New Zealand’s growing BUBA problem (AKA I feel sorry for you if you’re on a Conklin)

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 17-Feb-2015 08:00

NZ has fantastic broadband. I’ve written about this plenty of times, and it seems that many NZers are finally beginning to accept that despite certain ISPs and political parties having bombarded us with propaganda telling us that we have “3rd world internet”, that we actually have both a world class copper network, and a fantastic future ahead with fibre currently in the process of being deployed to around 75% of premises as part of the Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) rollout. Right now well over half a million residential and business premises in New Zealand now have access to fibre, 100Mbps connectivity is quickly becoming the norm, and we’re not far away from the mass rollout of 1Gbps connections. Compared to many countries we like to compare ourselves to (such as Australia), we’re literally years ahead, and by the end of the decade will have one of the best nationwide broadband networks of any country, anywhere in the world.

The rollout of fibre fed cabinets delivered 10Mbps+ ADSL2+ connections to around 85% of the population, and VDSL2+ speeds of up to 70Mbps to around 45% of the population as part of Telecom’s cabinetisation project between 2007 and 2011. From 2011 onwards we’ve seen the rollout of UFB start, which will deliver fibre to around 75% of premises in New Zealand by 2020. The copper footprint is currently being expanded  with the Chorus Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) delivering ADSL2+ and VDSL2 to tens of thousands of rural users,

While all of this is great, there are unfortunately still a small percentage of internet customers in New Zealand who are serviced by legacy equipment that will not receive the same level of broadband service as a user connected to newer xDSL equipment or fibre. The mass introduction of unlimited plans in New Zealand in recent months has seen a growing number of complaints from people in rural areas complaining about severely degraded broadband performance, particularly in the evenings where internet usage is at it’s peak. I’ll attempt to explain why this occurring, and what you can do about this.

Lets start by a history lesson. Wholesale broadband in New Zealand consists of a regulated product known as Unbundled Bitstream Access (UBA). Pricing for UBA is set by the Commerce Commission, and the product has some very detailed requirements that are set in place by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Commerce Commission. Chorus are responsible for delivering a UBA product that meets these requirements, and depending on your location your wholesale UBA connection will be delivered via one of two Chorus products - Basic Unbundled Bitstream Access (BUBA) or Enhanced Unbundled Bitstream Access (EUBA). The type of connection used will depend largely on your location and the type of equipment you’re connected to on the Chorus network.

Chorus Wholesale xDSL (ADSL,ADSL2+ and VDSL2)  Internet connections in NZ are all delivered by Chorus to your ISP using two different types of backhaul products. In the early says of ADSL in New Zealand all connectivity was delivered back to your ISP over the Asynchronous Transfer Network (ATM) network, and delivered to the customer’s premises using a Chorus wholesale product known as BUBA. ATM is now a very old technology and has many limitations, but in it’s day was cutting edge technology.  For the past 6-7 years or so we’ve seen a huge shift away from ATM to regular Ethernet, with most ISPs now being delivered most of their connections over a regular Ethernet connection using 1Gbps or 10Gbps fibre links, and the end service delivered to the customer using the EUBA product. The vast majority of connections in New Zealand are now EUBA, however customers who do not live in urban areas and remain on older legacy network equipment that does not support Ethernet backhaul are still on BUBA and connected via the ATM network. ATM is incapable of delivering the same level of speeds and product flexibility that Ethernet offers, but is still required due to the legacy equipment that does not support Ethernet backhaul.

One key thing to remember here is that the Commerce Commission UBA requirements (that Chorus have to meet) say that a UBA connection must deliver 32kbps to a user over a 15 minute average. For all intent purposes this means your broadband connection must be capable of delivering 32kbps to a user, a speed that is typical of a dialup connection. Up until a few years ago this this speed was enforced by traffic dimensioning between the ISP and Chorus (and prior to that, Telecom Wholesale), however with the growth of Internet traffic this speed has been increased by Chorus out of the goodness of their own heart, and right now they deliver a product offering that significantly exceeds their legal obligations. Currently BUBA connections are shaped to ensure 75kbps per user over a 15 min average, and EUBA connections are currently unshaped (any traffic dimensioning will simply be capacity constraints at 1Gbps or 10Gbps ISP handovers). At present Chorus statistics show that the average EUBA throughout is roughly 150kbps per user over a 15 min average that is expected to hit 250kbps within the next year. As part of their proposed announcement regarding new commercial Boost ADSL2+ and Boost VDSL2 product offerings in mid 2014, Chorus offered to increase the BUBA per user dimensioning from 75kbps to 150kbps (nearly 5x the regulated requirement) which would have meant a significant peak time speed improvement for many rural users. After negotiations with the Commerce Commission who deemed that there may be regulatory issues with the new Boost commercial offerings, both the new product offerings and BUBA dimensioning changes were put on hold. Many BUBA users would have benefited significantly from the increased handover speed, so it’s unfortunate for them that this will not proceed.

