news The Opposition said this week that it has received about 60 complaints from early adopters of the Government’s preferred Fibre to the Node NBN rollout model, many of whom were receiving such poor service that they would prefer to have their original ADSL broadband back.
On Tuesday this week Delimiter published the story of Newcastle resident Robbie Gratton, an Optus FTTN customer on the National Broadband Network who detailed how his connection would slow down to almost unusable speeds during peak periods.
Later that night in Senate Estimates hearing pertaining to the NBN, former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy revealed Labor had received about 60 similar complaints so far from early adopter users of the Fibre to the Node network which the NBN company is deploying around Australia. The full Hansard transcript is available online in PDF format; the NBN section starts on page 97.
The original version of the NBN as envisioned by the previous Labor Government called for most Australian premises to be covered by a full Fibre to the Premises rollout, with the remainder to be covered by satellite and fixed wireless technology.
The Coalition’s controversial Multi-Technology Mix instituted by Malcolm Turnbull as Communications Minister has seen the company switch to a technically inferior model re-using and upgrading the legacy copper (Fibre to the Node) and HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus.
Conroy gave a number of detailed examples of the issues.
For example, a Robin Dell from Belmont North said that they had signed up to a 50Mbps NBN FTTN service, but such speed were only “rarely achieved”. “Could you please make inquiries of the appropriate officers or ministers as to whether the FTTN NBN will provide a worse service compare to the ADSL 2+ it is replacing,” they asked. “At the moment that seems to be the case.”
Conroy said another user, Gerry Wallace from Valentine, wanted to go back to ADSL. It appears Wallace bought a 100Mbps FTTN plan, but it now goes down to under 5Mbps in the evening, and he is having trouble communicating with colleagues overseas and in Brisbane.
“Mr Maxwell Taylor … Gorokan, said he was better off under ADSL 1,” said Conroy. “There was a cabinet right outside the front of his house. He bought an up to [100Mbps] plan and was getting as low as [2Mbps]. He said that it was shocking at night and weekends and considerably slower than his old ADSL service. He has to hotspot his Optus mobile phone to get a decent service.”
Conroy further added: “Lawrence Alderton in … Belmont, said: ‘I have been connected to the NBN for two days with TPG on a [25Mbps] plan. What a joke. Peak time download speed is around four megs. That’s less than my old ADSL 2.'”
There were a number of other similar examples detailed by Conroy in the hearings, including some aged residents who were actually without service because the self-install process for the NBN’s FTTN network had failed, despite a number of FTTN modems having been sent out to customers.
“… apparently nothing can be done because Telstra is too overwhelmed with complaints in the area,” said Conroy about one customer.
In response to the issue, NBN chief executive Bill Morrow said he was “certain that the problems were real for the customers concerned. The executive said he did not want any customers to have a poor experience on the NBN.
However, Morrow stated that it was his belief that the similar teething problems would have been seen when the NBN company first started deploying its original Fibre to the Premises model, and that the issues were not related to the specific nature of Fibre to the Node as a broadband technology.
“I know you had many calls coming into your office when we first started to roll out fibre to prem as well,” he told Conroy, who was Communications Minister at the time. “It is the unfortunate nature of doing something for the first time.”
Morrow said the NBN company had examined every complaint that had so far been received about its FTTN network, and stated clearly that “not one of them was actually a speed issue that was related specifically to the Fibre to the Node technology”.
Instead, Morrow said, there were a number of other issues that could come into play, especially the amount of capacity which each retail ISP (such as Telstra or Optus) had purchased to aggregate customer connections back to their backbone networks.
“For people that are experiencing a peak busy hour reduction of speed, that is more likely to do with that CVC capacity that has been purchased by the RSP, the provision in the network size by the RSP and/or if there are other points of contention within the network,” said Morrow. “We evaluated and inspected every complaint on this to see, because it is so important for us to understand if in fact the technology cannot deliver the speeds that we need to. We did not find one case where the fibre-to-the-node technology was a factor in those speed complaints.”
Morrow said the NBN company was working very closely with the retail ISPs to resolve the issues.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield also acknowledged he had received complaints on the issue.
On a technical basis, and examining the evidence, I am forced to agree with Morrow about this issue.
While Fibre to the Node is a comprehensively inferior broadband delivery mechanism compared to superior alternatives such as Fibre to the Premises, it still remains fact that it is not likely to be FTTN as a technology platform that is responsible for the peak hour congestion issues we are seeing here.
The bottleneck in this situation would not be in the copper cable running between customer premises and neighbourhood nodes, and nor would it be likely to be in the (extremely high capacity) fibre which runs from those nodes to local telephone exchanges. Instead, the issue is likely to be in the amount of capacity which retail ISPs are provisioning to each node — how much ‘CVC’ circuit capacity they are buying from the NBN company.
We’ve seen this same issue with ADSL services previously in Australia. Many will recall the term “contention ratio” and how there often seemed to be a vast difference in how that ration was applied between the various retail ISPs out there. I think we’re seeing a similar issue here. Retail ISPs like Optus appear to have completely underestimated the amount of capacity FTTN will require.
There are other issues, of course. The NBN company and its partners are not perfect at making appointments with customers to install FTTN, communicating with those customers, getting the right modem to those customers, and dealing with a hundred other issues involved in the broadband provisioning process.
However, again Morrow is right to say that many of these issues are not specific to FTTN as a technology but more related to the fact that this is a new type of rollout mechanism that the company is trialling.
The proof that FTTN can be reliably delivered in Australia is pretty easy to see. As I have previously written, I am on TransACT’s FTTN network in Canberra. I usually get speeds of up to 90Mbps even during peak periods, and installation of the service was a breeze. We’ve had very few outages, as this is a mature and well-developed network. It’s also being successfully used in the UK.
None of this is to say, of course, that FTTN is suitable as a technology for the NBN in general. My view continues to be that we shouldn’t be wasting time on it. Even if decent FTTN speeds can be achieved today, over the next 15 years the network will come to be massively outdated and need a huge upgrade to get to FTTP.
By 2030 at the outside (more likely 2025), Australians will consider FTTN the same way they do ADSL today — quite limited and not delivering what they need in their everyday life. That is the greater unaddressed issue here. We should not be conducting halfway measures when the obvious future of telecommunications networks is in ubiquitous optic fibre.
Video credit: Parliamentary Broadcasting