The NBN copper whispering campaign

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The state of the copper network is now the top discussion being held around the water cooler. Joe heard that Fred heard that Misty’s father was a Telstra linesman who swears….

The situation is far from clear and Telstra is not helping matters by making a series of conflicting statements regarding the state of the copper network.

Recently Telstra CEO David Thodey told The Australian that the copper network was in good working order and "will be going for another 100 (years)”. Thodey went on to say "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 but copper does not decompose."

Thodey’s remarks appear to be quite different to views put to Telstra shareholders in 2010 before a vote on the $11 billion NBN Co deal when the copper network was described as uneconomic due to its deteriorating state and high cost to maintain.

The true state of Telstra’s copper network must be investigated and publicly disclosed so that an open and transparent assessment can be made about the viability of using the copper for FTTN.

In August 2012 business analyst firm BIS Shrapnel produced a report titled "Maintenance in Australia 2012 to 2017" which stated that telecommunications infrastructure maintenance would decline from $2 billion in 2015 to $1.3 billion in 2021 due to the move to a fibre network.

In the report, BIS Shrapnel senior manager of infrastructure and mining Adrian Hart said:

"While it will allow for much higher levels of voice and data traffic, the technological superiority of optic fibre over Australia's ageing fixed-line copper network is estimated to reduce industry maintenance costs by between AU$600 million to AU$700 million per annum once fully deployed.”

Yet the whispering campaign to soften our minds to the possible use of the copper network for Fibre to the Node (FTTN) is in full swing.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR) recently published a story about a preliminary study using a well-known inaccurate database that found “up to 82 per cent of homes in cities are situated within 500 metres of a copper node” and the study went on to say “they are close enough to receive theoretical speeds of up to 100 megabits per second under fibre-to-the-node technology.”

To add yet another layer of hype the story went on to say that “up to 90 per cent of homes were within a kilometre of a Telstra copper node, meaning they would receive roughly at least a quarter of the maximum speed based on the technology.”

Does it matter that the study only considered cities and not regional and remote areas? Of course there is no real need to worry about anyone living beyond North Sydney or Toorak.

What about the use of theoretical speeds achievable only in a laboratory using pristine equipment to implant the idea that FTTN will be the National Broadband Network’s (NBN) technology saviour?

Is there any point advertising that customers will get “up to 100 Mbps”? The debate about this very questionable use of misleading advertising continues and it is high time that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission steps up and stops the practice.

In the UK BT has only guaranteed a minimum of 8 Mbps on their FTTN. Properties that are less than 300 metres from the cabinet can achieve 60-80 Mbps downstream but only 30 per cent of premises fall into this category.  If your home is more than 300 metres from the cabinet the projected speeds drop off quickly.

If only someone would post a copy of Dodo’s ADSL2+ speed disclaimer near the water cooler we might be able to see the recent spate of media promoting the qualities of the copper network for what it is – hype and nothing more. Just in case you need reminding here is the speed disclaimer:

The actual speed you experience depends on a number of factors, including, your equipment, the quality and location of your line, including how far your connection is from the local telephone exchange, the applications you are using, the capacity and speed of our systems, the systems of our suppliers, and the Internet generally. For these reasons, you should not expect your actual speed to be at or near the theoretical maximum.

The EU recently published a report containing a snapshot of Internet connections in March 2012 which was collected from about 9000 homes server by 250 ISPs across the 30 EU countries. The research states that “on average, EU consumers receive 74 per cent of the advertised headline speed they have paid for. xDSL based services achieved only 63.3 per cent of the advertised headline download speed, compared to 91.4 per cent for cable and 84.4 per cent for FTTx.”

If it wasn’t for cable and FTTx the EU figures would be around the xDSL figure of 63.3 per cent which is not something to be extolled. Would you be concerned if you purchased a car that you were told achieves 600km per tank and you found you could only do 400km, about 60 per cent?

As the NBN reviews commence, Telstra should be called upon by the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull to provide full and frank disclosure of the state of the copper network. There can be no reasonable decision to move to include FTTN in the Australian NBN without an open and transparent analysis of the copper network.

Mark Gregory is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University