What will fibre and ultra-fast broadband mean for you?

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 2-Feb-2010 12:50

When the National Government was elected in 2008 one of its pledges was to roll out ultra-fast broadband to New Zealanders. A promise of $1.5 billion was put on the table to be spent over six years delivering fibre to a significant number of New Zealand households and businesses.

To quote from the Ministry of Economic Development

Overview of the initiative

The government will be investing up to $1.5 billion in open-access, dark-fibre infrastructure to accelerate the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband to 75 percent of New Zealanders over ten years.

Ultra-fast broadband is defined as a fibre-to-the-premise broadband service providing downlink speeds of at least 100 Mbps and uplink speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

The government themselves will not necessarily be owning or operating a network – their plan is to partner with private companies who will build open access networks that can be accessed by wholesale and retail providers who wish to provide services. These networks do not need to be nationwide and it was envisaged that several different providers would pay a part in building individual networks that would ultimately all be connected.

In October 2009 Communications Minister Steven Joyce announced the formation of Crown Fibre Holdings. Their role is to assess the submissions for networks, invest the Government's money, and monitor performance of these networks. An invitation to participate was issued in October 2009 and when submissions closed at the end of January 33 proposals from 18 respondents had been received, two of which were for nationwide networks.

The announcement is not going to result in every household in New Zealand suddenly being connectable to a fibre optic network immediately, the priority in the first six years is on delivering services to schools, businesses and health providers.


So what do we have right now?

Right now New Zealand is in the middle is in the middle of a huge network expansion by Telecom New Zealand to deploy a fibre to the node (FTTN) network. Broadband speeds over copper are dictated primarily by the length of the copper cabling from the exchange to the premises. ADSL and VDSL signals don't travel well over long distances so by shortening the length of copper cabling (the "copper loop") to the premises broadband users will see increased broadband speeds. The goal is to deliver speeds of between 10Mbps and 20Mbps to 80% of New Zealanders by the end of 2011.

Chorus are achieving this by installing 3600 roadside cabinets around New Zealand and connecting the vast majority of these cabinets back to their existing network with fibre optic cable. Most cabinets will service in the vicinity of 300 customers who will typically be no further than 2km away from a cabinet. By installing an ISAM (the piece of hardware that generates the ADSL or VDSL signals) to this roadside cabinet (the "node") it will ensure that customers receive significantly faster broadband speeds. Customers who are beyond 2km from an exchange or cabinet will see speeds drop significantly and there are no simple cost effective ways of delivering them faster speeds using this technology.

Telecom are currently offering either ADSL or ADSL2+ broadband from their exchanges and cabinets with trials of VDSL2 underway. Unlike ADSL or ADSL2+, VDSL2 uses additional frequencies to offer even faster speeds. Vodafone and TelstraClear are also either trialling or offering VDSL2 services in some areas. ADSL2+ has the ability to offer speeds of up to 24Mbps, VDSL2 has the ability of offering speeds of up to 100Mbps for both downstream and upstream connections. Like ADSL, speeds taper off quickly and a customer who's located 1km from an exchange or roadside cabinet could expect to see downstream speeds in the vicinity of 35Mbps – 50Mbps and upload speeds in the vicinity of 7.5Mbps to 10Mbps.

Voice services are still currently provided from Telecom's legacy NEAX exchanges. In the future these NEAX exchanges will be made redundant and replaced with either hardware providing voice services from the cabinet or by the installation of residential gateways in households to provide a VoIP service over a broadband connection, the same solution that is used for fibre.



If you're located in Wellington, Christchurch, the Kapiti Coast or Hutt Valley you also have access to TelstraClear's Hyrid Fibre-Coaxial (HFC) network that has a similar FTTN architecture. Fibre is run to roadside cabinets but instead of using existing copper phone cable for delivering services to the home, coaxial cable is run from the cabinet to the household for broadband and cable TV services. TelstraClear are currently in the process of upgrading their network to support the DOCSIS3 cable modem standard that will deliver speeds of up to 100Mbps downstream to customers in the near future. DOCSIS3 features a capability known as channel bonding that allows up to 8 downstream carriers to be joined together and speeds of up to 300Mbps downstream and 120Mbps upstream have been demonstrated on live networks. One significant advantage of the HFC network over copper is that speeds are not affected by cable lengths, a customer who's located anywhere within a TelstraClear node will receive the same speeds as any other user.


What does fibre do better?

