Australia’s nbn exposé first true test for cost savings

Broadband technology is about to be put through its paces by nbn (National Broadband Network) in Australia – the government broadband initiative which has been plagued with bad press since it was first announced in 2007. nbn’s troubles have been well documented, but this week saw the unveiling of the true extent of its financial calamity – which is why the importance of this move to cannot be overstated.

At an Adtran event in Berlin this week, nbn’s Executive Manager of Corporate Media, Tony Brown, rolled out a refreshingly honest reel of costs associated with the mammoth fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network deployment scheme. The bill has amounted to $49 billion Australian dollars (US$37.8 billion) – spiraling wildly out of control in recent years.

Brown cited examples such as deploying fiber to a single premises in Tasmania costing A$91,000 and highlighted a case of a bowling green in Australia swallowing A$86,000. Even some less demanding deployment areas spelled disaster, such as a housing estate in Brisbane where the cost per premises was expected to be A$1,500, but this eventually came in at A$5,500 per premises. On this same estate there were four special cases of deployments costing A$15,000 per premises, with the entire 100-home project taking six months.

We will touch on the individual factors that contributed to this grossly inflated cost shortly, but first of all, the real reason for the red-faced exposé was to report that the nbn has aggressively slashed its initial promise of delivering FTTH services to 93% of Australian households, instead opting for fiber-to-the-curb (FTTC), also called fiber-to-the-distribution-point, and fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) using technologies – for which US equipment vendor Adtran is supplying its newly certified products, building on its contract win at nbn earlier this year.

On one hand, the move could be interpreted as an embarrassing defeat for nbn; but on the other, a sign of embracing an emerging technology. nbn plans to roll out next year, with an initial focus on MDUs and eventual expansion to FTTC. Although, FTTN won’t be receiving treatment, due to a problem with getting mains power to cabinets, costing as much as A$200,000 to activate one cabinet and drag fiber some 2km, said Brown.

In 2015, nbn decided to bring in fiber-to-the-node to serve 5 million premises by making use of the country’s existing HFC network for cable TV, which originally received massive blow-back as the poles were considered unsightly, but were far cheaper than digging underground. The change in direction has accelerated the roll out of fast broadband services dramatically, as the most homes nbn had connected via FTTH in a week was 7,000, while on the new plan it has already achieved 12,000 in a week.

In comparison, an estate comprising around 25 houses with particularly poor broadband speeds, between 1 Mbps and 2 Mbps, recently had a micro-node installed in the street to bring 25 Mbps broadband speeds to the neighborhood. The cost per premises here was A$5,000, whereas a fiber deployment would have set nbn back A$15,000 per premises. Granted this isn’t delivering the Gigabit speeds Australians were promised, but next year will see the launch of nbn’s fiber-to-the-curb footprint, reaching 1 million premises, leaving 5.5 million on FTTx – where, as well as DOCSIS 3.1, provides the opportunity to get Gigabit speeds at a fraction of the cost of FTTH.

nbn is hoping that demand for ultra-fast broadband speeds will drive up ARPU, particularly at big businesses. However, Brown mentioned that 84% of this FTTx footprint is opting for speeds of 25 Mbps or lower – not quite the demand for Gigabit speeds we might expect.

Four months ago the Broadband Forum’s CEO, Robin Mersh, told Faultline Online Reporter that the non-profit organization had a bit of a marketing crisis on its hands trying to spread the word on, so this week’s news is exactly the breakthrough the group needed to sway operators and vendors that the technology is worthwhile, instead of twiddling their thumbs waiting for 5G to arrive.

Mersh echoed those sentiments in our catch up conversation at Broadband World Forum this week, after hearing of nbn’s figures for the first time from Faultline. Broadband Forum now has 24 certified devices, adding Adtran, as well as US network testing firms Exfo and Viavi to the list earlier this month.

The nbn figures were published following an appearance by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, speaking about broadband on live TV this week. Brown highlighted the importance of this 10-minute talk, saying the thought of Donald Trump, Angela Merkel or UK Prime Minister Theresa May doing the same, was unthinkable. Yet Brown brushed over the fact that Turnbull said nbn was a mistake and doubted the project’s ability to ever make money, calling it a “calamitous train wreck.”

The rugged Australian terrain has naturally been one of the most difficult factors for nbn to overcome, with digging revealing blocked or broken conduits, and new conduits don’t come cheap, according to Brown. Excessively long driveways and large lawns in rural and suburban areas was a major issue for the project, causing costs to swell to between A$25,000 and A$30,000 in some cases.

Brown cited one particular pain point of tackling a 600 meter long driveway. In addition, the digging up of lawns and driveways which is required for FTTH meant that many homeowners insisted on the work being carried out on weekends only, when they were around to supervise and ensure no foliage was destroyed. Weekend labor bumped up prices further.

nbn plans to spend an additional A$5 billion in its new road map, A$3.8 billion of this will be assigned to fixed wireless with the remainder spent on satellite – which is bringing 25 Mbps broadband speeds to the most rural areas of Australia.

nbn achieved speeds of 600 Mbps when it first trialed technology in 2015 on a 100 meter stretch of copper cabling installed 20 years previously. nbn also tested multiple passive optical network (PON) based protocols from the Alcatel side of Nokia, claiming to have had huge success, getting a single fiber line to carry 102 Gbps. Adtran announced this week that nbn is adding products to its Multi Technology Mix (MTM) for FTTB (building) and FTTC networks (see separate story in this issue for a rundown on the technical aspects of Adtran’s work in and more from Berlin).

nbn’s CSO, JB Rousselot, said, “Using means we will be able to deliver ultra-fast internet capability to our FTTC and FTTB customers, giving them access to transformative, ultra-fast services more rapidly and cost-effectively than over a FTTH connection.”

Adtran’s SVP of technology and strategy, Jay Wilson, said, “In applying, it is ensuring its users will more quickly realize the benefit of these services without sole dependence on FTTH. Since demonstrating the industry’s first fully sealed FTTdp solution in early 2010, Adtran solutions now supports open SDN principles ensuring rapid plug and play deployment capability within multi-vendor networks.”

As well as tapping Adtran and Nokia for services, homegrown vendor NetComm Wireless has been announced as another supplier of DPUs for nbn’s 2018 FTTC plans.