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Interview: Dave Berstein on the NBN, construction and VDSL

xDSL, fibre, construction and gigabits

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Dave Berstein of DSL Prime and Fastnet News visited Australia during April for the CommsDay Summit. The Register interviewed him to get his take on the ongoing NBN debate.

The Register: Let's look at what you've seen of the two-headed broadband debate in Australia – how well do you think the shift from an FTTP to an FTTN model can be accomplished?

Dave Berstein: There's no problem on a technical level. It's all IP at this point – it doesn't matter what's at the end of the network. Everything talks to everything if they've designed it well, and they do have some competent engineers designing this stuff.

The political problems? The government problems? The operational problems? Australia has shown much of what can go wrong.

The Register: I presume that some of the things that can go wrong are independent of what your physical layer is. What can go wrong, if it's political or operational, isn't “because it's fibre” or “because it's copper” - it's because of decisions above that, management and so on. What are the potential problems that are common, whatever your technology?

Dave Berstein: Politicians promising what they can't deliver, managers of telcos promising to deploy faster than they can train people to do the deployment, numbers that were made up for political reasons that are so phoney they distort your operations, and newspapers looking for stories that will sensationalise even the most trivial nosense.

The Register: In the proposals that you've now heard … outlined by the Australian opposition. In the timetable, possibly the troubling aspect is the same thing that is now plaguing NBN Co – and that is that the political timetable is difficult from a construction point of view. In the case of NBN Co, it was the political promise to roll out a certain number of fibre areas at a particular rate that they have, so far, been unable to achieve. If I look at a 2014 start date for a VDSL-and-fibre combination for the Liberal Party proposal, and about 60,000 nodes by the 2016 election – that's 30,000 nodes a year. That is also a quite rapid rollout …

Dave Berstein: But it's not nearly the problem they were facing on fibre. For the same reason that doing this is much cheaper – there's less construction. You don't have to do all the local construction to reach every home. You still have to run one set of fibre, one box in the neighbourhood. Everybody knows how to hook up copper to the box now, as opposed to some ridiculous failure rate in fibre splicing that they came up with …

And so, because there's less construction, it's not as likely to have the same rate of problems. Now, The NBN has proven that they can create some of the most extreme problems of any network build I've ever seen … but the technology is much simpler, there's much less construction.

It takes 18 to 24 months to train somebody how to do something right in this business, that's [my] experience. Which is common in a lot of businesses. You don't learn it in a classroom or a training course, you learn it by getting out there and doing it.

So – you get utterly clobbered until you've got a fair number of technicians. They now are starting to get there, and by 18-24 months from now, you'll probably be in good shape.

The evidence is good that once this is rolling, it will roll very, very fast. British Telecom is doing 100,000 homes passed per week. So that if they do a smart job, and get smart operational people, who know how to work with the employees, it's not unrealistic to do a hell of a lot by 2016.

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