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Interview: Dave Berstein on the NBN, construction and VDSL

xDSL, fibre, construction and gigabits

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The Register: In your experience of watching rollouts take place in America – is there a predictable point of no return on a project. Not the “point of no return, we're going to complete the project no matter what”, but the “point of no return of things going wrong.” In other words, at what point do the problems accumulate so much that it's irrecoverable.

Dave Berstein: Look at it from another point of view: how do you do it efficiently to ensure that there are not too many problems?

Experience is overwhelming that if you try to do too much in the first two years, you're likely to get screwed. It totally blew out the economics in the Burlington, Vermont municipal build – Utopia, a set of cities that got together, and they came in at four or five thousands dollars. It was a city / suburban build that essentially Verizon was doing for $US1,200.

They had amateurs in charge, businessmen and politicians, not network builders. They tried to do it quickly so they wouldn't have problems, and the city of Burlington Municipal Utility is bankrupt right now, and there's more a fear around that municipal build-out.

On the other hand, Verizon came in on time and on budget, because – probably because there's some very competent pros at Verizon who know networks, and probably because the network guys told the president of the company (I had a chance to talk to them) that “no, you do not want us going any faster”.

So they – for the first three years – built slowly, and expanded only as fast as they could train the crews, the contractors, build the operating system, train the people to answer the calls on the help desk, make sure everything was working.

In fact, Fabio – who thought the fibre was great and wanted it yesterday – told an audience … in the third year that he wanted to do four million lines. And the network people said “no – we can't do more than three million this year without trouble. Talk to us next year.”

You need that discipline to understand, fibre especially which is lots of construction, lots of new problems, you have to take the time, build the systems, train the people, don't push it – and then when you have the trained people, have the systems, move ahead.

I sincerely hope that Malcolm Turnbull is listening – I've had the chance to tell this to him as well. Go very cautious, until you prove that things are running smooth. Once things are running smooth, yeah, the technology is ready to go very fast. British Telecom's doing 100,000 homes a week.

The Register: If those planning principles had been employed – in other words, “do not excessively front-load your rollout” – then you have a set of principles that would have worked better for fibre?

Dave Berstein: And the teams. Okay, a thing as big as Australia's national broadband rollout, is going to require ten thousand people who know everything that's involved in coordinating the latest software release that comes from your router vendor, to make sure that you don't knock out a quarter of your network.

And it takes a while for people to acquire those skills, and you can't learn it in a classroom, and you can't hire a pile of trainers and run them through in six weeks and expect … a lot of this, you can only learn by doing. You have to plan it that way, or you're only inviting trouble.

Fibre is the technology, wherever it's going – there's nobody in Australia who's done a big fibre rollout before.

So it's guaranteed you have a lot of learning to do at the beginning. The VDSL is probably going to have a lot less trouble, even though it is also somewhat new technology, just because there's much less construction to it.

The VDSL is efficient because it's mostly using the old network, and only a small part of it. The node box and the fibre behind it is new … so there's less to go wrong. So it'll probably have fewer problems.

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