Co beyond the government's ill fated NBN design will lead to one of the greatest technology disasters in Australian history. Can Morrow step up to the plate?

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NBN Co boss Bill Morrow has got one year under his belt in what’s arguably one of the most difficult jobs in the country. It’s a challenge that he’s acutely aware of and despite quite a few ticks in the win column so far, Morrow’s job isn’t getting any easier.

If anything, as the focus of the National Broadband Network (NBN) debate shifts from politics to technology, Morrow needs to answer some critical questions, one's that could well determine if the current NBN plan is worth the effort.  

Morrow recently described his experience as the boss at NBN Co “amazing” and praised the company by saying that “I have been involved in many great companies in my career but nothing comes close to this one.”

He goes on to say that while the NBN has turned into a political football these last six years (yes, it really has been six years) NBN Co is working hard to deliver all the benefits of an ubiquitous network to Australians

There’s no doubt that Australians will benefit from a NBN of any shape right now. The Netflix-induced woes of iiNet are just the latest illustration of how ill-equipped the existing infrastructure is in coping with the demands of the digital age.

The government’s post-election Statement of Expectations (SOE), that states the NBN “should be built in a cost-effective way using technology best matched to each area of Australia” utilising ‘Scenario 6’ identified in the flawed Strategic Review, promoted to use of an obsolete fibre-to-the-node (FTTN )technology.

The SOE was careful to give direction to NBN Co while appearing to be technology neutral, including reference only to ‘Scenario 6’ and the need for NBN Co to conduct trials of Fibre to the x (FTTx) network architectures.

Why not ditch FTTN 

One particular concern is NBN Co's insistence on rolling out FTTN/VDSL2 technology. Sure the faster VDSL2 with vectoring will be employed as the opportunity occurs but in some areas this could be up to 18 months after the shift to VDSL2 occurs and the end result is a download speed of less than 100 Mbps. The FTTN/VDSL2 rollout has not officially commenced and is unlikely to before the ACCC announces that it is happy with the Telstra agreements.

Why is NBN Co going to rollout FTTN/VDSL2/vectoring for the next decade when the UK’s national carrier BT has announced a fibre-to-the-distribution point (FTTdp)/G.Fast rollout will commence in 2016? G.Fast was approved on 5 December 2014 and commercial quantities of G.Fast devices should become available for national rollouts by the end of 2015.

BT’s FTTdp/G.Fast trial results were up to 696 Mbps download and 200 Mbps upload over 66 metres of copper and FTTdp provides the option for customers to self-install fibre into premises. Surely this is a much better option than spending money on rolling out obsolete FTTN/VDSL2/vectoring technology?

Given the well documented and expensive problems associated with upgrading from FTTN/VDSL2 to FTTdp/G.Fast or FTTP. We’re talking about only one more year before G.Fast becomes available in commercial quantities so why not have NBN Co commence a national FTTdp/G.Fast rollout now?

This would mean cancelling the wasteful multi-billion dollar FTTN/VDSL2/vectoring tender that was recently released by NBN Co to selected vendors (Alcatel-Lucent, Adtrans and Calix). We’re left to ponder why such a large tender did not rate a media release? Incidentally, BT and Swisscom – two companies often used as exemplars by NBN Co – both use Huawei devices including FTTN/VDSL2/vectoring and FTTdp/G.Fast?

Bill Morrow has an opportunity right now to prevent one of the greatest technology disasters in Australian history by moving beyond the obsolete FTTN to FTTdp which provides cheaper G.Fast and self-install FTTP for customers that are bandwidth conscious. And there is a strong possibility that retail service providers might bundle the pit to premises fibre installation cost with broadband plans.

It is vital therefore to use HFC and FTTdp/G.Fast rather than FTTN/VDSL2/vectoring for the fixed access network component of the NBN.

More questions than answers on construction 

Six years into the project NBN Co is a long way from completing the NBN and the key reasons for the glacial rollout has been the decisions to continue with a broken construction approach and to change technologies mid-rollout.

Speaking to The Weekend Australian last week Morrow stated “we’ve introduced a competitive component to this that means if a delivery partner was over-performing in their parcel of work, and another was under­performing, then we will reward the over-performer so they can expand their market share and move into areas of work that were lagging. For the first time this has brought in true, competitive ­tension for the construction ­contracts.”

That may well be a worthy achievement but let’s not forget that it has taken more than 18 months since the last election for the construction contracts to be renegotiated and for them to include “a range of incentives and penalties that could see construction partners snare work from rival builders if they outperform in their duties to connect homes to the $41 billion project.”

It's also rather timely that the new contracts will coincide with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) determinations regarding the renegotiated Definitive Agreements between NBN Co and Telstra that opens the door for fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) and HFC to be introduced into the NBN and Telstra’s proposed revised Migration Plan under Telstra’s Structural Separation Undertaking.    

If NBN Co is to wear more of the risks associated with the construction process why continue to outsource construction? There have been ongoing problems with the outsourced construction process, including the well-paid construction companies failing to meet deadlines and disquiet at the coalface where the mum and dad infrastructure installation teams have been complaining that their receiving a pittance for their work.

Where is the money going and why outsource construction for a national telecommunications infrastructure rollout?

The opportunity for NBN Co to adopt the Northern Territory model, where NBN Co is managing the rollout and employing the rollout teams, appears to have been missed and it is important that NBN Co provide more details on the construction process, and why alternatives have not been adopted, because the current rollout rate of about 10,000 premises per week will see the NBN completed around 2030.

After only one year at NBN Co is it too early for Morrow to consider his legacy? It's all well and good to talk about the mission of delivering the benefits of the NBN to Australians, delivering it is a different kettle of fish altogether.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.

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