Squeezing the life out of Telstra's copper

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David Thodey is no doubt an adroit diplomat but the Telstra CEO's comments on the longevity of the copper network highlights that he’s got a good sense of humour as well.

Thodey told reporters at a Trans-Tasman business lunch that “copper has been going for 100 years. I think it will be going for another 100.”

"There is always opportunity so you have to keep things maintained. But it's perfectly OK, there is some copper a lot older than others (sic) but copper does not decompose."

The comments where immediately seen by some as a significant win for the Coalition which has argued that a fibre to the node (FTTN) broadband plan would be sufficient for Australians for the coming decades.

However, let’s not get too carried away with the 100 years mark. The copper might last but the rest of the network components won’t. Sure, if you throw enough money at maintenance then you can squeeze more life out of the copper but is it going to fulfil our needs?  

In keeping with the spirit of the Thodey’s comments let us examine the 1919 Model-T Ford which has been in operation for nearly 100 years and are still working today. But are they being used by the majority of people? No.

Telstra’s copper network and the Model-T Ford have a lot in common. Both are examples of leading edge technology when they were first created and with careful and timely maintenance, they can both be kept functional.

The Model-T Ford maintains its value by remaining in a pristine “as-new” state. However, if this vehicle was upgraded with a new engine it could go faster but would still provide a rough ride.

If springs were added the vehicle would still be unable to go much faster because the power train was not designed to do so. If the power train was replaced the limitation would be the tyres. Fix the tyres and the problem becomes the brakes. Fix the brakes and….you get the picture.

A Model-T Ford will always remain what it is.

Having a laugh at Canberra's expense

Thodey is either being disingenuous, or simply having a laugh at Canberra’s expense, by implying that the Telstra copper network can be anything other than what it is – yesterday’s technology.

In 2005, the former Telstra CEO, Sol Trujillo, indicated the cost of remediating the copper network for VDSL was about $15 million. In 2010, Telstra told shareholders that the degraded state of the copper network was a significant reason to accept the NBN Co deal.

Yes the copper network could be operated for another 100 years, but to what end?

To utilise VDSL2 with vectoring there would be a need to carry out significant remediation of bridge taps, load coils, replacing remaining pair gain, replacing degraded copper, running fibre to the node cabinets, providing power, and so on.

Still after all the effort to remediate the copper network and install VDSL2 with vectoring, the end result will be a network that utilises a limited transmission technology that can operate at 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload in a laboratory out to about 500 m.

In practice the average speeds achieved will be much lower than what is achieved in a laboratory. The current ADSL2+ network can theoretically achieve 20 Mbps download, but the average speeds achieved is in the range 5-9 Mbps depending on what report you read.

The one thing that Thodey did manage to do yesterday was put to rest the rumour that under the Coalition’s NBN plan there would be less asbestos remediation work needed.

The asbestos factor 

The asbestos issue has led to a lot of finger pointing by the Coalition, which has tried to pin the blame on NBN Co despite Telstra taking the responsibility on its shoulders. On top of that, shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has claimed that the Coalition’s NBN plan will reducing the asbestos risk.

Turnbull’s claim has been soundly rejected by experts and Thodey has now buried that argument by telling the media that the asbestos issue is irrelevant to technology.  

“Obviously under fibre to the premise we remediate more pits and ducts but it wouldn't change (under FTT N) because we always have to be improving and making sure we do everything we can to progress safety," he said.

The constant improvement message is at the heart of what pinning our future on the copper network means. It’s spending a lot of money to keep running something that’s past its prime. Malcolm Turnbull is fond of using automotive analogies when comparing the two NBNs.

Personally, I want a 2013 model car, one that will meet my future needs.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.