NBN’s 8Gbps copper test is cool, but we still need fibre

Angus Kidman 19 October 2016

NBNCopper_Shutterstock

nbn is trialling XG.Fast, but that doesn't mean faster cheaper networks just yet.

So earlier this week nbn, the company building the National Broadband Network (NBN), announced details of a successful lab trial it had run using a technology known as XG.Fast. This uses conventional copper wiring to connect to your house (the same kind used for the landline phone network and for ADSL), but delivers much higher speeds.

In its tests, nbn achieved aggregate speeds of 8Gbps over 30 metres of copper, which is roughly 900 times faster than the broadband speed you're probably getting right now as an average Australian. Extend that to 70 metres of copper and the speed drops to 5Gbps, still an impressive figure but one which reminds you that with broadband, distance always matters. According to nbn, the typical distance for a copper connection from a house to a "pit" connecting to broadband services is somewhere around 23 metres, so the possible speeds will probably fall somewhere in between. I won't be complaining if there's a 6Gbps connection to my apartment block (even though that's an aggregate speed and what I'll get individually will be lower again).

While this sounds promising, there are two important things to note (aside from the obvious point that lab test results are very much a best-case scenario). Firstly, there are no plans to actually use XG.Fast in any of the projected rollouts for the NBN between now and 2020. It might be possible to use it as an alternative method for connecting large apartment blocks, or for the fibre-to-the-kerb approach that's going to be deployed in areas where Optus cable turned out to be a damp squib.

But that isn't likely to happen before the rollout finishes in 2020 (timetable gods permitting). It's a potential technology for enhancing the network in the future, but since nbn itself will have been privatised at that point, predicting that future is particularly tricky.

Secondly: this doesn't mean that we could have stuck with Australia's ageing copper network all along, a theme which NBN haters return to any time there's a hint of a lab test offering high speeds. XG.Fast is still dependent on being able to connect to a high-speed core network, and fibre is the best technology we have for that right now. It's possible that in the future rolling out XG.Fast will prove cheaper than having to roll out fibre connections to nearby nodes. But we couldn't get there without spending tens of billions of dollars on the fibre underpinnings. Infrastructure is pricey.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

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