All of this poses a question that only the Commerce Commission can answer – why in 2015 do they continue to have a regulated product offering that was designed for the Internet of 2005, not the Internet of 2015? Many people mistakenly assume the role of the Commission is to deliver the best outcome and/or pricing for consumers, when in reality their role is to ensure that competition exists in a marketplace, that Government policy is effectively implemented, and to ensure that in monopoly situations that pricing is set that represents a fair price for both parties. None of this will necessarily guarantee the best end product for the consumer. Rather than simply focusing on the price of UBA, the Commerce Commission should be looking at the UBA product offering and reviewing the product requirements of their offering as 32kbps per user no longer meets the requirements of a modern internet. In a nutshell, if you’re in a rural area your BUBA internet is partly being crippled by the MBIE and Commerce Commission who continue to set product specifications for a sub standard regulated UBA offering. The Commission totally took a flawed approach in their recent UBA pricing decision by totally ignoring speed as an input which is something that really defies belief. As an engineer I look at their recent pricing decisions for both UBA and copper pricing and wonder about the technical knowledge that exists both in the MBIE and Commerce Commission as well as the 3rd parties that they rely on for advice.

Now that I’ve discussed the difference between the two products, we need to look at the technical difference between equipment used to deliver BUBA and EUBA services.

EUBA ADSL2+ and VDSL2 services are delivered to customers using an Alcatel Lucent Intelligent Services Access Manager (ISAM). This piece of kit sits in an exchange or cabinet and delivers broadband services to customers connected to it. Many are now fitted with ISAM-V Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) cards to deliver voice services to customers. All ISAMs have Ethernet backhaul over a fibre connection. If you’re in an urban area of New Zealand, there is probably a 99% chance you’re delivered a connection via an ISAM.

BUBA ADSL1 services are typically delivered using an Alcatel Lucent DSLAM – known as an ASAM in the tech world. These are basically “1st generation” hardware. An ASAM typically only sits in an exchange and can only deliver ADSL1 services, not ADSL2+ or VDSL2. ASAMs have both a combination of fibre and copper E1 backhaul over the ATM network. Most ASAM’s are located in non urban areas and a number are still in the process of being replaced by an ISAM as part of the RBI rollout.

Customers who are on a EUBA connection connected back to an ISAM are not going to see their speed constrained or restricted in any way within the Chorus network, while  some customers who are on a BUBA connection may encounter issues with slower speeds at peak time due to congestion on both the hardware they’re connected to and the backhaul. What is important to remember however is that despite congestion occurring, your UBA connection will still meet the minimum requirements demanded by the Commerce Commission of delivering 32kbps per user over a 15 minute average. Speed issues will not occur across all UBA connections, and are primarily an issue with customers connected to a Conklin. What’s a Conklin you might ask? Lets start with another history lesson..

There are thousands of rural users who are still connected to a Conklin DSLAM, a device known by many in the industry as a “pizza box” DSLAM due to it being a small rack unit that’s around the size of a pizza box.

Conklin DSLAMs were originally designed to provide broadband service into rural areas where it was typically impossible to install the same equipment that was deployed in urban areas. A Conklin FM2000 could support 4 ADSL customers and support up up 7 expansion cards supporting 8 additional ADSL customers for a grand total of 60 ADSL customers. Some Conklin’s were in areas where the number of customers could be counted on both hands, so it was never cost effective to install the same equipment as urban areas that is designed for hundreds of users. As most cabinets or exchanges that Conklin’s are installed in don’t have any form of fibre connectivity, these units connect back into the Chorus network using copper E1 connections bonded together (a single E1 is capable of delivering 2Mbps). These units support up to 4x E1 connections delivering 8Mbps to the unit which has a maximum ADSL1 speed of 7.616Mbps.  In the early days many were only provisioned with 2 or 3 E1 connections, however most now have the maximum 4 E1 connections for backhaul. They were the perfect solution to deliver ADSL broadband to pockets of rural users who would have missed out on broadband entirely had it not been for the deployment of this hardware. Large numbers of Conklin’s were deployed around the country in the mid 2000s, many have now been replaced, but around 600 or so of these still remain, typically serving between 30 and in many cases a full 60 users.

