Thanks to reverse-powered Fiber-to-the-Curb, Australian wholesaler nbn is eliminating costly and disruptive trenching and using copper to deliver last-mile connectivity from sidewalk-based Distribution Point Units (DPUs) to homes.
Nbn is using new solutions from fellow Australian company NetComm Wireless, and is the first commercial customer for NetComm Wireless' reverse-powered DPU and Network Connection Device (NCD). And while nbn has an extensive array of technologies already available to it, including these DPUs and NCDs adds new capabilities, said Tony Brown, executive manager of corporate media, in an interview with Broadband World News.
By eliminating driveway disruption, nbn has overhauled its prior expensive, time-consuming approach and boosted customer satisfaction. Time and money savings mean the taxpayer-funded wholesaler can accelerate its deployment schedule and more rapidly open up its infrastructure to commercial providers, Brown said.
"By not going up the driveway, we're saving an average of about $1,000 ($745 USD). The last-mile costs, specifically the driveway costs, have been $20,000 ($14,500 USD) and above regularly which, obviously, are not sustainable," he said. "That curb technology enables us to deploy a fiber-like technology for a very consistent price point because we know we're not going to have to dig up the driveway for the last mile. It's always going to be the copper, which always reduces the time and cost to build."
However, these figures reflect the money nbn spent on fiber-to-the-home for two years many years ago, Mark Gregory, a senior telecommunications and network engineering academic at RMIT University, told BBWN. Today, fiber costs -- for the technologies and deployment -- are lower, he said. And given the expenses associated with multiple truck rolls for upgrading ADSL to VDSL, and then eventually upgrading VDSL to Gfast, FTTH is much more cost-effective based solely on that factor, Gregory said.
The end of the driveway is a hostile environment, NetComm WIreless Chief Technology Officer Steve Collins told Broadband World News. "There's no power in the pit. When it rains, there's water in the pit. You can't put fans in the pit," he said. "Environmental protection and then the power problem is a real issue. There is no power."
Reverse-power is important because it eliminates the need to add main power to each Gfast-capable DPU -- an expensive proposition for each end-customer. In fact, the cost of putting fiber into the distribution point is less than doing two site visits to install FTTH, said Collins.
"By using reverse power and plugging that into the port… the end-user doesn’t feel it on the power bill," said Brown.
However, placing DPUs outside in pits still leaves them vulnerable to lightning and other weather-related factors, said Gregory. "The maintenance of these things works out to be more than maintenance of fiber systems," he added.
While NetComm's DPUs are Gfast-capable, nbn purchased VDSL2 models because its network does not yet support Gfast. According to the wholesaler's corporate plan, it expects to deploy this next-generation copper technology later this year -- a timeline that has shifted in the past, cautioned Gregory.
"One of the major reasons people have been staying away from fiber-to-the-curb is the Gfast versions of them haven't become available. There's still a lot of testing and other things going on with the Gfast units," he said.
"They're talking about upgrading to Gfast in the future, but for Gfast to work on very old copper will be challenging. Gfast spans 150 meters -- max. The problem is, these VDSL units that NetComm has work out to 250 meters," Gregory added. "You know what construction crews are like: If the houses are a little further apart, they're just going install it anyway, aren't they? Then, to go to Gfast, you're going to need another truck roll anyway. And when you do another truck roll, now you're talking about the difference between what they're doing now and doing fiber-to-the-home."
Digging the dirt
That $20,000 ($14,500 USD) price tag per home included digging up and then returning each residence's driveway to its prior condition -- figures Gregory said are from Nbn's two-year FTTH deployment from several years ago and, therefore, out-of-date. (BBWN left a message with Nbn to confirm the date of this pricing information.)
Nbn's charter is to construct broadband infrastructure that commercial providers then can lease to deliver their own Internet, communications, pay-TV, over-the-top and other services, said Brown. The wholesaler -- almost the equivalent of a nationalized Level 3 in the US -- must use fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) to reach 93% of Australia's population, plus an array of technologies for the remaining 7% of rural homes and harder-to-serve locales, he said. It faced a tight timeframe -- three years, initially.
Its other charter, said Gregory: To deliver broadband by the cheapest means. But using non-fiber routes could be more expensive, given the number of truck rolls required to upgrade and maintain residential networks, than the higher upfront cost of fiber, he argued. Especially, Gregory said, given the successful nationwide deployment of an FTTH network across neighboring New Zealand and Australia's apparent buying power and related discounting.
In 2010 and 2011 when nbn first deployed fiber, few examples existed outside Asia, whose population primarily lives in multi-dwelling units or urban areas and used fiber-to-the-building (FTTB), not FTTH, Brown recalled. The approximately 1 million residents of Australia's outback and other rural regions were a challenge to reach, even with satellite and fixed wireless, he said.
"It's costing $5 billion ($3.7 billion USD) to cover 1 million premises, so it's a huge investment in rural broadband here in Australia. At present the satellite costs about $8,000 ($6,000 USD) to connect each home and on the fixed wireless service, round about $4,000 ($3,000 USD), for us to connect so it's an extremely expensive, as I'm sure you can imagine," he said.
New government, new rules
With the election of a new government, nbn received a reprieve in both timing and tools. Additions included fiber-to-the-cabinet, for example, Brown said. These changes accelerated nbn's rollout, empowering the operator to reach 4 million end-users by early 2016, versus 1 million in the prior five years.
It created a political quagmire, however. Some end-customers, government challengers and others equated broadband with fiber and argued against the use of any non-fiber technology for broadband deployment, regardless of speed, availability or reliability. Others view nbn as their service provider rather than a wholesaler, said Brown: This means nbn is blamed for any Internet problem, regardless of the source, he added.
Equipped with a greater array of tools, nbn expects to meet all its mandates, said Brown. That includes constructing the network by 2020 and making it accessible for the anticipated 76% take-up rate, he said.
This article was edited on June 28 to include information from additional sources, including Mark Gregory, a senior telecommunications and network engineering academic at RMIT University, nbn financial reports and other media articles.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.
(Home page photo: By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Troy Latham, via Wikimedia Commons)