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The complexities of connecting a continent

Being part of building the nbn™ broadband access network over the last four years has been the biggest privilege of my career. We’re doing something extraordinary – connecting an entire continent to world class broadband.

No other comparable country is doing what we’re doing, spending the money to connect nearly every single premises across the country. You might hear of lots of plans being made and committees being formed to look into it but, here in Australia, nbn is actually doing it.

And building a network in the real world environment – particularly in a continent as big and complex as Australia – presents a variety of challenges.

Australia must be one of the most challenging environments in the world with our vast sprawling cities, people living on big blocks of land and others living in far-away regional areas or even beyond, right out in the bush.

What matters is what works

When it comes to the nbn™ access network there are plenty of views out there from plenty of people. One thing nbn will never be short of is advice, which is fair enough considering we are a Federal Government project and it’s a really important piece of work for our country’s future.

From my point of view, what matters in the end is finding a solution that works. We need to get the network built by 2020 and on budget, so whatever helps us to achieve that goal gets my attention.

This is why as Chief Network Engineer I don’t get obsessed with any particular access technology. My experience at nbn has taught me that we are going to need a range of technology solutions out in the field. Tying ourselves to a single solution rather than an outcome is not going to get us to our goal of completing the network by 2020.

We learnt this the hard way at nbn in the early years of the build when Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) was the only fixed-broadband solution we could deploy, so we had to use it even though other technologies could achieve the same outcome much less expensively and much more quickly.

Because we were not permitted to deploy other broadband solutions, we spent a lot of time and money deploying FTTP into premises that would have been better served with a Fibre-to-the-Building (FTTB) or Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) solution, for example into apartment buildings and housing complexes. We spent money and time we didn’t need to, had we been able to use other technologies.

The numbers speak for themselves on this. In the first six years of network construction, from June 2010 to June 2016, we activated only 1.1 million premises. Many people who needed better broadband were being made to wait.

Once our FTTN and HFC networks kicked in we saw activations rocket from around 5,000 a week on FTTP to more than 40,000 a week – a rate we have seen for much of 2017.

As a result of the move to a Multi-Technology Mix model, we’ve added over two million new premises in the last 18 months. And we’re going to speed up over the next year to even faster levels.

Perfection is the enemy of the good

Here’s the reality of what we often face in the field: consider a street of 30 premises, all situated on large blocks on the suburban fringe and probably receiving ADSL speeds of around 2-3Mbps if they have broadband at all.

Under our original model, when we could only use FTTP, we would need to spend months in that street digging up every long driveway at a high cost (sometimes $20,000 or more) before we could connect all those families to the nbn™ access network.

Don’t forget that the more time our construction resources are tied up in that street digging up all those driveways, the longer it takes before they can move to the next street or the next suburb to start work there. We were focussing our finite construction resource on a tiny number of problematic premises. We simply don’t have the time or the money to do that right across the country.

And with thousands of these types of premises to be connected across Australia, we can’t simply put them onto the Sky Muster™ satellite services – we need to keep that capacity for rural and remote end users who rely on that satellite service every day.

In contrast, connecting these types of premises by FTTN via our micro-nodes offers a great outcome in these areas. For around $5,000 per premise – far higher than urban FTTN costs, but far lower than FTTP – we can connect the household to FTTN and get those premises onto the nbn™ access network before quickly moving to the next area.

Building on HFC

It’s not just FTTN that allows us to do this. The crucial point to remember about nbn is we have to enable our finite construction resources to connect Australia as quickly as practical and at least by 2020, especially those households and businesses that either have no broadband or are stuck on slow ADSL speeds.

And that’s why it makes perfect sense for us to leverage existing assets like the Telstra HFC network when we can do so.

It’s better for us and our customers that we focus our resources on building new nbn infrastructure rather than scrapping a well-performing HFC network and spending tax-payers’ money on overbuilding it with new FTTP at substantial time and expense.

After all, building the nbn™ access network is already a complex and massive project, why would we make it harder?

We want to get people connected as quickly and easily as possible so they can enjoy superfast broadband, no matter where they live in our big, broad continent.

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