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Sure, we could replace FTNN, says nbn™, if you let the unwired wait even longer for broadband

You could also have uncertain costs and lose handy powered, fibred FTTN cabinets

By Simon Sharwood, 7 Mar 2017

nbn™, the organisation that builds and operates Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN), appear to be escalating its efforts to rebut those who call for it to abandon its fibre to the network build.

Last week the company's CEO Bill Morrow used a Senate Estimates appearance to make the point that that matters beyond nbn™'s control impact end-user experiences. He therefore called on internet service providers to invest more in their networks, in order to ensure that their customers enjoy the NBN's infrastructure.

Now the company has taken a swing at those who argue the project should replace fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) with fibre-to-the curb (FTTC).

The chief advocate of that position is advocacy group Internet Australia (IA), which has loudly and lengthily argued that only FTTC is a worthy investment because the twisted copper pairs on which FTTN relies will all need to be replaced in 10-15 years. IA has also criticised download speeds experienced by NBN subscribers as not reflecting the network's advertised capacity.

nbn™ chief network engineer Peter Ryan has tried to knock over that argument in a few ways.

His first attempt at landing a blow suggests that replacing FTTN with FTTC would mean a pause of about 18 months to re-plan deployments already on the drawing board.

“If we were to do this, to put it quite simply, we would have to tell residents in several million premises that were scheduled to get nbn services over the next 18 months via FTTN that they would not now be getting connected for another two to three years as we’d have to re-start the entire design, planning and construction process.”

With many homes still lacking even decent DSL, that's a reasonably potent argument.

Ryan's also repeated the argument that the NBN is being designed for future upgrades funded by future cash flow, and that the cash will only start flowing once nbn™ has been able to install as many services as possible.

The engineer also addresses critics who say that any future upgrade to FTTC will orphan the nodes on which FTTN relies, leaving them as eyesores. Ryan's counter-argument is that any asset with power and fibre coming will be surely useful for something before too many years have passed.

“You only need to look at how many operators around the world have turned their old phone boxes into new Wi-Fi hot-spots to see how in field assets can be re-purposed.”

And even if FTTN cabinets are abandoned, he argues, they'll have done a job and paid for themselves.

This is a trickier argument, as it all-but-admits upgrades will be necessary. Former member of Parliament Tony Windsor once famously said Australia should “do it once, do it properly, do it with fibre.” That phrase still has many admirers even if policy has more or less completely ignored the argument it advances.

Ryan's post doesn't address another IA complaint, namely that FTTN successors G.fast and Super Vectoring won't be able to deliver needed increases in connection speeds because the copper runs will be too long.

But it does offer the figure of $2,800 to make an FTTC connection, suggesting that's rather more than the cost of an FTTN connection.

As The Register recently pointed out, Australia's debate about what form of matter should be used to carry broadband is increasingly absurd given that wholesale pricing and competitive factors have substantial roles in determining the download speeds experienced by end-user.

It's also worth noting the timing of nbn™'s push, as IA CEO Laurie Patton has stepped aside from that role. Patton greatly improved the organisation's profile and his ability to capture media attention and doggedly recite the "copper always bad, fibre always better" mantra will surely be missed. By speaking out twice in two weeks, nbn™ looks like it might be trying to fill the void his departure creates. The title of Ryan's missive, "Setting the facts straight on Fibre-to-the-Node", is therefore eloquent. ®

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