The tech that could revolutionise the roll-out of the National Broadband Network is one step closer to reality. The first installation of a FttDP — or fibre to the curb — connection has been completed in an NBN trial in Victoria, and the results are impressive.
Editor's Note: In this article, we're using 'fibre to the curb' to talk about the tech you might have already heard of as 'fibre to the driveway' or 'fibre to the distribution point'. And why curb rather than kerb? NBN says it's in line with international spellings of the tech.
Coburg in northern Melbourne is the home of the first NBN fibre to the curb trials, and the early particular installation that NBN has called on for its latest announcement has managed to hit an impressive 109Mbps download and 44Mbps upload speeds. Using the same VDSL tech as fibre to the node, this fibre to the curb install ran over a 70-metre copper line to the closest telecom pit, rather than the longer copper runs required to reach the FTTN nodes generally at the ends of streets or suburban crossroads.
Fibre to the curb has the potential to be a Goldilocks technology for the ongoing NBN rollout — it uses fibre to much closer distances to homes and businesses than fibre to the node, without requiring the expensive installation on private property that fibre to the premises needs. NBN says that the average cost of a fibre to the curb installation is projected to be $2900 versus the $4400 average of FTTP. It expects to serve a million premises with FTTC during the NBN rollout.
NBN nodes used for fibre to the node also require mains power to be supplied to the node, where individual fibre installations like FTTP and FTTC are passively powered. FTTP installations, NBN says, often require 'trenching' to run a passive fibre optic cable to the point of connection on the side of a home or business, and it's this additional process that is costly and time consuming.
However, it's important to note that while promising, this is only the first speed result we've seen from any fibre to the curb connection, and has been shared through NBN's media outreach — so end users should be wary of the cherry-picked result that's being shared with them. As fibre to the curb installations reach the mainstream in the next couple of years, we'll get a better picture of everyday connection speeds and real-world results.
A blog post attributed to NBN chief executive Bill Morrow accompanying the announcement of the first fibre to the curb installation talks it up to no end. Saying it offers "an identical end-user experience to fibre-to-the-premises", Morrow said the installation's $1500 saving per premises also comes with far less inconvenience to users. Morrow said fibre to the curb would only have been possible under the multi-technology mix instituted by then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2014.
"Back then, our people were told to design and build the fixed-broadband network no matter the time or cost. By bringing FTTB, FTTN, HFC and soon HFC into the network we have been able to address this problem." Morrow goes on to say that an all-FTTP network is hugely attractive — even to him, as a former telecoms industry engineer — but "not feasible to do in a country like Australia.
"Of course, I understand why some people come out with glib catchphrases like, 'Do it once, do it right, do it with fibre'. If only it were that simple in the real world."
Morrow says that the NBN company has to make commercial decisions on how much to spend on the network, because those costs are — necessarily, he says — passed on to consumers. "This network is not being delivered as a free gift — the government wants taxpayers to get their $49 billion back and expect a small return as well." That money is recouped from the fees NBN charges retail service providers, which make their money from... taxpayers.
"If we decided tomorrow to upgrade the entire FTTN footprint to FTTP — upgrading nearly five million premises at a cost of $2000 each — then that's another $10 billion we would have to recoup for taxpayers." And, Morrow says, customers aren't willing to pay — "only 14 per cent of end users are buying 100/40Mbps plans. We could not rightfully sanction piling billions of extra dollars of debt onto NBN — and ultimately the Australian people."
NBN hasn't responded to our questions on whether this 109MBps/44Mbps result is the highest possible speed this line could achieve — whether it's uncapped, or conforming roughly to NBN's top tier 100/40Mbps connection speed — and whether it was using final hardware that will be rolled out to future FTTC NBN installations. [NBN]