Categories
telecommunications

Extending New Zealand’s fibre network

Last week engineers completed the first UFB stage. The so-called UFB1 fibre network reaches three quarters of the country.

UFB2 will stretch that to around 87 percent. We can take fibre further, but that needs taxpayer money. A lot of it.

When New Zealand built its copper telephone network, government saw it as a nation-building exercise. Copper phone wires reached almost everywhere.

The number you often see quoted is that it reached 99 percent of the country. It could have been one or two percent less. That’s not the point.

Copper went everywhere

What’s important is that it felt as if copper reached every part of New Zealand. Perception is important.

There’s no technical reason the fibre network couldn’t do the same. The arguments against running fibre everywhere are economic. A nationwide fibre network is expensive.

Yes, it was expensive laying copper to outlying settlements and buildings. We did that at a time when there was less money around.

State-owned monopoly

We also did it at a time the telecommunications network was a government owned monopoly.

The copper network was built as a public service, not a profit making business. Laying copper to the nation’s furthest reaches and maintaining the network created good-paying jobs for workers in regional New Zealand. That would have been a consideration. We rarely hear that argument today.

In a sense it was still about getting the maximum return on the investment, but not in the way modern companies measure investments and returns. There was a social component.

How far can we go with fibre?

We’re not about to go back to a state-owned telecommunications monopoly1. But there is still a social component to network building. So how far can we go given today’s conditions?

The easy answer is somewhere between the 87 percent already earmarked and the 99 percent the copper network achieved. It won’t be 99 percent, it will be more than 87 percent.

If pushed I’d say a little over 90 percent in the next five years with further add-ons later. But that depends on many moving parts. It also depends on technology not changing, which experience says is a mug’s bet.

Brutal economics

Many forces drive network extension decision making. The most brutal economic fact is that the further you go, the more it costs to add each extra address to the network.

By the time you get to the last few percent the cost is way higher than can be justified by an investor looking for a rational economic return. At least as things stand today.

A nation building government could find the money.

The good news is that fibre uptake is much higher than anticipated at the start of the UFB project. It’s already close to 60 percent and will climb well beyond that number.

This means investing money connecting what were once marginal addresses is now more likely to pay off.

There will be places not included in the 87 percent covered by UFB1 and UFB2 where connection makes sound economic sense.

Politics of fibre

Another force pushing the number higher is political. People in rural areas see people in towns getting Netflix and high quality streaming Rugby pictures. Their kids want to play Xbox games.

People want fibre and may pressure politicians to deliver. Never underestimate rural New Zealand’s ability to lobby government.

By now the people connected to fixed wireless broadband on the RBI network know they have second rate broadband. It will take a long time for their service to improve, if ever. There are stories of capacity problems.

Not everyone who wants a wireless connection can get one. It is unlikely rural fixed wireless will ever match fibre. That’s more pressure.

One way or another government needs to subsidise further network extension. So the answer to the how far will the network goes question is a matter of the willingness of governments and taxpayers to put people in rural New Zealand on an equal digital footing.

Before you ask how far will fibre go, ask yourself how much you are willing to pay?


  1. Discuss this by all means. Even if you think it is desirable, it’s unlikely. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Fibre network done, now transformation

Writing at the Spinoff, consultant Rohan MacMahon worries about the impact of New Zealand’s recently finished fibre network.

He says: “New Zealand leaves Australia for dust on internet speeds and our children are practically born using fibre, but major challenges lie ahead.

MacMahon does was part of the Crown Fibre Holdings team that oversaw the UFB network build. (CFH is now Crown Infrastructure Partners).

MacMahon’s point is that despite New Zealand’s broadband network being the envy of other nations, we’re not doing enough with it.

Or at least not yet.

Transformation missing in action?

The nub of his argument is: “UFB was supposed to be about transformation, not just watching Netflix in 4K or admiring the result of your internet speed test.”

It would be wrong to say that has been no transformation. Although the transformation we have seen is not what MacMahon has in mind.

UFB transformed the telecommunications and entertainment sectors. This was always part of the plan. Both sectors have seen unprecedented disruption.

Sky and Vodafone are different beasts now we have a fibre network. TVNZ is getting there. The change at what used to be called Telecom is more dramatic. Telecom is now Spark and Chorus. Spark now competes with Sky in entertainment.

None of the UFB architects anticipated Netflix, Lightbox, Sky Now or Disney’s foray in streaming video.

Competition

Most of all, the telecommunications sector is far more competitive. UFB flattened the playing field. This has had knock-on effects.

Competition means people and businesses now spend less on telecommunications. They get far better services in return. Even customer support has improved.

We have faster broadband and unlimited data plans. Today, cost is less of a barrier to trying new things.

