Switching off the copper network

Labour communications spokesperson Clare Curran wants a discussion on the switch-off date for New Zealand’s copper phone network.

Her call comes one year to the day after I first wrote about a copper network shutdown. I also wrote about ripping out copper in February 2014.

A year ago Ovum’s Australia-based research director David Kennedy said:

Tensions in the New Zealand telecommunications policy framework will persist as long as New Zealand has two access networks, FTTN and UFB, operating in parallel.

Once an area has fibre it doesn’t make economic sense to keep the copper in the ground. Running two parallel access networks is costly and inefficient. There’s no engineering reason to have copper running alongside fibre.

Setting a date makes sense on many levels. Not least it would short-circuit the regulatory angst over the copper access price.

A copper shutdown would give Chorus shareholders and those investing in telecommunications services more certainty. It would allow the industry to focus on the future instead of wrangling over squeezing the last few dollars out of our telecommunications past.

As Curran says, New Zealand managed the move from analogue to digital broadcasting with little pain. That’s not entirely true, there was grumbling. There’s always grumbling.

The main danger with closing the copper network is political. Some older, small-c conservatives think they don’t want government or anyone else to mess with their dial tone. Fixing that is just a matter of doing a better communications job.

Even so, fear of a grass roots revolt could explain why there’s been no widespread discussion to date.

One possibility is there’s a private opinion poll or focus group somewhere in the background telling communications minister Amy Adams to hold back.

Another possibility is that the government was hanging on to the option of announcing a copper network shutdown if wrangling over Commerce Commission rulings, Chorus and the fibre build became a political hot potato once more. Keeping a few cards up your sleeve is smart politics, especially when they don’t cost the taxpayer anything.

It can’t be a complete copper network close down; some parts of New Zealand aren’t yet scheduled to get fibre. And copper doesn’t have to be ripped out the moment an area gets fibre, people should be given six months or so to prepare.

A side effect of setting a date to shut down fibre is that it highlights the question of when to run fibre to the 20 percent or so of the country not covered by the UFB project. Some areas will never get fibre, but part of the shut down discussion could include a timetable for delivering fibre to smaller communities.

Labour’s Clare Curran says it’s time to get on with the job. Does anybody disagree?

7 thoughts on “Switching off the copper network

  1. It can’t be a complete copper network close down; some parts of New Zealand aren’t yet scheduled to get fibre.

    One problem is that it not just ‘some parts’ that are not scheduled to get fibre – it’s really all parts. Obviously all rural areas, but also many small towns that don’t meet the fibre cut-off point are everywhere, spread among the urban areas that are on the schedule. For instance here in Wairarapa the rollout goes to Masterton and Carterton. But it misses Featherston, Martinborough, Greytown, Eketahuna and Pahiatua.

    The same applies in other regions. It’s hard to see how you can phase out copper if you don’t deal first with these often sizeable towns.

    • Two points. First, copper is only going to be switched off where there is fibre. That may not be obvious.

      Second, fibre is 75 percent coverage in the first wave, a second wave will take that to 80 percent of the population. There are plans to go further later – someone from Chorus told me eventually you’ll have fibre more or less everywhere there’s a 50kpmh speed zone. It just might take a long time.

  2. Since the copper is bought and paid for, and will cost more to remove than it is worth as scrap, why not just leave it there just in case?

  3. On an interesting note any new properties that are built where Fibre is available are required to connect to Fibre already. Chorus will not make new copper connections where Fibre is available

  4. Copper connections will remain where long leads make fibre connection uneconomic for homes. A typical connection cats about $3000, and that is only for up to 15M. Many back sections are well above this and the owners bear the costs, i.e. $1000’s

    It does make economic sense to leave copper connections where they are. They work and do not require long drives to be trenched. VDSL is providing more than most people need and it may be years before upgrades are forced on such locations.

    It is most unlikely that any street will be ready for “turning off” whatever that means, for decades. The whole debate is relatively pointless and demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge of the copper network and its cost vs value.

    • Not sure where you got the 15 metres from. There is no cost to the houseowner for up to 200 metres. There are some other caveats around appartments more than 3 stories. This offer for no cost up to 200 meters expires in 2016

  5. There are decades of, mainly business, “on premise” infrastructure that only works on copper. This also applies to households to some extent (set top boxes and alarms mainly).

    Whilst technically all the premise hardware in the market today might be able to be replaced by new equipment that MAY function equivalently over Ethernet, this comes at a very considerable cost to the end user and may drive changes to other dependent IT systems and/or require staff re training. The “free” fibre access connection does not cover these consequential costs. In some cases, business systems have long term contracts that have severe penalties on early termination, and that equipment only works on copper only services (analogue or ISDN). So a business may not even have a viable option to change it out to a solely fibre solution.

    For example Telecom (now Spark) has been trying to withdraw copper based analogue data services for well over a decade, but these are still in use for things such as traffic light monitoring, public safety systems, security systems etc.

    The UFB services, as inadequately defined by the Government, do not enable all these systems to continue to reliably work over fibre. Total replacement of equipment then becomes the only solution.

    A copper cable cannot be cut away until all users are off it, you can’t stop maintaining half a cable sheath! Sure you may not need to repair pairs as they go faulty, but if a break occurs and there are still users dependent on the cable and paying for the service, then it has to be repaired. Skills and tools to do that therefore have to be maintained.

    In some cases only one end of a point to point copper connection is within the fibre footprint, so who pays for the other end to be fibred ?

    Turning off TV is very very different, there is only one type of appliance using that service, and new equipment supporting the digital TV standard had been on the market for many years prior to close down. For several years prior you could not buy a TV on the local market that did not support digital broadcast. Adapters were also cheaply available and the adapters would work reliably with every existing legacy non digital TV.

    I do concur the end of copper should be begin to be being signalled, but we are talking practically at least a decade, not 6-12 months post fibre being provided (connected, not just available in the street) to all in a cable catchment. Businesses in many cases cannot change that quickly without incurring major additional costs. Many small businesses are dispersed through residential areas and share the cable plant.

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