Fibre to the node still uses optical fibre connections, but does not run to the ultimate end point of every connection. Where fibre to the node is to be rolled out, it will terminate in a street-level cabinet before then being shared out via the existing copper phone line network currently used for providing ADSL and ADSL2+ services. Fibre to the node can achieve higher real-world speeds than straight ADSL2+, primarily through using vectoring noise-cancelling technology. Provided the distance from the node is not that great, this allows for VDSL connections, which offer greater speeds than those capable on ADSL. There are a few good things to say about a fibre to the node network. It requires less to build because a reasonable proportion of the network exists already in the form of the existing copper network. Most current plans call for the copper network to terminate no further than around 800 metres from premises in order to maximise the speed benefits of the fibre beyond that point.
That has benefits from a speed-of-build perspective, because one does not have to install the last 800 metres or so for around nine million premises across Australia. The Coalition’s National Broadband Network proposal suggests a completed fibre to the node rollout by 2019, two years earlier than the current projected completion date for a fibre to the premises rollout. However, it is worth noting that the Coalition proposal includes elements of fibre to the premises as well, which is a plus for those premises. Building less reduces the cost of labour markedly. The Coalition’s policy suggests a cost of $29.5 billion compared with fibre to the premises—NBN Co’s estimated cost is $43 billion. That is another positive thing. When push comes to shove, a fibre to the node rollout should be cheaper than a fibre to the premises rollout. Of course, the big concern with mass asset investment is that at the end of the day the consumer—the whole demographic cross-sector of mums and dads, and aged consumers who need affordable access to these systems—will pay for it one way or another.
However, fibre to the node also has a few issues. What the copper infrastructure can achieve now and, from looking at the research, into the future has a number of practical limitations. Certainly, using fibre to the node to increase Australia’s generally poor broadband standards is feasible, but only to levels of around 100 megabytes per second, at which point copper pretty much maximises its potential, which assumes also that the copper infrastructure is perfect. Telstra has declared at times that the copper infrastructure is nearing the end of its life but might be good for up to a century. I note the knowledgeable Hon. Malcolm Turnbull admits that he does not know the exact cost of replacing damaged copper in the existing Telstra network. He said:
You don’t really know until you actually get in there and see what is there.
If there are any issues with the copper network they are likely to have a significant impact on the performance of a fibre to the node connection—a big unknown factor in any fibre to the node rollout. If we replaced the whole system with fibre the problems would be wiped out by the new infrastructure, but it would be significantly more expensive. Vectoring technology can add speed boosts to the ability of copper wires to deliver broadband services and it has been successful overseas in dense urban areas. However, a big unknown factor is that nobody has tried to roll it out on the scale required by the Australian broadband network. There are also power issues. Fibre to the premises cabinets are unpowered and each cabinet requires a permanent power connection. Upload speeds remain a significant issue for fibre to the node users and the network is likely to have poor upload speeds.
For the remaining 7 per cent of remote and rural users there is no difference between the proposals of either party—remote users will get National Broadband Network access. In a nutshell, Labor’s National Broadband Network proposal might technically be faster and future-proof, but unfortunately it is significantly more expensive and it will take longer to build. One has to be economically responsible as well as plan for the future. The Christian Democratic Party will be following the Coalition’s ongoing rollout with much interest, particularly when we hear about the Federal debt…