Why the NBN gigabit cable trial is good news

Angus Kidman 6 June 2017

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Cable customers should soon enjoy much higher speeds.

So nbn, the company building the National Broadband Network (NBN), has just completed DOCSIS 3.1 trials for its HFC network. Don't drown in that alphabet soup of acronyms, this is actually good news.

HFC (hybrid fibre coaxial) is the cable network originally rolled out by Telstra and Optus to deliver pay TV services. The networks were acquired by nbn as part of its multi-technology mix approach, and are being used to deliver high-speed broadband, largely in capital cities.

Currently, the maximum download speed available on a plan using HFC is 100Mbps, while the top upload speed is around 40Mbps. However, upgrading the core network to use the newer DOCSIS standard means that in theory download speeds of up to 1Gpbs and upload speeds of up to 100Mbps are possible. According to nbn, it has achieved that gigabit milestone in a laboratory test in Melbourne.

We'll have to wait a while before those services are rolled out commercially. Further tests are planned in August, followed by in-field trials in December. On current plans, DOCSIS 3.1 will roll out across the HFC network in 2018. You can see if HFC will be used at your address using our NBN tracker.

"DOCSIS 3.1 is going to be able to provide fantastic gigabit potential for end users – just as our fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) network does today," NBN CEO Bill Morrow said in a statement announcing the tests. "The best news is that we will be able to bring gigabit broadband to these premises far more quickly, cost effectively and with less disruption to end users than alternate technologies in these busy urban areas."

Despite that gushing, the HFC network has enjoyed something of a troubled history. Last year, nbn decided to switch many premises from using the HFC network originally set up by Optus, instead moving them to fibre-to-the-distribution-point (also known as FTTDP, or fibre to the curb in the illiterate take favoured by nbn. That made the HFC buyout look like something of a waste of money. Being able to deliver high speeds should dull that impression, though the test announcement is careful to specify that it's only the Telstra parts of the HFC network where this is going to operate.

That said, there may not be a race by providers to deliver 1GBps services. As Bill Morrow points out, those are already theoretically possible in homes which have an FTTP connection, but virtually no ISP offers them. In a recent publicity stunt, MyRepublic announced plans to offer 1GBps services in Wollongong. However, most Australians are still settling for lower NBN speeds right now, with the vast majority going for the second-slowest 25/1 package.

That doesn't mean it's a bad idea to have the higher speeds available. As a professional grumpy old nerd, I well remember a point in the 1990s when people were claiming that dial-up was all that anyone would ever need. Those folks have long since had to shut their traps. When it comes to broadband speed, one of the few guarantees is that we'll always want more in the long run.

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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