nbn tries to shift the conversation to future copper upgrades

Riding the nbn mythbusting bus with CEO Bill Morrow

NBN CEO Bill Morrow
NBN CEO Bill Morrow standing in front of a Telstra exchange

Reg roadtrip In the best possible world, all terrestrial internet connections would use fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP). Everything I've learned over years writing about broadband suggests that a fibre optic network has a longer working life and will scale to greater bandwidth than technologies that rely on existing or new twisted pair copper.

But you and I live in the real world, the world of political, financial and physical compromises. Australia's presence in the same real world is the reason its current government decreed that nbn, the organisation building the nation's National Broadband Network (NBN), must use a multi-technology mix (MTM) to re-wire Australia for broadband.

The dominant technology will be fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), a solution held to be a false economy by a sizeable section of the Australian community.

Around that argument has accreted all sorts of assertions. Some suggest that nbn is deliberately misleading the public by insisting that FTTP cannot be delivered as cheaply as FTTN, in order to spare the government the embarrassment of a policy reversal. Others seize on any new piece of data from nbn, official or leaked, to suggest that FTTN is a fraud on the nation.

The organisation clearly thinks not all those criticisms are well-informed or entirely fair. So yesterday, nbn drove I and several other journalists around Brisbane to show us what it is building and along the way put a very strong case for the MTM. The event was attended by nbn CEO Bill Morrow who made some prepared remarks and had plenty of un-scripted chats too.

The key thing I took out of the day is that nbn now has half an eye on upgrades to its network because it knows that demand for broadband will increase. But it doesn't feel that FTTP is the way to meet that future demand. Indeed it doesn't believe there's a time at which gigabit-per-second home services will be necessary, but does believe that once such demands emerge they can be served with heirs to G.fast over copper.

So nbn is now designing for the job it has to do now – build a broadband network by the year 2020 – and also considering how that build can one day be used as foundations for future enhancements.

Morrow's argument for this approach is that technology is changing fast: even a couple of years ago G.Fast and Fibre To The Distribution Point (FTTDP) were not viable. That they now look like being viable technologies means, Morrow reckons, that a build mandating any single carriage technology is foolish. Another argument he advanced is that nbn just needs to get the NBN built, start making money and then start considering upgrades.

Other NBN execs I chatted to on the day like this scenario: they expect that retailers will come to it asking for more than basic carriage and are contemplating access to exchanges for value-adding ideas like servers deep in the network.

Morrow and his fellow execs weren't just exploring the vision thing. During the day he addressed some issues that are clearly bugging him, namely:

  • nbn is laying new copper, which is crazy and proves we should just go straight to fibre – Yes, Morrow admitted, nbn is laying new copper, but between the FTTN nodes and existing Telstra pillars. To deliver FTTN something needs to go from the pillars to the FTTN nodes. Sometimes, Morrow said, several redundant copper connections link a node and a pillar. When that happens, nbn may lay several hundred metres of copper. That doesn't mean it is replacing or making new copper connections to homes, but does mean it will from time to time lay new copper.;
  • Connection costs aren't blowing out - One of the sites the press tour covered was a semi-rural locale where just three dwellings occupy a few hectares. Morrow said stretching FTTN into that locale would mean bringing in power, which means a whole extra level of planning and expense and hassle. So the company is doing FTTP for those three premises instead, at a cost of several tens of thousands of dollars per premises because it has a mandate to deliver universal broadband. Sometimes nbn will find itself with many tricky builds for FTTP or FTTN, which will drag up quarterly average connection costs to levels that look scary but aren't indicative of long-term trends;
  • nbn is opposed to FTTP - Morrow shot this down, saying it's all about the best connection for a particular premises. So the semi-rural locales mentioned above end up in weird FTTP Goldilocks Zone: too far away from properly-powered copper to get VDSL, not far enough distant from terrestrial infrastructure to get fixed wireless. Some hobby farmers are going to get lucky! Morrow's point is that nbn doesn't make blanket decisions about an area before it arrives, it's entirely possible that future builds will mix FTTP, FTTN and the newly-adopted Fibre To The Distribution Point technology announced yesterday;
  • The Optus hybrid fibre-coax (HFC) network (nbn) is a mess for which nbn paid overs - nbn's explanation here is that the Optus network was built to serve 1,000 to 1,200 premises, for cable TV. Broadband was an afterthought for Optus, which means that when NBN comes to town it sometimes has to split up an Optus HFC region, which looks like the network is a crock when it's really a buttressing of the network design.

Organisations don't fly and bus media around without planning their efforts carefully. Morrow will have practiced his lines.

He certainly said them with an easy conviction. Without wanting to big myself up, I'm fortunate that my job has allowed me to be in the same room as several very significant technologists and entrepreneurs. Some have squirmed and/or appeared utterly insincere when confronted with not-very-difficult questions. In the five hours Morrow spent on site with a dozen journalists, he never once felt false. If he was fibbing, he's better at it by an order of magnitude compared to other corporate dissemblers I've encountered over the years.

Which is not to say I'm utterly convinced and/or charmed, because there are questions that remain unanswered. nbn hasn't offered convincing explanations for leaks that speak of rollout delays and Morrow's insistence that it is meeting every target didn't chime with other statements he made yesterday about some small - $100,000 – cost overruns on the site we visited. Execs also mentioned how installing the three semi—rural FTTP connections is dragging back the live date of the whole region in which it lies. There's so much wriggle room in that kind of arrangement that it's easy to see how the organisation can under-promise and over-deliver.

It also looks odd that the organisation has such extensive copper remediation contingency, without a satisfactory explanation for why fibre builds are not a better idea than remediation.

Morrow admits that nbn's crunch years are 2017 and 2018. After spending a few hours seeing the man and the network his organisation is building that's an inescapable conclusion. ®

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