opinion In Asia Pacific, only two countries are undertaking nationwide government-backed rollouts of an FTTH-based national broadband network (NBN): Singapore and Australia, markets that could scarcely be more different in terms of geographic size and suitability for ubiquitous FTTH-network deployment.
Since Singapore’s NBN deployment is in a far more advanced stage than the Australian version – which is being deployed by the National Broadband Network Company (NBN Co.) – the Singaporean rollout can offer some indication to NBN Co. of what can be expected on the long road ahead.
In Singapore’s case, the principal problem that OpenNet – the SingTel-led consortium that is responsible for building, managing and operating the Singaporean NBN – is experiencing is the difficulty of gaining access to multiple-dwelling units (MDUs) such as high-rise apartment buildings and other large housing complexes to install FTTH connections, a problem that will be familiar to many other FTTH-network operators in the region. Although Singapore’s NBN has been connected to about three-quarters of the country’s buildings, as of end-June the network had just 40,200 subscriptions, well behind the government’s original expectations.
MDUs cause problems
The principal reason for the slow take-up has been the fact that many building owners have yet to give permission for OpenNet to install last-mile FTTH connections in their buildings, meaning that the country’s NBN retail-service providers are unable to offer services in many buildings.
According to data from the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore, as of November 2010 about 90% of management/corporation-strata title (MCST) owners of MDUs contacted by OpenNet had rejected OpenNet’s offer to install FTTH connections in their buildings.
A renewed effort by OpenNet has improved the acceptance rate: As of end-August the firm had contacted 47% of the owners of the country’s MDUs, half of which have since completed their NBN installations. The rest have yet to give approval for installation.
OpenNet has yet to establish contact with the remaining 53% of MCST owners in the country, and it looks unlikely that they will be any more forthcoming than the initial batch contacted by OpenNet with regard to last-mile NBN installation, though OpenNet is working with the government to solve the problem of gaining access to MDUs.
Although OpenNet – in truly efficient Singaporean style – is likely to overcome its problems with accessing MDUs and finally deploy its last-mile FTTH connections, it will probably be a while before every household has access to the shiny new NBN.
The Hong Kong experience
Veteran FTTH-network operators in Hong Kong warn that gaining access to MDUs is by far the hardest part of deploying a FTTH network and say that in a significant number of cases it can prove impossible for an operator to gain access to a building to deploy infrastructure.
“Getting into the buildings from the street or up the buildings requires a number of factors, such as forming a working relationship with the building management or owners, and that’s just to get permission to enter the building in the first place,” a senior executive from Hong Kong incumbent operator PCCW told Informa Telecoms & Media.
“From there, you then have to deal with a lot of different factors, such as the amount of in-building decoration that has to be disturbed in order to deploy the in-building wiring. This is actually a really serious but often overlooked factor in deploying network infrastructure.”
In addition, the executive says that one a firm has gained permission to access a building, in-building deployment can often be delayed by unforeseen problems, such as blockages between the floor riser and the entry doors of each home in the building.
The executive says another common problem that the firm has encountered in its FTTH deployment is the need to reinstall ducting in many older buildings, usually because the existing ducting is in too poor a condition to support FTTH wiring, meaning that the firm must spend additional time and money to install new ducting in the entire building before installation can take place.
A senior executive from Hong Kong Broadband Network (HKBN) says it took the company “years to resolve this problem of getting in-building access,” though he adds that HKBN has largely overcome the barriers it faced in the earlier years of deploying its near-nationwide FTTH network.
Although PCCW and HKBN have both widely deployed FTTH networks in Hong Kong, not all firms in the country have been able to gain in-building access to deploy network infrastructure. Most notably, leading terrestrial broadcaster Television Broadcasts (TVB) found its plans to deploy a nationwide digital SMATV network to carry its pay TV platform stymied by an inability to gain access to buildings to deploy a last-mile cable-transmission network to individual homes. The firm was ultimately forced to abandon the project.
The Australian NBN challenge
The issue of gaining in-building access to MDUs will be of crucial importance to NBN Co. in Australia, given the company’s estimation that about 37% of NBN connections will be installed in MDUs, equating to about 4.5 million of the 12.2 million FTTH premises on the network.
In an interview published Nov. 8, NBN Co.’s general manager of operational support systems, John King, told ZDNet that NBN Co. was trying to ease the deployment of the NBN in apartment buildings and townhouse complexes by working with body-corporate groups – the management arms of MDUs – to develop standard processes for NBN installation. Under the current plan for connecting an MDU to the NBN, the company meets with individual body-corporate groups and formulates a design for installation in the building, which the group then needs to approve.
In the early phase of its network deployment, NBN Co. has been running into problems gaining access to MDUs, most notably in the early-rollout area of Brunswick in inner-city Melbourne, where only just over half of premises opted to have the NBN connected. NBN Co. says it typically makes several attempts to gain consent from body-corporate groups to install the network in a building before declaring that access to the MDU in question is being officially “frustrated.”
Another problem experienced by NBN Co. has been the fact that many apartments inside MDUs are occupied by rental tenants, meaning that the firm has to get consent from both the renter and owner of the property before it can install a connection to the property – an extremely labor-intensive and time-consuming process.
The operator says the key to gaining in-building access to MDUs in the longer term will be in continuing to consult with body-corporate groups as closely as possible. The process is likely to be facilitated by the gradual switchoff of the existing Telstra copper network, which will persuade body corporate groups to grant NBN Co. access to buildings or face losing access to fixed-line telecommunications altogether.
Lessons learned the hard way
Amid the hype over FTTH deployments and talk about 1Gbps access speeds and the extraordinary applications that such bandwidth can bring, people often overlook the fact that some unfortunate individuals are out there doing the hard labor to make the technical revolution possible in the first place.
It’s not just a sweaty, boiler-suited technician running fiber-optic cable into an apartment building, either: It is also a small army of administration workers trying to track down elusive apartment owners to get permission to install FTTH in their rented properties or working out a network-installation plan with a confused body-corporate group.
Deploying an extensive fixed-broadband communications network is hard work and can take a long time, sometimes a lot longer than folks had planned for, even in a market such as Singapore, which appears to be one of the easiest places to deploy a nationwide FTTH network because of its small size and high population density. Given that Australia’s NBN is over 10 times the size of its Singaporean counterpart, it is inevitable that NBN Co. in Australia will run into its fair share of deployment headaches in dealing with MDUs. We know that just from its early rollout experiences in Brunswick.
The real question is what the cost of these difficulties will be in both time and money. It is going to be extremely expensive and time-consuming if NBN Co. has to make multiple visits to a rollout site to connect MDUs in the area, a state of affairs that would put pressure on budgets and completion targets. The situation is made even more complex by the turning off of the Telstra network: Although in many cases it should prompt body-corporate groups to pull their act together and have their MDUs connected to the NBN, it might cause some buildings to be cut off from fixed-line telecoms services altogether – a nasty prospect from a PR perspective.
Overall, Hong Kong’s experience suggests that NBN Co. in Australia will ultimately be able to gain access to most – but maybe not all – MDUs with recalcitrant owners to complete its network rollout, but doing so will require the patience of Job and might take a lot longer than anyone thought.