It looks like the NBN's huge bet might pay off

Photo: Getty Images

When the NBN announced that over 30% of its network would be the ageing HFC cable network originally laid in the 90s, it was panned for not being up to the standard needed.

But new advances in HFC could mean the gamble may just pay off.

As part of the Turnbull government’s multi-technology NBN rollout, rather than an all fibre approach, the network would be split up between fibre-to-the-node technology, fibre-to-the-premise and HFC.

FTTN uses fibre optics up to the node to save the money on rolling out full fibre, and has since begun rolling out, with less than stellar from early customers, showing speeds dropping significantly in peak periods, much the same as they did on old ADSL connections. This is mostly due to the bottleneck of the copper network that connects the home to the node and deteriorates the further away the home is. It’s still yet to be proven that this will adequately provide NBN quality services for its customers.

Fibre-to-the-premise fixes this problem by laying fibre optics the whole way and provides a significant speed boost but the costs to roll out can be a lot more.

But the third major option the government has chosen is to do some maintenance and upgrades on the existing HFC network which Optus and Telstra cable customers currently use and rebrand them as NBN products after buying the networks. HFC is viewed in mixed ways depending on where you live due to how it works. Although it’s yet to be proven the quality of cables, which it is known some older Optus ones are in poor condition.

In very basic terms, a single cable serves one area, whether that be a street, an apartment building or a bunch of streets. Each of those houses is joined onto the cable, meaning the data speeds are shared between each of those premises and varies depending on who is using the network.

Currently maximum plans offered by Telstra are 120Mbps, but those speeds can only realistically be achieved in the middle of the night when no one else is using the network. In peak periods, if there are lots of houses using the connection at once, it can all grind to a halt and become all but unusable.

To begin with, the government will be rolling out technology called DOCSIS 3.1 to the network which is aimed to bring download speeds up to that of fibre-to-the-premises, even with heavy load on the network. This is expected to be rolled out in the second half of 2017.

But the NBN’s chief technology officer Dennis Steiger, who is currently in the US meeting with CableLabs, a networking company who develops HFC technology with major tech companies such as Cisco, is discussing bringing over new tech that would be even faster.

Known as Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1, the technology which was announced last week will give HFC faster download and upload speeds. It works by combining the existing DOCSIS 3.1 and combining it with self interference cancellation technology which is sourced from 4G mobile technologies and reduces noise on the network.

Once the NBN upgrades the spectrum in HFC plants which connect the network to individual cables to 1.7GHz, each cable will be capable of delivering 21Gbps download speeds and upload speeds of 10GBs. So for example, if you had 100 houses on your street, even if every single house was using it to their full capacity, each house would still have 210Mbps download speeds and 100Mbps upload speeds.

Steiger said that the technology is a gamechanger in rolling out the NBN.

“Although it is still very early days the arrival of Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 is extremely exciting news for NBN and a real game-changing moment in the ultra-fast broadband market.

“We will be working closely with CableLabs to track the development of this technology and are excited about the potential this offers for the 4 million premises that will receive their NBN services via our HFC network.

“Previously it was only possible to deliver multi-Gigabit symmetrical broadband if you deployed an FTTP network – but HFC is now right up there in terms of being able to deliver these kinds of speeds.”

There are of course questions still up in the air such as timing and pricing. Timing will rely on the standardisation process by CableLabs which is expected to take place from the middle of this year, while the pricing will need to be worked out after that.

However, if the cable is in good condition, the upgrade to Full Duplex DOCSIS 3.1 is mostly done on the plant and in most cases, not the cable itself, although some will portions will need wider cable.

This hopefully will mean it can happy quickly and cheaply. Just as long as that old Optus cable is up to scratch.

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