Sunday, September 15, 2013

Copper longevity a mystery for NBN

Malcolm Turnbull was all smiles at the Faceboat campaign launch for Sailors with disABILITIES at Darling Point on Sunday.

Malcolm Turnbull was all smiles at the Faceboat campaign launch for Sailors with disABILITIES at Darling Point on Sunday. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

The condition of millions of copper wires that the Coalition will rely on to deliver its broadband policy remains a mystery, and it will take months to uncover how many are functional and how many are degraded beyond use.

Telstra has never revealed how much it spends maintaining the network each year and its own descriptions of the copper network's life span range from three to 100 years.

The state of the customer access network, as it is known, directly affects the cost and speed of implementing the proposed fibre-to-the-node network because unusable sections of copper must be repaired or replaced with fibre.

Fault rates have increased in the past seven years from about 13 per cent annually in 2006-07 to 18 per cent, or 1 million faults, in 2011-12, according to figures published by the communications regulator. However, a spokesman for expected incoming communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said copper maintenance costs were not cited by any telco as a reason to replace wires with a full fibre network, and that the most common cause of faults was people accidentally digging through phone lines.

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''In areas where the NBN is deployed using fibre to the node, the most error-prone parts of the copper - the large bundles running between nodes and exchanges - will be replaced by fibre,'' he said.

''The Coalition forecasts also build in a budget for copper remediation, which is often part of a fibre-to-the-node rollout.''

About 71 per cent of premises in Australia would get a node-based broadband service on their existing copper connection under the Coalition's current proposal, but that figure may change, depending on the copper's reliability.

Telstra has given inconsistent messages about the longevity of its network, with chief executive David Thodey saying earlier this year ''the copper has been going well for a hundred years. I think it will keep going for another hundred."

But in 2003, Telstra's then group managing director of regulatory strategy Tony Warren, told a Senate committee the copper was ''at five minutes to midnight'' and would last up to 15 years, which would be until 2018.

The Coalition wants NBN Co to provide within 60 days an estimate of how much it would cost to change to a fibre-to-the-node network, and wants the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy to provide within 90 days a list of broadband quality in all areas of Australia. Both tasks require detailed knowledge of the state of the copper network.

Blogger, former Telstra technician and pro-fibre advocate Kieran Cummings told Fairfax Media no one knew how much copper remediation would be needed to get faster speeds on a fibre-to-the-node network.

''We are talking about 10 million [copper] lines, times four. That's what we have to test to know the quality of everything in the network, because that is how much copper they have put in the ground. You can't audit a network that big.''

A Telstra spokesman told Fairfax Media last week the age of its network varied, but ''it would rarely be older than 30 years'' due to a rolling remediation program on its century-old asset.


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