news A highly respected Australian telecommunications consulting firm has reportedly claimed that most Australians would be able to get the full 100Mbps speeds possible under the Coalition’s alternative fibre to the node vision, due to the fact that most premises will be a suitable distance from local neighbourhood ‘nodes’.
Under Labor’s NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premise, delivering maximum download speeds of up to 1Gbps and maximum upload speeds of 400Mbps. The remainder of the population was to have been served by a combination of satellite and wireless broadband, delivering speeds of up to 25Mbps.
Originally, the Coalition’s policy was to have seen fibre to the premises deployed to a significantly lesser proportion of the population — 22 percent — with 71 percent covered by fibre to the node technology, where fibre is extended to neighbourhood ‘nodes’ and the remainder of the distance to premises covered by Telstra’s existing copper network. The Coalition’s policy was also continue to use the HFC cable network operated by Telstra and will also target the remaining 7 percent of premises with satellite and wireless.
However, the possibility of a different style of rollout has been raised by Turnbull in the several weeks since the Liberal MP became Communications Minister. In late September, Turnbull appeared to have drastically modified the Coalition’s policy stance on the NBN just weeks after the Federal Election, declaring the Coalition was not wedded to its fibre to the node model and was “thoroughly open-minded” about the technology to be used in the network. NBN Co is currently conducting a strategic review into its operations and model that will inform Turnbull’s decisions regarding the project’s future.
The Coalition’s overall policy is based on the core pledge that a Coalition Government would deliver download speeds of between 25Mbps and 100Mbps by the end of 2016 — effectively the end of its first term in power — and 50Mbps to 100Mbps by the end of 2019, effectively the end of its second term. The 25Mbps to 100Mbps pledge applies to “all premises”, while the higher pledge by 2019 applies to “90 percent of fixed line users”.
If a FTTN network rollout is to go ahead, a key factor which will determine the speeds which customers will receive is the distance of their premise from local neighbourhood ‘nodes’ linking Telstra’s existing copper network with NBN Co’s fibre network extended out from telephone exchanges.
Some light was cast on the situation by Mike Galvin, the managing director of network investment at BT’s Openreach networks division. In an interview with the CommsDay Crosstalk podcast at the time, Galvin said that Openreach assumed that a copper loop length of around 400 metres would deliver the full speeds available to customers on the country’s FTTN network. Openreach offers speeds of up to 76Mbps on its network.
“All local networks are different. And I would be very surprised if there was any difference in Australia as well. Normally we would say around about 400 metres you will get 80 mbps but you don’t know until you actually measure the electrical characteristics of the network, exactly what you get,” said Galvin at the time. Openreach has deployed its FTTN network to some 16 million premises since the network rollout was commenced in 2009, with more than 1.7 million premises having signed up for active connections to the infrastructure.
In an article in the Financial Review this morning (we recommend you click here for the full article), consulting firm GQI Consulting stated that a study it had conducted had found that up to 82 percent of homes in cities were within 500m of a copper node — meaning it would be likely they would receive close to 100Mbps under a FTTN rollout.
The Coalition’s frequently asked questions policy document states: “The last serious plans for FTTN in Australia in 2007 and 2008 had maximum loop lengths of between 750m and 800m. That would mean that minimum speeds of 25mbps are more than feasible. Recent trials by Alcatel have shown that even at lengths of 750m they are getting speeds in excess of 50mbps so the technology is improving all the time.”
If GQI’s analysis is correct, it appears that the new Coalition Government would indeed, at a minimum, be able to achieve its first aim of getting 25Mbps broadband deployed to most Australians through a FTTN network deployment, with it being likely that most would actually receive higher speeds.
However, if Galvin’s analysis is also correct, then the combination of the two facts would be likely to mean that it would actually be the 400m copper loop length, rather than the 500m loop length cited by GQI, that would be a more critical stepping level for customers to get really high broadband speeds of up to 80Mbps.
Complicating the situation is that the width of the copper cable is seen as a significant limiting factor in terms of speed. In the UK, although Galvin noted in his Crosstalk interview that even copper dating back to the 1920’s could successfully carry high-speed broadband, it is believed that much of Australia’s copper cable is quite old and based upon a 0.4 or below width. In comparison, due to factors such as the replacement of telecommunications networks after World War II, it is believed the quality of the UK’s copper cable is often higher than that found in Australia.
Is the new information presented by GQI in this AFR article interesting? Certainly, it is. It suggests, as we’ve seen with quite a few similar studies in the past, that the Coalition’s preferred FTTN deployment model is viable in Australia and may even result in better outcomes than the Coalition has been predicting. That’s nice to know. It’s kind of like: If we’re going to get an inferior class of NBN, it’ll be at the upper end of inferior for most people — closer to 100Mbps than 25Mbps, but still nowhere near the 1Gbps speeds possible over fibre.
However, as with all such studies, there are just so many unknowns here. The precise number of nodes needed to get a result of 100Mbps to the majority of users, how precisely the width of Telstra’s copper in different areas will affect those speeds, and so on. I would say that the information presented by GQI presents a favourable light — a light conducted on information available in a spreadsheet but not information gleaned from actually going out in the field — on the Coalition’s preferred FTTN model, but as always this has to be mediated by the very real concerns about the FTTN model in Australia.
Then too, there is always the ‘why bother’ angle. Australia’s long-term telecommunications needs will clearly outgrow the FTTN-based model at some point, and then we’ll need to talk about upgrading to fibre all the way to the premise. Why not just dig in for the long haul and deploy fibre everywhere to start with?