Don't Know My FTTN From My FTTC

In 2009 the Labor government announced plans to build a national broadband network consisting of 90% fibre to the premises connections, 7% fixed wireless connections and 3% satellite connections costing $43 billion dollars to build and taking 8 years to complete.

When the Liberal party won office in 2013 then communications minister Malcolm Turnbull halted the rollout of the NBN and ordered a strategic review of the entire project. Following the review a range of new technologies are rolled out in order to achieve a ‘cheaper, faster, sooner’ narrative.

A fibre to the premises (FTTP) service involved running a full fibre line from the NBN network boundary all the way to a customer’s house the new technologies changed this and lead to confusion and anger.

nbn tech installing fibreFor the millions of premises that currently had access to the Telstra or Optus cable networks in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane instead of building a new network NBN would simply take over the hybrid fibre co-axial (HFC) network and use this network to deliver services. After activating a small area of the Optus cable network for NBN it was decided to drop the Optus cable network as it hadn’t been maintained adequately.

In apartment buildings and office buildings the new technology is fibre to the basement (FTTB), the basic difference for these services is that the NBN service will terminate in the communications room of the building (often in the basement thus the name) and existing in place technology will be used to carry the service from the basement to the customer.

For those areas that had originally had FTTP planned and weren’t in the revised HFC areas or FTTB buildings the plan was to use fibre to the node (FTTN). The node is a device about the size of a small wheelie bin that has NBN fibre connected to it, from the node to the customer the NBN would commandeer the existing copper phone line to carry the service.

In 2016 yet another technology was added to the mix, fibre to the distribution point (FTTC – the C refers to the roadside curb where the distribution point is usually located). In this case the NBN fibre is rolled out all the way to the final network handover point (usually at the front of a house or business) where the existing copper line is again used to complete the connection.

With all these technologies it’s easy to get confused but does it really matter which technology you receive? In a word yes.

In 1939 the copper communications wire was standardised for use in Australia by the office of the Postmaster General. A lot has changed in the interim for Australian communications exchanges are automated, telephone lines now carry more data than voice traffic and in 1973 the Postmaster General was separated into Australia Post and Telecom Australia (then changed names again in 1993 to Telstra) but throughout this time the copper wire has stayed the same. It’s therefore not unreasonable to assume that whatever technology is deployed today will need to be capable of delivering an equally long lifespan.

So how fast can these technologies actually go?nbn node

FTTP: About 18% of total NBN connections will be FTTP and for those fortunate enough to have had their area built prior to the change of government the existing technology can already achieve a top speed of 1,000Mbps down and 400Mbps up and the path to upgrade that technology to handle faster speeds is easy and inexpensive.

Fixed Wireless: Will be deployed to approximately 3% of the population and the current NBN fixed wireless service is limited to a maximum speed of 50Mbps down and 20Mbps up however this is an artificial limit that is being lifted to 100Mbps down and 40Mbps up by the end of 2018. Faster speeds will come in future with a change in radio technology and although the specification hasn’t been completed yet speeds in excess of 300Mbps down will be achievable.

Satellite: For the unfortunate 3% of remote NBN users the current NBN satellite (known as Skymuster) has a limit of 25Mbps down and 5Mbps up. There is no current upgrade path for satellite connections and the service is subject to unavoidable congestion (even the FTTN users should be thankful they’re not in a satellite area)

And now for the new technologies:nbn technology types max speed

HFC: Nearly 3 million households or about 25% of the total rollout will rely on existing cable networks which are able to deliver speeds of 100Mbps down and 40Mbps up already and an upgrade is already planned to increase the maximum speed to 1,000Mbps and further upgrades to this maximum are possible in future. Unfortunately the existing cable network has a couple of problems; firstly it was designed for a single carrier rather than multiple carriers to offer services and it wasn’t built for everyone who could get it to use it so large scale hardware upgrades are required to split the network into smaller sections.

FTTN: Unfortunately nearly one third of all NBN connections will be FTTN and despite it being possible to order a service of 100Mbps down and 40Mbps the vast majority of users won’t be able to receive anywhere near that speed. The problem is distance and old age, the further away the node is from the house the lower the maximum achievable speed and the worse condition the copper line is the worse the maximum achievable speed. This means that one third of all FTTN services already installed are unable to achieve 50Mbps down and one in twenty are unable to achieve 25Mbps.

The FTTN business case gets worse from here; the only possible upgrade path for FTTN is to install multiple ‘bonded’ services to increase speed, this will means that in order to reach the speeds that are easily possible on a single service using other technologies FTTN customers will have to purchase multiple services. Eventually all FTTN services will be replaced with FTTP or FTTC with virtually no salvageable parts this makes the FTTN rollout an expensive waste of money.

FTTB and FTTC: Approximately 1 million apartments and offices will be getting NBN through their basement and a further 1 million premises will receive FTTC connections. The shorter copper run means that these services will be able to achieve significantly faster speeds than FTTN however they will still be held back by the copper line. The maximum speed will again be variable based on the distance and age of the copper line but the vast majority of users should be able to achieve the 100Mbit down top speed. There is an upgrade path for these services with speeds in excess of 1,000Mbps possible however this will again depend on the quality of the copper.

The good news is that the upgrade from FTTC to FTTP is much cheaper than the FTTN process so while the overall cost will be higher at least it’s not a total waste.

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