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Internode's Simon Hackett offers re-engineered NBN plan

Fibre build might be affordable if other costs stripped out

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Self-described “wise old bird of the industry, or at least, a bird that doesn't have much hair left”, Simon Hackett, has suggested to a Sydney conference that the fibre NBN could be delivered for close to a copper budget, if the design is revisited and reviewed.

Speaking to the Wholesale and Data Centre Summit staged by Australian telco newsletter Communications Day, Hackett nominated QoS, the NBN termination unit, and the ACCC-imposed architecture that requires 121 points of interconnect (POIs) as key points that could be loading up the build costs unnecessarily.

The termination unit, which offers two PSTN emulating ports and four Ethernet ports, he singled out as a particular bad idea from several angles: it's an unnecessary expense, he claimed, when retailers can already buy devices that have their own GPON input and Ethernet out.

Not only does that mean NBN Co is paying for a unit that Hackett claimed will be mostly unused: the decision to have an NBN-specific NTU also exposes the company to a vendor lock-in for a product that's specific to Australia.

That's because, he said, Alcatel has put considerable work into the internal virtualisation that keeps the NTU's ports separate for each other, something that's also “pushing what the box is capable of”, and slowing down the delivery of new features.

Perhaps recalling previous experience, such as the 1980s decision to deploy a highly localised version of ISDN in the then-Telecom network, Hackett said “we don't need Australia-special custom software” be created for the NBN.

“The cheapest cost is no cost,” he said. “Most [retail service providers] RSPs already deliver the box they want to deliver.

Were the design revisited, Hackett said, it's possible that the install cost blowouts now drawing fire from subcontractors could be addressed, without trying to squeeze their contract rates. “The subcontractors … are deploying a design which itself needs to be reviewed”. Instead, he argued, subcontractors should “drop the fibre, test the fibre, and not have to sort out the electrical aspect of the rollout”.

To the criticism that this would eliminate the NBN's mandated ability to provide standard PSTN services to customers that wanted it, Hackett argues that there are plenty of viable alternatives that RSPs could deploy rather than NBN Co, because “if you want a PSTN port, you can simulate it perfectly well”.

Building a “dead standard GPON network” with no special software would also provide flexibility for the NBN Co to revisit its supply contracts more frequently, creating a more competitive supplier environment. Hinting at companies like Huawei (barred from providing equipment to the NBN), he said that there are suppliers “that would fall over themselves to build Malcolm Turnbull's price for 'the late' Stephen Conroy's network, today.”

The ACCC's decision to require NBN Co to deploy 121 points-of-presence, he stated (again, since this has been a theme of Hackett's criticisms of the NBN for quite some time), should be abandoned in favour of NBN Co's original design, which called for seven duplicated, meshed “megaPOPs”.

He also suggested that if there's no way to make the network cheap enough to provide stable and affordable wholesale prices in the long term – his own simple model suggests wholesale prices need to rise pretty much forever – then at least part of the build should receive direct government subsidy.

“There are big chunks of this country that are non-commercial to deploy to,” Hackett told the conference. “If there's a gap, you fill it in the public interest.”

Hackett has posted the slideshow of his presentation, with audio, at his personal blog here. ®

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