A tale of technologies: What makes up the NBN mix?

The rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) has been gathering momentum this year as NBN Co – the company established by the Government back in 2009 to design, build and operate the network – eyes a 2020 completion date. By the time the network is completed, NBN Co is targeting eight million activated premises.

To put this into context, NBN Co’s most recent figures show the number of homes ready for service stands at 1.38 million, with 610,000 premises activated. Given that consumers will be progressively migrated from old networks onto the NBN as it is rolled out, steep growth can be expected over the next five years.

However, the technology being used to deliver the NBN is by no means uniform, with the rollout varying from area to area. The NBN’s technology make-up has changed significantly since its inception (and has been the subject of much debate), with the NBN now being delivered via of a variety of broadband technologies, known collectively as the multi-technology mix (MTM).

The MTM technologies are:

  • FTTP (fibre-to-the-premises)
  • FTTN (fibre-to-the-node)
  • FTTB (fibre-to-the-basement)
  • HFC (hybrid fibre-coaxial)
  • Fixed wireless and satellite

NBN Co’s Corporate Plan 2016 shows that 20 per cent of premises are anticipated to be serviced via FTTP, 38 per cent via FTTN and FTTB, 34 per cent via HFC, 5 per cent via fixed wireless and 3 per cent via satellite. So, what exactly are these technologies? How do they work? And who will be receiving what?

Fibre to the premises

FTTP was the technology originally earmarked to make up the vast bulk of the NBN, with the rollout of the network having commenced with this goal in mind. In explaining what FTTP is and how it is different from other technologies, such as FTTN, it is helpful to first provide a background on fibre optics.

Information technology and research company Gartner provides the following definition of fibre optics technology:

“Fibre optics is a high-bandwidth transmission technology that uses light to carry digital information,” Gartner states. “One fibre telephone cable carries hundreds of thousands of voice circuits. These cables, or light guides, replace conventional coaxial cables and wire pairs. Fibre transmission facilities occupy far less physical volume for an equivalent transmission capacity, which is a major advantage in crowded ducts. Optical fibre is also immune to electrical interference.”

FTTP comprises the delivery of fibre all the way to individual premises, which means no copper cabling is involved in the broadband transmission, as opposed to FTTN (as will be discussed).

While the speeds achieved by both fibre and copper are limited by length, the speed achievable on copper becomes much more impacted by distance. ADSL technology, for instance, uses copper from the exchange to the house, and the further away the house is from the exchange, the slower the service becomes.

Proponents of FTTP argue that it provides both a faster and more future-proof service (with the upgrade of terminal equipment rather than the fibre itself having the potential to deliver faster speeds).

Fibre to the node / basement

FTTN, on the other hand, sees the fibre run to a neighbourhood “node”, at which point the copper cabling already in place takes over, connecting premises to the node (FTTB is a similar technology, in which fibre is run to a shared property before copper is used). NBN Co states that construction has commenced on 2,000 nodes, covering more than 400,000 premises.

Having recently launched FTTN, NBN Co states that it will significantly speed up the rollout of the NBN, forecasting that more than 1.6 million premises will be connected via FTTN technology by mid-2018.

While copper does not provide speeds as fast as fibre, there are methods by which to speed up transmission, which are being undertaken by NBN Co in combination with the FTTN rollout.

Vectored VDSL (very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) technology is one such technology that will assist in delivering high-speed broadband to homes connected via FTTN and FTTB, providing for higher speed data transmission over copper cabling, with NBN Co stating that it had achieved download speeds of close to 100 Mbps in a vectored VDSL pilot earlier in the year.

NBN Co has also recently announced it has been trialling a new technology called G.Fast, having achieved trial speeds of more than 600 Mbps on a 100 metre stretch of copper cable during a trial at an office block in Melbourne. Trials of G.Fast at NBN Co’s National Test Facility in Melbourne achieved trial speeds of nearly 970 Mbps over a stretch of 20 metre copper cable.

NBN Co states its next step will be to engage with retail service providers for wider G.Fast field trials to provide a better understanding of the technology, and if all goes well, it will look to launch G.Fast in around 2017.

Hybrid fibre-coaxial

Developed by the cable TV industry, HFC is, as the name suggests, a combination of fibre and coaxial cable.

HFC has become an important part of NBN Co’s MTM rollout. NBN Co will deliver broadband to areas already serviced by Telstra or Optus HFC networks, with the full HFC rollout estimated to cover approximately four million premises.

As NBN Co notes, HFC is widespread across a number of metropolitan areas, with there being a good chance that HFC will be the broadband transmission method to premises in areas in which Foxtel is already being accessed via cable.

NBN Co will be employing a technology known as DOCSIS 3.1 (Data Over Cable System Interface Specification) in its upgrade of HFC networks, which it states has the ability to deliver speeds of beyond 1 Gbps. NBN Co is looking to start turning on DOCSIS 3.1 from the middle of 2017.

NBN Co recently announced that it has commenced an end-user HFC pilot in Redcliffe, Queensland, as it works to a 2016 commercial launch, which will mark the release of the final MTM technology.

Fixed wireless and satellite

NBN Co’s satellite service is set for commercial launch mid-next year, with the Sky Muster satellite having been recently launched into orbit.

Sky Muster is one of two satellites NBN Co will use to deliver broadband to Australians living in rural, remote and isolated areas, with NBN Co stating satellite will deliver broadband access to around 400,000 Australian homes and businesses.

Also catering to communities outside of the NBN’s fixed line footprint is the rollout of fixed wireless, with NBN Co stating that its tower build will be largely completed by 2018, covering around 590,000 premises by the end of the rollout.

Fixed wireless employs technology known as LTE (also known as 4G), delivering broadband to a fixed number of premises within a service area, with NBN Co stating that it can provide speeds of up to 50 Mbps.

So, who gets what?

Amid the MTM rollout of the NBN, it should also be noted that NBN Co is offering interested parties an option to change their means of NBN access via its Technology Choice program.

The program comprises an Individual Premises Switch (individuals or a small group of premises) or an Area Switch (recommended to be 150-350 premises), allowing for a potential change to FTTP. Further information on the application process and the costs involved can be found here.

As for which areas are receiving which technology, further details can be found via NBN Co’s three-year construction plan here. For those areas not receiving FTTP in the initial rollout, it should also be noted that the potential exists for a further FTTP rollout in the future.

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