There has been a lot of discussion in the media in recent days regarding the UFB (Ultrafast Broadband) fibre rollout and the issues surrounding both voice only plans and the availability of phone services over UFB during a power cut. Due to a large amount of misinformation that’s been spread surrounding this issue, primarily by mainstream media who seem to lack any technical understanding of the issue and instead focus on disseminating mistruths, I felt the need to write something to explain things that can hopefully be understood by everybody.
Last week the Dominion Post a story ran about brand new Wellington City Council flats in Miramar that in line with many new buildings was only capable of receiving internet and phone services over the UFB network. As no copper had been reticulated inside the new building, it was not possible for people living in the flats to receive a regular phone service over the copper PSTN network like most were used to. As many residents were elderly, they had no need for internet access, and found themselves having to pay more for an internet and phone bundle as they couldn’t have a phone only connection over UFB. Like the vast majority stories on Stuff these days where comments are enabled, numerous comments added nothing to the debate, or society as a whole. Aside from the name calling, bashing of big companies and some absolutely stupid suggestions, they showed how little the average person actually understands about the technology behind their day to day lives.
Some in the media were quick to jump onto the bang wagon bashing Spark (what anything has to do with them is a mystery), along with the UFB project as a whole. Many were also quick to make fools of themselves by jumping into the debate and laying blame while relying on misinformation to make judgements.
One thing needs to be made very clear – there is nothing stopping a phone only connection being delivered over a UFB connection. An ATA (Analogue Telephone Adapter) port is located on every ONT (Optical Network Terminal) which in installed in your premises to deliver UFB services, and an ATA only service plan is available to every RSP (Retail Service Provider) that offers UFB services. Why you might ask do none then offer a phone only plan? That’s both a business and a technical decision, both of which I’ll discuss in more detail.
To deliver a voice connection over UFB a RSP has two options – use the ATA port in the ONT, or use an ATA port on the RGW (Residential Gateway) that’s installed. The RGW is your router that plugs into the ONT and provides you with internet access via Ethernet and WiFi. Your regular corded or cordless phone simply plugs into the RJ11 ATA port on the ONT or RGW, or your existing home copper cabling can be wired into this port by a technician so all existing phone jacks will continue to work just like they did with a copper connection. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, and neither is a better or worse solution – they are simply two different ways to deliver a dial tone, and ultimately a phone service to the customer.
Currently there is a mix of RSPs using the ATA port on the ONT, and using the ATA port on the RGW. Both solutions are VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) based solutions and connect back to a soft switch (a VoIP “phone exchange”) at your RSP or VoIP provider.
So why the two approaches? Quite simply this comes down to the hardware a RSP wants to deploy, and how they plan to provision the hardware. If a RSP uses their RGW for VoIP they can deploy the same RGW to deliver internet and VoIP phone services over both DSL and UFB – this means their backend provisioning system and processes are identical for provisioning hardware for a customer, regardless of the platform they’re on. If a customer moves from DSL to UFB, nothing has to change (not even the hardware) to deliver their connection. If a customer moves address, once again no changes are required as the RGW can simply be moved between premises and will continue to function once a DSL or UFB service is provisioned. One such example of this is Orcon who use the same hardware across DSL and UFB to deliver voice and Internet to customers.
For a RSP to use the ATA port on the ONT they need to support the auto provisioning of the ATA in the ONT, which may require building an entirely new provisioning platform, or significant changes to their exiting platform. There are also differences between the provisioning methods between the hardware used by Chorus and the LFCs (Local Fibre Companies), as Chorus are not the sole provider of UFB as many people mistakenly believe. Once you have built a provisioning platform you need to deal with the minor differences between the different ONT hardware used by Chorus and the LFCs – as each has slight differences in it’s SIP (Session Initiated Protocol) stack used in the ATA for the VoIP product. All of this requires testing, testing and more testing. Once this is all complete you then have to deal with day to day BAU (Business As Usual) processes – a customer moving address for example to another UFB address would need to have their voice service removed from one ONT and provisioned onto another ONT on a specific date to ensure continuity of service. If you’re going to rely on the ATA port on the ONT a customer move between different service types can become very complex – if a customer moved premises to a copper area they would need to have their phone number ported back to a regular POTS line, and if this involved a move of address outside the current exchange area, keeping the same phone number may not be possible at all without the added cost of a Customerlink which may mean the customer has to have a new number.
At the end of the day one of the biggest determining factors is quite simply going to be the hardware a RSP wants to deploy. If they’re going to deliver a voice service via RGW, they’re going to need to deploy hardware that supports this functionality. If a RSP opts to use the ONT ATA port they have a far greater choice of hardware as it does not need voice functionality.
From a technical point of view there is no difference in the quality of the end product that is delivered. If your phone service is delivered via the ATA port on the ONT it uses it’s own separate VLAN to connect to your RSP, and has guaranteed bandwidth to ensure that voice traffic can’t be impacted by other internet traffic. If your voice service is delivered via your RGW, it should use 802.1p tagging on the voice traffic so the voice traffic will be use the CIR (Committed Information Rate) high priority queue on your UFB connection, and will also be unaffected by other internet traffic.