Quite simply, fibre is capable of delivering far greater speeds than can be delivered over copper. Speeds are also unaffected by cable lengths as is the case with ADSL or VDSL. Fibre distribution for broadband is not new and has been common in countries such as Japan for many years, the key difference between Japan and many other countries such as New Zealand is that many people live in apartment buildings and the cost of deploying fibre to a single building with a large number of customers has made economic sense. The rollout of fibre has greatly increased over the past couple of years with the introduction of the GPON (Gigabit Passive Optical Network) standard which has reduced the complexities of network layouts and delivered significant performance gains over earlier standards. The GPON standard has seen huge growth and has been chosen by a large number of providers around the world. One of the fastest growing GPON networks at present is the Verizon FiOS network in the USA which currently has availability in 12.7 million homes and over 3 million customers. GPON has already been deployed in New Zealand by Chorus and is in use in several new subdivisions where residents are already receiving their broadband and phone service over fibre.


How does it work?

The key part of a fibre network is an Optical Network Terminal (ONT) which converts the optical signals to electrical signals. The fibre optic cable plugs into the ONT, which then converts the signal to Ethernet which can then connect to a standard router. Since fibre is incapable of carrying voice calls like a regular copper phone line, voice traffic is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) so if you wish to continue to use traditional analogue phones you'll need an analogue telephone adapter (ATA) to connect your phones to the VoIP provider. This ATA can either be built into the ONT, your router, or be a standalone device. With the large number of standalone VoIP phones in the market these days customers also have the option of moving away from analogue phones entirely and taking advantage of the added benefits a true VoIP handset can offer.


Figure1 - Hardware Used in a typical Telecom New Zealand GPON Installation. This consists of an Alcatel Lucent ONT, a Linksys Router featuring a built in ATA for analogue phones, and a patch panel connected to RJ45 data sockets throughout the house for all data and analogue phones.




Figure 2 – Examples of Polycom & Linksys VoIP phones. All can replace existing analogue phones



The most significant downside of fibre over copper is that if you suffer a prolonged power outage you run the risk of having no broadband or phone services. The hardware installed in your premises requires power to operate, and even though it will be fitted with a battery backup solution this can't last forever.

VoIP also doesn't support dialup modems, alarm diallers or devices that may contain embedded modems such as medical alarms or MySky boxes. In all these cases alternative solutions need to be found. Monitoring alarm systems can easily be done over IP with a monitoring company who supports this service and existing alarms can easily be adapted to run over an IP connection.


What are the downsides?

The biggest downside of fibre is the cost. With a copper based broadband and phone service you simply plug your analogue phones and ADSL modem into regular phone jack point in your house. With fibre things aren't quite so simple and DIY installs will be a thing of the past. A significant amount of hardware needs to be professionally installed in your house to provide you with internet and phone services, for an average household this could end up being in the vicinity of $1000, a cost that will certainly have to be paid by the end consumer in one way or another at the end of the day, whether it is through installation charges or term contracts with an ISP. To take full advantage of new generation services that can be delivered over fibre a structured cabling solution in your house becomes vital, the cost of upgrading cabling in an existing house is something many homeowners may have great issues with. Telecom have recommended since the late 90's that all new households have a structured cabling system with cat5e and RG6 coax cable but it's something that many architects, builders, electricians and homeowners have chosen to ignore even though it adds very little to the cost of a new house.


How much will fibre cost? Do I really need it?

Fibre isn't the answer to everything. Add in the significant costs of installation hardware and many people may see no compelling reason to upgrade. New Zealand still suffers from low broadband data caps and significant costs in bringing data to our tiny little country from elsewhere in the world. Having a 100Mbps internet connection with a paltry 20GB cap isn't going to give people a compelling reason to switch! It's also worth remembering that much like busy motorways there will always be areas of congestion on the internet, and in reality speeds that may be delivered over fibre for general web surfing and downloads may not be significantly faster that over existing connectivity options. The ability to deliver high definition video to people's houses may sound great, but it's still going to come at a cost and won't necessarily deliver content that's not currently available elsewhere in New Zealand.

Fibre is capable of delivering significant benefits over the FTTN network currently being deployed by Chorus. The big 'if' is whether fibre is going to offer enough compelling reasons for people to upgrade. A nationwide fibre rollout is going to cost billions of dollars, and while it may deliver better internet it's certainly not going to deliver cheaper internet. It's my belief that the government should also be investing in international connectivity to connect us to the world – having world class internet is going to be no good if people are unable to afford it.



Other related posts:
Spark Paging network shutdown – the event nobody cares about? Not quite.
UFB voice, power cuts, copper invincibility and mainstream media FUD.
New Zealand’s growing BUBA problem (AKA I feel sorry for you if you’re on a Conklin)

comments powered by Disqus

sbiddle's profile

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 stevenbiddle@gmail.com