Sunday, 28 October 2012

NBN: Big Builds take Time.

A friend with decades of Telco planning experience thought to plot the NBN POI Rollout Schedule as "premises served by month" [at end].

In around 2 years, 9M+ premises will be served by a Point of Interconnect (POI), but that doesn't mean we can all connect on that day. There are many more steps in the process, the last of which is running a fibre up your street.

I love my friends' graph. Just as you'd expect, its a "linear" rollout: means they have a fixed size workforce that just keep pegging away at the build for two years.

It strikes me that most commentators don't realise, or don't talk about, the layered ("inside to outside") approach necessary for reinventing basic infrastructure:

  • Design, Contracts/Suppliers, Funding, Approvals [more?]
  • Backhaul [national, long-haul] and central facilities & systems [fulfilment, NOC, faults, billing, ...]
  • POI's [equivalent of 'central exchanges']
  • Fibre Serving Areas (FSA) [equivalent of customer exchanges]
  • Fibre Distribution Areas (FDA) [equivalent of copper distribution 'pillars']
  • Lastly, running "pits and pipes" up streets, pulling Fibre and installing connection points in every premise passed.

Whilst the NBN will have POI's and backhaul in-place for all premises in ~2 years, it will take until ~2020 for the FDA's, FSA's and pits-n-pipes to be rolled out...

You don't start a freeway "everywhere at once", but from one or both ends. Similarly the NBN must be implemented sequentially, building out from the core to the edge with no cheap shortcuts possible.

People have complained about the NBN's decade+ roll-out, but I think this is a task more than 10 times greater than duplicating the whole East Coast Highway [route "1"], linking Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

That little project has been going more than 20 years with no clear end in sight, but nobody complains and gets national media attention for it.

For the Coalition to complain and criticise NBN Co for being tardy and worse is at least unwarranted, at best disingenuous. It plays well to an uninformed public, but is Political Grandstanding that will backfire.

Mr Turnbull's central problem with his "Better Broadband: Sooner, Cheaper, More Affordably" is: which parts can be tinker with to improve things?? Will they forever abandon FTTP for (nearly) Everyone, if not, when do they plan to rollout a pure Fibre network? That's important Politically and economically.

The Design, Contracts and Regulator Approval all have to be redone if the Coalition dumps the "only Fibre" policy. That's a delay of 12-24 months right there. Unless you just sell NBN Co and remove the Customer Access Network as a service regulated by the ACCC. Nobody, not even Telstra, would be daft enough to buy a prematurely privatised NBN Co. Starting with the rate of return being deemed "non-commercial" at 350 basis points above the Reserve Banks' reference rate. That's a great return for Joe Public, but not nearly enough for Big Business or a large Telco.

The backhaul and central facilities and systems are mainly completed or will be built/extended on-Demand. No delays there.

The POI's, the equivalent to central non-customer telephone exchanges, must be completed, no matter what technologies are employed between them and the customer. No delays there. We'll know by a mid-2013 election if NBN Co and their contractors are on-target or not. There is nothing, in time or money, to be saved by changing the ACCC agreed POI list.

The next 2 levels: FSA and FDA, can't be tinkered with much either.
You can have "pure fibre" or "pure FTTN/Cable" FSA's and FDA's or hybrid FSA's with some FDA's and FTTP/FTTN/Cable Distribution Areas.

For the same reason that when you build a road system in built-up areas, the rights-of-way, once laid down, are fixed. You can add kerbs, pave or concrete roads, adding lighting, new lanes and road dividers iff you've first allowed yourself the space to expand into. Creating a pure Fibre NBN allows us as a Nation to cheaply and easily upgrade our common asset, whilst pure or mixed Copper/Cable NBN is extremely limited in its capabilities. Out-of-the-box, it's running as fast as it ever can. Exactly what you don't want in a  high-demand, high-growth developing technology.

The Big Savings must then come at the street level: the pits-pipes, cable, lead-ins and Fibre Network Termination Units. An easy saving would be aerial cables with high maintenance and low-reliability, already ruled out by NBN Co in the 5-year life design process.

At $55/m (guess) for trenching, some money can be saved by reusing the existing, often badly degraded, copper access network, but almost all money sunk into an FTTN that will be replaced by pure Fibre is being thrown away. Not a good look for a Political Party wanting to be known for "thrift" and "efficiency".

Will Mr Turnbull allow fibre to be run for consumers in an FTTN/Cable Distribution Area wanting a connection faster than 12Mbps, increasing the rollout costs above pure Fibre because of the multiple services? That a social justice and equitable access, as well as economic, issue. We will be creating a very strong Geographic Digital Divide, a legacy not in keeping with Mr Turnbull's own modest beginnings in a single parent household.

If the mantra is "Better, Cheaper", then Mr Turnbull has to lay down strict guidelines segregating the Have and Have-Not Broadband Areas. This isn't a trivial matter: both FTTP and FTTN networks have economic design lives of 30+ years. The decision, like Gungahlin's poor Internet service, will cause unrest and dissension for decades.

I'm wondering if the electors going to the Coalition's "Broadband Survey" site,, will be thinking they are committing themselves and their great-grandkids to a 12 Mbps FTTN as well...

Does Mr Turnbull have a rabbit he can pull out of the hat that trumps this reasoning and allows the creaking and groaning Copper Customer Access Network to be leveraged cheaply and reliably until 2050? I'd love that to be true and for me to stand corrected. I don't believe the recent Australian research multiplying bandwidths over copper many fold will lead to viable FTTN improvements: the copper, in the main, won't be up to it.

Mr Turnbull is smart, informed, well-connected and a proven innovator: any other Politician I'd  write-off as engaging in mere Political Puffery.

Whilst the saying goes, there's no fury like a woman scorned, Australian Electors are second. The sudden, unexpected popularity of Pauline Hansen's One Nation party and the slow demise of the Australian Democrats in response to passing the GST should inform Political Parties to tread softly around important decisions: not only do they sometimes completely miss important trends in the electorate, voters remember dashed expectations and major betrayals.

If the Coalition is playing "say anything beforehand and renege later" with their NBN Policy, not only will they be a one-term government, they'll later suffer a voter backlash the like we've never seen.
NBN Planned POI rollout by Premises Served, 2012.

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