If you’re a UFB customer right now you’ll be delivered your voice connection using one of those two delivery methods – with the exception being if you’re a Spark UFB customer. All Spark customers who have been provisioned with a UFB service are currently receiving their phone service over a copper connection in parallel with UFB, as Spark did not have a VoIP offering that was ready when UFB launched. Spark this week launched their VoIP offering, and will soon begin the task of moving every existing UFB customer across from their copper connection to the ATA port on their ONT, a process that will involve hooking the ONT up to the existing premises wiring so all phones and jack points on the premises will continue to function as they presently do.
So why don’t RSPs offer a phone only service over UFB at the same price as a copper line? To answer that it needs to be made clear that the only RSPs who could do this are RSPs who use the ATA port on the ONT. The price of an ATA only connection is significantly cheaper than that for an internet connection. If an RSP is delivering a voice product using a RGW they need to pay for a UFB internet plan rather than an ATA voice only plan, hence the higher cost. So why aren’t RSPs who are doing voice over the ONT ATA port offering a voice only plan? That’s something only they could answer – and the answer will purely be a business one as there is nothing technical preventing them. With Spark launching their VoIP product this week they have indicated they will offer a voice only connection over UFB at the same price as existing copper phone plans.
While the debate raged in the media over voice services over UFB, many also focused on the so called “reliability” of UFB, and the fact phone services would not function if there was no power in a premises. Unlike a copper phone line, your RGW and ONT require power to operate, so in a power cut you’re not going have phone or internet. In many countries where fibre services have been been deployed to the home, a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) has been fitted to ensure that the ONT and RGW still have power, and will continue to operate during a power cut. So why isn’t a UPS fitted as standard with a UFB install. Answering that isn’t as straight forward as it may sound.
Before the UFB project was rolled out, Chorus had already been rolling out fibre to many new subdivisions across New Zealand for a number of years, a project that was known at the time as BoF (Broadband over Fibre). Trials of UPS units were undertaken as part of this, and a lot of industry discussion occurred around the issue of whether these should be fitted as standard. In 2011 an in-depth review of the 111 Emergency service also discussed the issue and invited public comment. A key issue with the installation of a UPS is that it requires regular replacement of batteries every few years to ensure it will continue to operate in a power cut, and ideally requires monitoring to ensure that it is operational. One of the most significant issues raised was exactly who this responsibility should fall on, and who would be liable should an incident such as the inability to call 111 in an emergency should the UPS fail. If the burden of monitoring and maintaining the UPS should fall onto Chorus or the LFC, should they be able to charge extra for the service? If it was charged, would be be made mandatory, or optional? The discussions raised more questions than answers.
Some in the alarm industry saw this as a perfect opportunity for them to step in and provide a service, as many homes already have an alarm which typically has a battery backup, and an existing maintenance program to replace this every few years. In the end the decision was made to effectively leave the decision to the house or business owner and let them take full responsibility. If you want a UPS to keep your hardware going, it’s up to you to supply and maintain it, however as part of a UFB install, a technician will hook a customer supplied UPS up to ensure it is operating correctly.
One key aspect many didn’t discuss is the fact some anecdotal evidence after the Christchurch earthquake pointed to many homes (some put the figure as high as 2/3rds) only having a cordless phone which also requires power to operate. After the Christchurch earthquake the copper network remained largely intact and operating in most areas, however many people were unable to make calls because they had no corded phone at home and cordless phones could not be used with no power. If you have a copper connection and rely on a cordless phone and have no UPS, you’re really no different to a home with a fibre connection and no UPS.
To complicate matters slightly more, many people are also oblivious to the fact a copper phone connection is no longer necessarily delivered solely from an old school NEAX phone exchange. Many customers now receive their phone service over copper, but it’s actually a VoIP service delivered from a local roadside cabinet. These roadside cabinets contain a battery backup and connections for generators in a power cut, but emphasise the fact the copper network is not the invincible 100% uptime network that some may believe. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the current Spark NEAX exchanges providing copper phone services for most people will not be around forever – a few years ago 2020 was the planned decommissioning date for these. While that cut-off date is unlikely to occur, the future for New Zealand is fibre, and decommissioning of copper services will occur at some point.
Bashing of the UFB project has been pretty prolific, especially from some who’s political views do not agree with it - which is something that’s very unfortunate. By the end of the decade New Zealand will have one of the best broadband networks anywhere in the world, delivering fibre to over 80% of New Zealand residents. The benefits of fibre are already being seen, and rather than focusing energy on trashing the project, these people would be far better off focusing on how UFB can, and will make day to day life better for all New Zealanders. New Zealand is a country where tall poppy syndrome is alive and well – and it’s not solely aimed at people, but big business and infrastructure projects as well.
Other related posts:
Is the TCF mobile blacklist fuelling New Zealand’s latest crime fad?
Spark Paging network shutdown – the event nobody cares about? Not quite.
New Zealand’s growing BUBA problem (AKA I feel sorry for you if you’re on a Conklin)
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