New NBN trial puts copper back in spotlight

Angus Kidman 23 October 2017 NEWS

Fibre-to-the-curb promises cheaper deployment, but will we pay a speed cost?

Way back in September 2016, nbn (the company building the National Broadband Network) announced plans to use fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) as a way of speeding up its rollout, which is due to be finished by 2020. (As we've noted before, nbn does not know how "kerb" is spelled in Australia, but alas that illiterate ship has sailed.)

Over a year later, the first full trial of an activated FTTC premises has been launched, at a single location in Coburg, Victoria. In trial tests, nbn says it has achieved download speeds of 109Mbps and upload speed of 44Mbps. That's broadly comparable with what other fibre technologies deliver. However, given that no individual customer will ever get speeds that high, those results might make you think twice about a high-speed 100/40 plan if you end up living in a house where FTTC is the chosen technology for NBN.

The reason nbn is favouring FTTC is that it's much cheaper to roll out than other technologies. If you roll out fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), you have to dig up driveways. Fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) doesn't need that, but does require mains power to the node. With FTTC, a simpler distribution point unit (DPU) connects existing copper lines to the premises. In the trial site at Coburg, a 70 metre copper line was used to link to this.

If you're feeling a sense of nausea and dread at the thought that old-fashioned copper lines are being used to deliver high-speed broadband, you're not alone. The rubbish quality of the ageing copper network was one of the reasons we needed the NBN in the first place. And nbn knows as much, having been working on developing a tool to help service providers identity when bad copper is the reason why services are bad.

If you live in an area where either FTTN or FTTC is used, you essentially have to pray that some of the copper will be replaced. Even if that happens, it's going to degrade over time, at a much faster rate than fibre.

Ultimately, around 1 million premises will be connected via FTTC, with a commercial rollout in mid-2018. "Reducing the cost of the network by bringing on-board new technologies like FTTC is crucial because the more money that we spend on the network, the more Australians will have to pay for their broadband," nbn CEO Bill Morrow said in a statement.

That's true. But the less we invest in that network, the poorer the performance. A single successful trial for FTTC is a start, but it will be fascinating to see how much copper has to be replaced across those 1 million locations to deliver a viable service.

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 regularly on finder.com.au.

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