Fibre-to-the-Curb is a new challenge for NBN Co
At NBN Co, we are a world leader in many areas. For instance, we are pioneers in delivering our Sky Muster™ satellite service to connect rural and regional Australians to fast broadband.
The deployment of our Fibre-to-the-Curb (FTTC) access network is another first for NBN Co. We are one of the first access network operators in the global market to deploy this technology that promises to deliver the benefits of Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) without needing to dig up driveways and gardens across the country that have an existing lead-in.
While we have been able to learn from our international peers such as Openreach and Deutsche Telekom in delivering our Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) access network, and from others such as Comcast when it comes to our Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) technology, we are very much out in front globally with our FTTC access network.
So, what have we learnt in these very early stages of building our FTTC access network?
First, we have learnt that building our FTTC access network is a lot more complex than building our FTTN access network. In fact, it is far more akin to building our FTTP access network.
With our FTTN access network, we can take the fibre from the exchange – normally via existing ducting – out to the local pillar and then, once we have installed and powered the cabinet, we can connect nearly 400 premises with very little extra work required.
While FTTC design and construction is not as problematic as the original FTTP build, the introduction of innovations such as ‘skinny fibre’ and not needing to go all the way into the premises itself, it is a much more complex build than FTTN because we are deploying and building so much deeper into the community. This reintroduces many variables such as duct and pit quality, accessing land and constructing much closer to premises.
Of course, the closer we can take the fibre to the end-user premises, the better the potential speeds will be. But there is a price to pay for this because it takes a lot more work to take the fibre right outside the street of premises in FTTC-serviced areas.
One challenge for NBN Co is we often need to conduct extensive civil works in which we build conduit for the massive amounts of new fibre required in areas that are connecting to our FTTC access network. This is an intensive process.
However, the real challenge for us on our FTTC access network – just as it also was on our FTTP access network – comes from the amount of remediation work we need to do in the telecom pits that house our FTTC equipment.
At present, we are finding that we need to perform substantial civil works on many of these pits before we can install the Distribution Point Units (DPUs) and connect into the existing copper. This is essentially the same experience we had on FTTP when we had to put new fibre joints into the pits.
To give an example of the complexity involved, the town of Nhill in regional Victoria, located some 375 kilometres from Melbourne, has around 250 pits that need to be remediated in order for us to activate our FTTC access network in the town.
A standard operating crew conducting pit remediation work will typically complete one to two pits per day and a maximum of three depending on how difficult the work is. This gives an idea of the amount of work that is required and the resources it takes to complete it.
There are simply no shortcuts available, not least because we are often working in dangerous environments where we need to work in close proximity to active power lines, water pipes, gas mains, traffic, pedestrians and other telecommunications infrastructure. This means we need to work with great care and precision.
As you can imagine, NBN Co needs a huge number of highly skilled workers to help us deploy our cutting-edge FTTC access network. One of the challenges is that we have seen tight competition in the construction industry for skilled civil crews to conduct many of the remediation and new build activities to support the network rollout.
The civil works required for deploying our FTTC access network – drilling, boring, digging, trenching and subsequent remediation – are highly skilled functions that require specialist workers. It is, after all, complex and sometimes dangerous work.
What we are seeing, in partnership with our Delivery Partners, is the availability of these kinds of workers is becoming more contended as there are many other large construction programs that are starting, particularly in New South Wales and Victoria. To put this into context, there have been instances where our Delivery Partners have even canvassed the idea of sourcing additional civil workers from New Zealand and farther abroad.
NBN Co and our Delivery Partners continue to think innovatively. One of our Delivery Partners has put in place a recruitment program with personnel transitioning out of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). They offer cross-training and skills development to help transition the ex-ADF personnel to work on the nbn™ broadband access network.
Another consideration is that the training and development of these skilled workers cannot be rushed; we must help ensure they are fully proficient in all areas of their craft so they can be safe and secure on the job.
Getting it right
We have learnt a huge amount over these last months while building our FTTC access network. Our most important goal is to make sure we are building a network that helps phone and internet providers deliver a great experience, while maintaining the safety of the community, staff and our Delivery Partners.
Our teams are conducting extensive work and testing in-field so that people connecting to our FTTC access network will be able to do so the first time and, in most instances, without the requirement of a technician needing to visit their premises.
In practice, this has also meant NBN Co and its Delivery Partners taking the time to further inspect premises to help ensure that a working copper lead-in is in place and can be connected into the DPU in the telecom pit during construction of the network. This removes the requirement of the lead-in being remediated or installed during connection, which is designed to help improve the end-user connection experience.
The aim from an NBN Co point of view – and we have worked closely with our providers to achieve this – is that we complete all of the work required while we are in the street. This means all the end user needs to do is contact their Retail Service Provider to order a plan over the nbn™ access network.
This intense focus on completing as much work during construction as possible to help phone and internet providers enhance the overall end-user experience is designed to support the launch of our FTTC access network. It is NBN Co’s intention to continue to progressively release our FTTC access network to market.
The challenge of designing and constructing our FTTC access network is truly an exciting one that NBN Co, our technology providers and our Delivery Partners have all worked hard to bring to life. We continue to work with our Delivery Partners to help improve our design and construction approach to support the deployment of our FTTC access network at scale.
Simultaneously, we are able to maintain network quality to help phone and internet providers deliver a great experience to end users.