Is Australia’s NBN future proof? Experts say major upgrades are needed now

Experts are urging the government to upgrade copper NBN connections to fibre.

Experts are urging the government to upgrade copper NBN connections to fibre. Photo: Getty/TND

Australia’s NBN is not yet finished, but experts say much of the network is already outdated.

Tuesday marked the NBN Co’s rollout completion deadline, but more than 100,000 households and businesses are still waiting to be connected, and millions of customers are yet to switch their internet over to the NBN.

In 2013, the Coalition government ditched Labor’s 2008 plan for a network of 93 per cent fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) in favour of a “multi-technology mix” (MTM) network comprising seven different types of connections of varying quality.

The decision to use copper-based fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections across much of the network has been especially controversial, with telecommunications experts warning that FTTN is “not fit for purpose” in 2020.

Is a 40 per cent FTTN network future proof?

FTTN accounts for approximately 40 per cent of NBN connections, but the technology has been plagued with problems.

Figures from the consumer watchdog’s Measuring Broadband Australia report show that as many as 20 per cent of NBN users with FTTN connections aren’t getting the speeds they are paying for.

One in five consumers on these connections are still paying for high-speed 50Mbps and 100Mbps plans that are underperforming,’’ ACCC boss Rod Sims said in May.

So poor are many of these connections that telcos including Telstra have stopped offering high-speed NBN plans to FTTN customers.

In May, NBN Co launched a new “Home Ultrafast” plan for residential broadband customers, which offers maximum download speeds ranging from 500Mbps to 1000Mbps depending on the strength of connection, but the vast majority of households are unable to access it.

Only 18 per cent of NBN connections have been deemed capable of delivering the speeds, including the entire FTTP footprint and an initial 7 per cent of the hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) footprint.

The New Daily asked NBN Co whether it had a timeframe, and estimated cost, for upgrading the FTTN footprint.

“NBN Co has identified potential upgrade paths for each access technology to enable the provision of greater speed and capacity over time as demand increases,” an NBN Co spokesperson said.

“Three-quarters of FTTN customers today can get more than 50Mbps; and around 50 per cent of FTTN customers can get more than 80Mbps,” they said.

“This is a significant improvement on the ADSL technology it largely replaced, which according to the ACCC, averages just 8Mbps.”

FTTN accounts for 40 per cent of NBN connections. Photo: NBN Co

RMIT University associate professor of network engineering Mark Gregory said the federal government should direct NBN Co to upgrade all FTTN connections to FTTP in order to “future proof” the network.

These upgrades would cost around $7.1 billion, or $1500 per premises, he said.

FTTN is obsolete technology. It’s not performing as we would like it to. It’s unreliable,” Dr Gregory said.

“So therefore, that means that it needs to be upgraded as quickly as possible.”

Curtin University associate professor of internet studies Tama Leaver said Australia could have had a superior broadband network for the same cost of the NBN and within a similar timeframe if the original plan for a majority FTTP network had not been scrapped.

From every indication we could have had a much stronger, much better network for exactly the same price,’’ Dr Leaver said.

“I think that anything that reduces the strength of the network is a bad idea, and I don’t think the savings that were supposed to happen by using some of the existing copper happened. I actually don’t see any evidence for that at all.

“So it was a bad choice.

“Unless it saved a huge amount of money … then it was simply running the cables two-thirds of the way that they need to go to plug into the house.”

‘Already a bit outdated’: The future of the NBN

The real challenge for high-speed broadband internet in Australia is that the NBN is “already a bit outdated”, Dr Leaver said.

“Going forward, we do need to improve it. But the appetite for spending more money is, I think, incredibly low,” he said.

So the real question is what will happen? Will private providers step in and dig their own trenches?

“There are possibilities for doing it better, but I think it is unlikely [the government will direct NBN Co to] go and dig up the copper cables.  They just said they’ll leave them there.”

Former Internet Australia executive director and TelSoc vice president Laurie Patton said the federal government should hire telco workers displaced by the pandemic to help fix the NBN.

“Noting the dramatic increase in online activities during the COVID-19 lockdown, TelSoc encourages the Communications Minister Paul Fletcher and NBN Co to immediately commence a second phase of the NBN project,” Mr Patton said.

NBN contractor Foxcomm install an FTTN on the corner of Parry and Darby Street Cooks Hill, Newcastle NSW 270715. All talent photographed have signed media release forms. Reference Numbers cooks_hill_27072015_001.pdf to cooks_hill_27072015_006

The government should employ workers displaced by the pandemic to fix the NBN, Laurie Patton says. Photo: NBN Co

“This should include an upgrade of outdated technology in the customer access network (CAN) to enable end-users to connect via higher access speeds.”

Four million homes and businesses are yet to sign up to the network, and millions of customers are receiving “a slow and unreliable service via old copper wires”, Mr Patton said.

This is “not the fault of the many great people working at NBN Co”, he said.

“They are just doing what the government forced them to do thanks to Tony Abbott’s desire to pick a fight with Labor.”

Mr Patton urged the federal government to “include fixing the NBN” in its pandemic and post-pandemic stimulus funding.

“Fixing the NBN would be simple enough technically. NBN Co’s engineers, field workers and contractors are well and truly capable of making the switch back to a fibre-based system – and no doubt most are keen to do so,” he said.

“Replacing the FTTN section of the NBN will need to occur sooner or later, so why not do it now and create employment opportunities for some of the many people who are progressively becoming unemployed?”

This is the final article in a three-part series on Australia’s NBN rollout. Click here to read part one. Click here to read part two

Topics: NBN
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