While Conklin’s were a fantastic solution for their time, they are now an unfortunate headache both for Chorus, and for customers connected to them. They only support ADSL1 and with very limited backhaul, many users are now seeing slow speeds at peak times as they all fight for that limited backhaul. While the limited backhaul has never been a major issue, it’s suddenly become one with the mass introduction of unlimited plans which has seen data usage grow significantly. All it takes is a couple of users on a Conklin on unlimited plans to decide they want to download several hundred GB per month, and all users on that Conklin will suffer from a degraded experience as that 8Mbps backhaul connection is shared across up to 60 users. Fixing the Conklin problem isn’t an easy one however – many are being replaced with fibre fed ISAMs as part of the RBI rollout, but once that is complete hundreds will still remain. Why can’t they just all be upgraded? Ultimately that comes down to price, as many of these Conklin’s are in areas where there may be no existing fibre there is simply no way to upgrade backhaul connectivity to support newer equipment. Replacing many of these would cost in the vicinity of half a million dollars each, and it should be very clear to people after recent wholesale price cuts imposed on Chorus that they’re not in a financial position to continue to invest in fixed line infrastructure to upgrade what are largely unprofitable customers – I’m not sure whether any reasonably person would expect Chorus to fully fund upwards of $500,000 to run fibre and provide an ISAM for 60 users who would generate around $2000 per month in revenue. The Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) wireless rollout was designed to target users in many locations where Conklin’s currently exist and provide them a regulated wireless offering to replace copper.

So what is RBI wireless? As part of the Government funding for improved broadband, the Ultra Fast Broadband (UFB) project received funding to deploy fibre into urban areas, and the RBI project received funding to improve rural broadband. Chorus are in the process of installing over 1200 fibre fed cabinets to deliver ADSL2+ and VDSL2 to rural users to whom copper will still be the primary connection, and are also involved in the delivery of fibre to hundreds of both existing and new Vodafone cellsites that are being upgraded to deliver RBI wireless services. To connect to the RBI wireless service a home owner will need an external antenna and 3G radio that will connect to the mobile network and provide WiFi and Ethernet access around the home with a standard router. At present RBI wireless supports speeds of up to 25Mbps downstream and 4Mbps upstream on a Vodafone RBI cellsite that supports Dual Carrier 3G. With the rollout of 4G services on the 1800MHz and 700MHz band in rural areas beginning to occur, new radios that supports 4G will ultimately be deployed to deliver even faster speeds to customers. While the service has not been without issues it is something that does work well, however uptake has been slower than many expected, in part because of the real world reality that many rural people seem unwilling to accept that delivering broadband to them in a rural area costs significantly more, and many are convinced that they shouldn’t have to pay more than an urban user for a broadband connection.

In many rural areas of NZ that there are many smaller providers providing wireless internet access typically using a combination of 5Ghz WiFi and licenced backhaul using carrier grade equipment. I’m going to miss names if I try and list them, but areas such as Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, Northland and the Central North Island are well covered. There are also many providers in the South Island who also provide such services. These providers will provide service by connecting an external radio on your house that connects back to their network, and will connect to a regular WiFi and Ethernet router inside your home.

If you’re in an area of the country that has service provided by a Conklin or a heavily loaded ASAM and you’re relying on ADSL, the real world reality is you’re not going to enjoy the same great end user experience that around 85% of the country that has a choice of fibre or copper services from a fibre fed ISAM has. Many (but certainly not all) rural users do have a choice of other providers and technologies but many chose to stick with their slow copper connections because they either oblivious to these other options, or quite simply unwilling to pay extra to receive a improved connection. It’s hard to have any sympathy for such users.

If you don’t have a choice of providers then I have plenty of sympathy for you, but delivering improved broadband to such a small percentage of the country doesn’t come cheaply. Many industry commentators and politicians have turned against Chorus in recent years and their financial state isn’t great. Chorus will suffer from slashed revenue due to Commerce Commission price cuts of copper services, and it’s hard to see where Chorus will find funding internally to continue to expand their copper network upgrades into highly unprofitable areas without further funding from the government. My personal view is that rural users should pay more for their services, and if this was the case many rural users would probably find they had a much improved service. Many thousands have access to improved services now, but many simply aren’t willing to move away from copper based ADSL services.

