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Wednesday August 23, 2017
NBN Watch: The silent migration
by James Pinnell | Jul 17, 2017 | Comment Now
The NBN is undergoing a series of quiet upgrades, even before the entire network's been built.
NBN Watch: The silent migration

There are few things more certain in this world than the reality that Fibre To The Node (FTTN) is arguably one of the worst technologies for brownfields suburban broadband. There are literally dozens of problems – low speed cap, high maintenance costs, high power costs, high equipment outlay, expensive and mainly pointless future upgrades etc – that could be easily mitigated. The biggest problem of all was that, unlike other MTM technologies, the possible variations in speed ranges are dramatic. Some customers are barely able to reach the minimum 25mbps while others top out around 90. Selling plans and making commitments is difficult when the end user has little choice.

I’ve received countless emails and comments from NBN customers fretting about their sync speeds – as in, the speed your modem connects to NBN equipment at, when it is below NBN’s determined threshold. This was a huge problem when ADSL was the mainstay, as your connection speed was based on the arbitrary combination of where the telephone exchange was coupled with how much copper was used to get you there. There used to be stories of customers who were barely a street away, but due to a century of copper routing, there was two to three kilometers of copper winding between other streets before it terminated.

NBN has kept mum on many of these concerns. Most of the questions I have asked them – in regard to the median distance between residences and nodes as well as the max distance between residences and nodes, weren’t answered directly. The rough public word on this is around 400m, but screenshots of sync speeds showing sub-25mbit connections proves that either the copper is bad or the nodes are not as prolific in certain areas as they need to be. Getting this repaired for many is a literal nightmare of bureaucracy – customers must go through their RSPs to get action from NBN, and in many cases the answer seems to be “tough”.

NBN is obviously aware of this – setting up new teams and software to gauge slow or poor connections, as well as finally admitting some of their micro nodes aren’t even serviceable, but these don’t fix the root cause, merely pushing the problems out to create more departments to manage the sub-problems that spawn from over-engineered, massively obsolete technology. We already know that internally, FTTN is a complete nightmare and as many resources as possible are being used to modify the rollout to replace FTTN with the significantly more capable FTTC. But as it stands, 30-40% of connections are still slated to be rolled out with FTTN regardless, mainly so the government can meet its 2020 deadline.

Once 2020 arrives, however, and the “Mission Complete” banner is hoisted above whoever happens to be in government at that time, both the real work and the blame games will begin. NBN won’t suddenly cease to exist after the rollout completes – the company will have literal millions of inadequate and faulty connections to fix and upgrade. It’s wholly likely a future Labor government would wholesale tell NBN to replace all FTTN connections with FTTC (or at least the worst ones, in order to avoid a budget blowout) with a plan to upgrade the network to a minimum 100/40 situation over the the follow three to five years.

There are signs that NBNco is beginning to plan for this outcome – The Daily Telegraph reports that Peter Ryan, NBN’s Chief Engineer, has noted that the network will require extensive upgrades over the next decade to stay relevant and serviceable.

“We are contemplating right now as we roll out the network the ability to upgrade the network not only to meet the needs of Australians today but to future-proof the needs of Australians into decades ahead,” Mr Ryan said.

The true reality of this statement is that it is a stark and rare admittance that what is being rolled out is not exactly fit for use. FTTN is not as easily upgradable as NBN would like people to think – replacing copper to node pathways with fibre and DCUs is expensive as a retrofit. Then there is the sunk cost spent on micronodes that don’t and probably never will work, which will just end up being removed and paved over. Refitting nodes to accept fibre instead of copper requires different equipment and the nodes in general will require higher throughput back to the POIs to deal with higher average speeds.

Then there is the swapping over of copper to fibre in street pits, the restructuring of the network to facilitate higher speeds, software and billing changes. While doable in any sense of the word – building networks isn’t as complicated as it is expensive – it’s completely pointless when we are still heavily engrossed in a build stage. Hell, until very recently we were technically still in a design stage as NBN engineers figured out how to add Layer 2 services to a technology that wasn’t designed to offer them (HFC, which still seems to be one of NBN’s biggest nightmares).

The silent migration to FTTC is already occurring. There’s now about a million residences that are getting it that weren’t 18 months ago - that we know of. Likely countless more will be added to the list when FTTN becomes too difficult, costly or politically inconvenient. The lack of transparency over connections means that we may not ever know how many residences end up on FTTC, but I would assume that almost all of the Service Class 0 connections will end up with the technology of least issue – which is generally FTTP or FTTC since they do not require connections to secondary nodes.

NBN know that to move past 2020 and their current masters they will need to have multiple plans to upgrade the network, and quickly. Most of the mix is largely sustainable for the medium haul – FTTP, HFC and FTTC – and won’t require much work. Once the kinks are worked out in HFC and the issues around peak speeds are resolved we will see a lot more people happier with what they have. But right now, we are effectively burning money with every single FTTN connection that is installed. Those three to four million connections will all need to be replaced within ten years to avoid a huge digital divide once Gigabit speeds are the norm across all of the other options.

NBN left itself a loophole in reporting by combining FTTC and FTTN in the same category. Here’s hoping they keep exploiting that over the next three years.

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