Clearing the air on a fibre-to-the-node NBN

With FTTN and HFC now set to form the backbone of the NBN, it’s time for NBN Co to shed some further light on the design rules.

Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull must be pretty happy at the moment. In the eleven months since the 2013 Federal election Turnbull has worked diligently to dismantle Labor’s NBN, commence the fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) rollout, and justify the change in direction at NBN Co through a deluge of reviews and audits.

When it comes to shredding Labor’s NBN, it’s pretty much mission accomplished for the minister. Now comes the hard part, with the reviews and audits finally finished Turnbull will have nothing to hide behind if the Coalition’s multi-technology mix (MTM) NBN starts to veer off course.

FTTN fanfare

Amongst the doom and gloom surrounding the NBN, there have been rare occasions for celebration in the corridors at NBN Co and the announcement on August 22 that it has connected its first customers to the fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) network is a welcome step forward.

The fanfare surrounding the event was understandable and with NBN Co’s latest progress report showing positive signs it’s important that both NBN Co and minister Turnbull keep things in perspective. 

Turning the NBN rollout into a political circus, any more than what it has already become, would be a dangerous course of action. For $43 billion Australians want progress not a series of photo opportunities.

A cursory look at the reaction to the promotional video extolling the joy of one of NBN Co's first retail customer Martin McInnes would show you that there’s still a lot of discontent bubbling away. That's unlikely to go away in a hurry, even if NBN Co is able to connect one in ten Australian to the NBN by fiscal 2015.

Industry criticism a constant companion

The day before the media event at Umina Beach, a furious iiNet CEO David Buckingham stated "NBN Co needs to get on with the roll-out. We're sick of waiting. Speed up their operational roll-out, speed up negotiations, they really need to speed up everything. They really need to start unleashing the plan that they keep putting in front of us."

On the same day, Vodafone Hutchinson Australia CEO Iñaki Berroeta told the Trans-Tasman Business Circle lunch that “the competitive landscape was still geared to give Telstra maximum advantage.”

“Our job is to create a very strong Vodafone,” Mr Berroeta said. “We ask the policy makers to create a level competition playing field.”

Mr Berroeta went on to question why Telstra is profiting from “one of the biggest public investments in communications infrastructure” at a time when Telstra is “one of the most profitable telecommunication companies in the world.”

Placating these concerns won’t be easy and may yet to deliver additional twists and turns to an already convoluted process.

FTTN fanfare

There’s no doubt that the new management team led by CEO Bill Morrow is starting to work through a checklist of problems. Having been given the task of building the NBN in accordance with the directions provided in the government’s Statement of Expectations, the current bonhomie around FTTN has been in the making for some time.

NBN Co’s reorganisation and change in direction was carried out in the first half of 2014 and NBN Co was ready to commence and ramp up the FTTN rollout in early July 2014.

However, it quickly became apparent that the renegotiated Telstra agreement would not be finalised until just before the run up to Telstra’s AGM to be held on October 14.

What this meant was the government needed to either delay the FTTN rollout or to hide the beginning of the FTTN rollout. Thus it was decided to start the FTTN rollout and call the initial contract with Telstra a “pilot.”

The reality is that NBN Co has commenced the FTTN rollout and is attempting to downplay the milestone because the Telstra agreement renegotiation that will provide unfettered access to the copper access network is yet to be completed.

NBN Co’s $150 million deal with Telstra in July 2014 to rollout 1000 nodes to connect 206,000 premises in New South Wales and Queensland is now in full swing and Australian’s should begin to see substantially improved rollout figures from NBN Co over coming months. Morrow has also announced additional FTTN rollout sites, commencing with a 300 node rollout to be completed by NBN Co using a Telstra prepared design and external contractors.

The announcement that customers are now being connected to NBN Co’s FTTN network provides a perfect opportunity for Morrow to shed light on the FTTN and HFC design rules.

What we know right now about FTTN

NBN Co’s 1000 node construction trial fact sheet provides details of the FTTN rollout being carried out by Telstra and it’s assumed that the 300 node construction to be completed by NBN Co using a Telstra design and external contractors will be very similar.

The fact sheet states that NBN Co is “using Alcatel-Lucent ISAM 7330 VDSL2 Vectoring hardware.” Each cabinet can support 384 lines and that FTTN nodes “can be installed on the street near the [existing Telstra] pillar to house new broadband equipment and enable the physical connection to existing copper in the pillar.”

The existing Telstra telecommunication pillars are “dome-topped metal cylinders that contain connections to copper services for around 200 premises.” What this means is the FTTN cabinets could be only 60 per cent utilised, and this adds up to a significant under-utilisation and cost blow-out for a national FTTN rollout.

The Alcatel-Lucent ISAM 7330 performs the function of a concentrator, which is a network device that aggregates traffic coming in from many customers onto a smaller transit link that carries traffic to the nearest of the 121 NBN Co Points of Interconnect (PoI).

A concentrator does not guarantee that all of the traffic coming from customers will be transmitted to the nearest NBN Co PoI and NBN Co has failed to tell Australians how much traffic will be lost as more customers are connected to each node and what the capacity of the transit links will be.

As more customers are connected to each node the congestion at the cabinet will increase and performance will drop. Similarly there has been no information made available about changes to the transit and aggregation sections of the NBN to accommodate FTTN and HFC.

British telco BT’s former chief technology officer Peter Cochrane told a UK House of Lords inquiry in March 2012 that a FTTN-style broadband is “one of the biggest mistakes humanity has made, it ties a knot in the cable in terms of bandwidth and it imposes huge unreliability risks.”

With FTTN and HFC now set to form the backbone of the NBN, it’s time for Morrow to provide some clarity on these issues.

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