The nbn™ HFC network: The facts

There has been a lot of speculation in recent days about the nbn™ HFC network – which we are building by using the HFC networks owned by Telstra and Optus. Here are some facts.

It was a gloriously sunny day in Redcliffe, QLD last Thursday – and it was made even better by a visit to the Optus exchange in nearby Fitzgibbon where the recently launched nbn HFC pilot was humming along very nicely indeed.

nbn switched on its HFC pilot in the suburb a couple of weeks back and has been supplying local trial user’s [via their Retail Service Providers] services of around 100Mbps/40Mbps on the Optus HFC network – that’s the same network which some commentators have mistakenly thought we will have to scrap.

Getting the numbers right

As part of the original deal that nbn struck with Optus back in 2011 we were paying $800 million for the HFC network to be de-commissioned and no longer used for fixed-line services – with a new Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) network built over the top of the HFC network.

When we re-negotiated the deal, the $800 million price tag stayed exactly the same but instead of the Optus HFC network being de-commissioned, nbn acquired the right to use the network as part of the nbn™ network.

Both the Optus and Telstra HFC networks are only around 20 years old – much younger than most comparable networks in the US - and given that we are building a new nbn™ HFC network it was always planned that we would be investing to upgrade these networks with new technology and equipment.

Indeed, we signed a deal back in February with US technology firm ARRIS in which we bought new Cable Modem Termination Systems (CMTS) – these are basically the engines which power the network - for the new nbn™ HFC network as well as new nodes and amplifiers.

Moreover, because we knew we would be putting far more end-users onto the nbn™ HFC network than are currently on the Optus and Telstra networks, we have long known we would need to build more capacity into our new nbn™ HFC network – and have publicly acknowledged this.

Starting from the right place

The speculation about our nbn™ HFC network stemmed from a leaked internal nbn briefing paper in which our team were performing detailed infrastructure rollout planning to examine our options for making the most efficient and economic use of existing HFC networks.

Alternative scenarios are always run as part of that exercise.

This is very basic scenario planning – but there is all the difference in the world between a hypothetical exercise in which we ask ourselves what we would do if a network turned out to be unusable and that network actually being unusable.

To put it another way, taking the precaution of drawing up a disaster response plan for your home in case of a natural disaster doesn’t mean that there is a bush fire raging in your back garden – it means you will be ready if it happens.

Indeed, our excellent nbn engineering team report that they have found nothing unexpected on the Optus HFC network in Redcliffe – and the very strong pilot results show the network is perfectly capable of delivering excellent high-speed services.

Why do we need to have different options?

It is entirely sensible for nbn to prepare for alternative scenarios like this – a key part of the Multi Technology Mix (MTM) model is running these exercises and having the flexibility to use other options where feasible and economically sensible.

One of the biggest challenges we faced in the FTTP rollout was not having flexibility in terms of last-mile access connections – this is one of the key reasons why at one stage over one-third of our passed premises could not actually receive a service.

These premises were labelled ‘Service Class 0’s’ and the often lengthy delays in being able to connect these premises to the nbn™ network caused significant frustration for end-users, for our contractors and for nbn™.

We really did not want to put ourselves in this position again and so we now examine every possible scenario and make sure we are ready for when and if it happens.

Connecting homes at pace

As I saw myself in Redcliffe last Thursday, and whilst the speculation buzzed around the media about our HFC network, our engineers and contractors were simply getting on the job of connecting premises to the nbn™ network.

On a sweltering hot summery day the contractors were hard at work hooking up premises to the nbn™ HFC network – including connecting several Multi-Dwelling Units to the nbn™ HFC network which had not previously been connected to the Optus HFC network.

The great news for end-users is that connecting them to the nbn™ HFC network will usually be a pretty quick and easy process.

Our hard-working contractors say that during the trial they have been connecting a stand-alone premise with a new aerial HFC lead-in in less than one hour – much cheaper and quicker than, for example, supplying an underground FTTP connection to the same premise would be.

This fast paced rollout for HFC means we can get the good people of Redcliffe and beyond on board the nbn™ HFC network much faster and more cost effectively than building a new FTTP network in its place – and that’s what matters most of all.