Can a fibre-copper next-generation broadband network be considered economical for all brownfield developments?

The recent NBN announcement put forward to the Australian people by the Coalition has determined that a fibre-copper setup is a more economical method for delivering the broadband service to already-developed (brownfield) locations than the fibre-to-the-premises setup that Labor is running with. There are some countries like the UK and Germany who run these networks, mainly with the option of full fibre deployment as an option.

The kind of talk I am raising here may work against the “preferred” idea of using existing copper infrastructure in existing condition for delivering next-generation broadband to the customer. This is because of certain realities concerning the existing infrastructure, such as a copper network that was engineered for an area that was more sparse than the current occupation density or a network that needs a lot of attention to provide reliable and optimum service.

A copper network that suited a sparse development

But I see the issue of a fibre-copper network as being area-specific for each brownfield area. Here, this could depend on the density of the brownfield area such as the concentration of multiple-tenant developments or the existence of many smaller properties since the copper network was established.

In this case, one may have to factor whether the copper network may need to be revised to cater for this increased density or whether the point of exchange between the fibre backbone and the copper network needs to be moved closer for some developments. For example, a large apartment block like some of the ones on the Gold Coast or St Kilda shoreline; or a large shopping centre like Doncaster Shoppingtown or Knox City may find that it is better to have a “fibre-to-the-building” approach with the point of exchange in the development.

Older copper networks that need extensive repair work

A copper telephony network that has been neglected by the incumbent telephony provider may need a fair bit of attention to have it work at an optimum speed for a fibre-copper broadband development. This can be more so for those networks that exist on peri-urban, regional and rural areas where there has been minimal investment in these areas.

The network may “just work” with voice telephony or baseline fax applications but may not perform as expected for a DSL application as I have written about before. In some cases, the customer may not even benefit from a reliable DSL service, and the VDSL service is most likely not to be as fault-tolerant as the existing ADSL technology.

If there is a planned fibre-copper deployment, it shouldn’t be just a case of installing a street cabinet and connecting service wires and the fibre backbone to that cabinet. In some cases, it may be about surveying the copper infrastructure for pair-gain setups, decrepit wiring / connections and other situations that may work against optimum VDSL service. Here, it may be worth dong a comparative cost analysis on remedial work for a copper infrastructure to see whether rolling out new fibre or copper infrastructure would be cheaper than doing many repairs to existing decrepit infrastructure.

This kind of work may benefit the retail Internet service providers in the reduced number of customer-service issues due to substandard service, thus providing a positive customer-service image for them.

I would therefore argue that not all copper telecommunications networks that exist in brownfield areas can be the economical basis for a fibre-copper next-generation broadband setup unless they have been surveyed and found to provide reliable service for the area concerned and the technology that is being considered.

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