If you’re in an area whether there are no other options your best hope is to write to your local MP, local wireless provider, MBIE and the Commerce Commission asking what can be done to improve your service.If you’re in an area with RBI wireless and are unhappy with the pricing, once again contact the MBIE and Commerce Commission and your local MP to express your issues as RBI wireless is a Government funded offering. It’s also worth approaching Chorus and asking what community contributions may be required to improve services – Chorus are willing to engage with communities and share the cost of upgrades. And last, but not least, the solution for many small rural communities may be a community based network - there are plenty of providers around the country that could be interested in partnering with a community to deliver improved services that could easily be delivered over wireless. Rather than simply accepting the status quo, some of these communities need to look outside the square and adopt the Kiwi number 8 wire approach. Many rural communities have schools that already have fibre connectivity, and in many parts of New Zealand there is existing Chorus fibre infrastructure that can be used to provide services. There are a number of options that can easily leverage this to deliver improved broadband connectivity to entire rural communities for probably not much more than they’re paying now for an existing ADSL based copper connection. With communications Minister Amy Adams announcing a $150 million fully contestable fund for expansion of rural broadband services before the election, it’s also worth contacting her to express interest if you’re in a community and believe you could benefit or want to look at partnering with a provider to develop a community based solution. Solutions are out there – but some may require people to be innovative rather than a gold plated solution being delivered to them.

Other related posts:
Spark Paging network shutdown – the event nobody cares about? Not quite.
UFB voice, power cuts, copper invincibility and mainstream media FUD.
Vodafone NZ – increasing prices because profits are low.

Comment by Cody Cooper, on 17-Feb-2015 11:06

Thank you for your post, sbiddle. I found it very informative and I agree with you on all of the above points. I think the big mistake made by the government was investing more money into copper infrastructure in rural areas, instead of Rural Fibre or RBI Wireless. Additionally, there should've been a cut-off date for users to migrate from copper to RBI Wireless in the areas serviced by wireless. However, this would not be in Chorus' best interests. They lose revenue from customers switching from copper to RBI Wireless.

Comment by allan, on 17-Feb-2015 16:31

As always, very impressed by the thought and effort put into your posts and your ability to outline the issues in understandable terms.

Comment by Dave, on 17-Feb-2015 18:08

Steve, what I've never seen explained is this. RBI is funding fibre to rural cell towers to enable the wireless connections. If that's the case, then why not run the fibre to the cabinets that can't be that far away?

Author's note by sbiddle, on 17-Feb-2015 18:55

Running fibre to large numbers of rural cabinets makes no sense because relying on xDSL as a primary method of broadband for rural customers makes no sense. With a 1km limit for VDSL2 and around 3km - 4km for usable ADSL2+ speeds you needs a huge number of cabinets to cover the same footprint that can be covered by a single wireless access point or cellsite.

Comment by Matthew Harrington, on 22-Feb-2015 11:46

Steve, Great write up as usual. Just one question about all this....How do we vote you onto the Commerce Commersion?

Comment by hairy1, on 22-Feb-2015 12:08

Except maybe I shouldn't be voting if I can't spell commission! :-) 

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Steve Biddle
New Zealand

I'm an engineer who loves building solutions to solve problems.

I also love sharing my views and analysis of the tech world on this blog, along with the odd story about aviation and the travel industry.

My interests and skillset include:

*VoIP (Voice over IP). I work with various brands of hardware and PBX's on a daily basis
  -Asterisk (incl PiaF, FreePBX, Elastix)

  -xDSL deployments

*Structured cabling
  -Home/office cabling
  -Phone & Data

*Computer networking
  -Mikrotik hardware
  -WAN/LAN solutions

*Wireless solutions
  -Motel/Hotel hotspot deployments
  -Outdoor wireless deployments, both small and large scale
  -Temporary wireless deployments
*CCTV solutions
  -Analogue and IP

I'm an #avgeek who loves to travel the world (preferably in seat 1A) and stay in nice hotels.

+My views do no represent my employer. I'm sure they'll be happy to give their own if you ask them.

You can contact me here or by email at