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When should we rip out the copper network?

Does it make sense to pull the plug on New Zealand’s aging copper telephone network as fibre goes in?

The New Zealand government put the question to one side when it planned the UFB network.

Suddenly, it’s on the agenda.

When it announced its annual result on Monday, Chorus, the company that runs the network, said it will cut spending on the copper network to find the savings it needs to keep its fibre project on track.

Paul McBeth reports for Businessdesk:

Chorus, the network operator spun out of Telecom in 2011, will clamp down on investing in its legacy copper lines to help drive some $400 million in savings over the next six years as it looks to fill a $1 billion funding hole to build a nationwide fibre network.

One way of reading the company’s statement is copper is the first thing for the chop when the chips are down.

Considering the network is a Chorus asset, that attitude speaks volumes.

Former Tuanz CEO Ernie Newman makes this case for ripping out the copper network commenting on a post I wrote on the IITP TechBlog:

When roads get upgraded to cut out the sharp corners, the old windy bits don’t get left open as an alternative – everyone migrates straight away to the new diversion.

Likewise from a “NZ Inc” approach it would be very sensible to cut the whole country across to fibre and switch off the copper as soon as its available. Just like analogue TV but much faster. Why maintain two networks?

Sure there would be losers, and issues around compensation. But if this is the right answer from a national perspective, lets address those commercial issues and get on with it. It’s not too late.

Current Tuanz CEO Paul Brislen makes a slightly different point on his organisation’s blog:

…the day will come when each area is completed and Chorus can switch off the copper network. That needs to be managed and planning should start now.

Whangarei will be fully fibred this year – there’s no need for Chorus to continue maintaining a network that is surplus to requirements, yet no thought has been given to Chorus’s requirement to provide the network of last choice.

Once fibre is available to all properties in an area, the copper can go. That’s something we need to plan for right now.

This is a measured approach which shouldn’t frighten anyone.

On a purely practical level, ripping out copper networks makes perfect sense for most New Zealanders — the 75 percent living in towns — who will be on a spanking new fibre-to-the-premise network by the end of 2019.

In theory, most of the rest of the population will be using the copper network for the foreseeable future.

That may not be strictly true, Northpower has previously talked of extending its fibre network beyond the UFB area. I’ve heard enough talk from Chorus and other UFB builders about plans to go outside their government mandated areas once the UFB project completes to convince me that sooner or later fibre will displace copper just about everywhere practical. And there are wireless technologies for where it isn’t practical.

The theory is good, but the main problem with ripping out copper as fibre goes in isn’t technical or economic, it’s political. New Zealanders don’t react well to this kind of central government diktat.

Switching off analogue TV may have been relatively painless, but there was a lot of grumbling in small-c conservative circles. Older people, in particular, are wedded to the idea of real phones with dial tone and large toll-free local calling areas.

One immediate political advantage of ripping out copper is it neutralises a lot of the fuss over the so-called ‘copper tax’.

So any move to rip out copper is essentially a political calculus. Somewhere in a bunker in Wellington, there’s a spreadsheet balancing the benefits of an end to wrangling over regulation against upsetting grannies attached to the comforting buzz of a copper line dial tone.