There’s no hidden charge for going over your data cap if you want to move data to the cloud. Likewise using video-conferencing won’t bust your cap. We can experiment without fear of a cost blow out.

Abundant data

Abundant data and reliable fast broadband make a difference.

There’s a clear projectivity gain, although it is hard to put a dollar value on it. At a guess, the financial benefits already outstrip the cost of building the network.

Sure, none of this is transformational for the public, but it is a huge benefit.

The problem with words like transformation is we look for it in the wrong places. We expect obvious, observable cause and effect when often the changes is more subtle, maybe too subtle to see.

Cause and effect

It’s not an ideal comparison, but no one anticipated the emergence of fish and chips when entrepreneurs built Britain’s rail network.

Railways made fast fish delivery to inland towns possible. Overnight ordinary people had access to better1 and cheaper food.

Railways ran to a timetable. Which spawned a need for clocks and watches so people could meet trains on time. Before long people realised they could commute to work and live further from city centres.

None of this was thought about when the railways were built.

We didn’t anticipate online media and advertising or streaming when the internet first appeared.

Hidden transformation

It’s possible the transformational effects of fibre are already happening. We can’t see them yet. Or maybe the network has to hit a critical mass before transformation kicks in. Either way, we’re going to get more than “Netflix in 4K”.

MacMahon’s other point is a bigger concern.

He says: “We also have a stubborn problem with digital inclusion. A lot of Kiwis don’t use the internet much or at all, particularly those who are older, rural, Māori, Pasifika, on low incomes, or have disabilities. In the 2018 census, 211,000 households (13 percent) stated they do not have internet access at home.

“It’s clear that lack of access to broadband is a diminishing issue. The main challenges are now affordability of broadband, motivation to use the internet, trust (for example in e-commerce) and skills. The government is still working on building a comprehensive blueprint to close the digital divide. In the meantime, many of the current initiatives are underfunded and sub-scale.”

Challenges

Yes. Big challenges indeed.

The cost of broadband has fallen in relative terms since the UFB project started. So has the cost of a device needed to access the network. This helps, but not enough.

When I wear my optimistic hat, I think we’re onto these challenges. There are useful initiatives. I know it concerns Kris Faafoi, the communications minister. If anyone can find a solution, he will.

In my darker moments I fear the problem is harder than we, as a nation, imagine. It may not even be about money.

The problems Spark encountered helping customers watch the Rugby World Cup show the digital divide is not just about the financial haves and have nots. There’s a skills gap and an information gap. Bridging all three is the challenge.

As an aside, I know only the first stage of the fibre network is done. Any other headline would have been too long. This isn’t the Daily Mail online. 


  1. Trust me, fish and chips was a diet upgrade at the time ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Dial tone requiem

Elderly folk were not keen on fibre when it was first introduced. It turns out they didn’t like the lack of a dial-tone. They complained that they couldn’t hear anything when they picked up a handset. 

Modern Voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones don’t need a dial tone. The, excuse me, tone-deaf engineering types who first made these things didn’t think to include it. 

If you picked up an early VoIP handset you would hear nothing at all. Not even crickets. 

Fake tone

That problem has since been fixed. Phone-makers added a fake dial tone so customers could get that comforting sound. 

It turns out all dial tones are, in effect, fake. It’s not the natural sound that you would hear if you picked up a telephone handset connected to the copper network. 

About 100 years ago, telephone exchanges began sending sound signals to phones.

The idea is it lets you know the exchange is working and waiting for you to make your call. Wait too long and the tone changes to an error signal, telling you to put it down and start again. 

Different countries, in some cases different phone networks, use different tones. Most use a single note, although some switch between two notes. 

Background music

There was a time when dial tone was the background music of everyday life. It featured as part of popular music. You could create a Spotify playlist. 

Start with Blondie’s 1978 hit Hanging on the Telephone. From there you can add songs by The Jam, Electric Light Orchestra, 10cc, the Buzzcocks, Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode.

They all had chart hits that included that distinctive sound. 

Penguin Cafe Orchestra, an avant garde pop-band, took this further. In ‌Telephone and Rubber Band the tone sounds throughout almost the entire track.

In effect, it is the tune. 

Romance

Dial tone can be romantic. Musicians use the it to indicate unrequited love: the object of the singer’s desires is not there to whisper sweet nothings to.

Or perhaps the loved one isn’t answering because he or she annoyed or may no longer want to be the object of desire. It’s a metaphor.  

Perhaps it was romance the old folk missed when they couldn’t hear a VoIP phone dial tone. 

The dial tone is used for another metaphor too. A scary one. An entire sub-genre of horror movies features telephones, and in most cases, a dial tone. 

The tone can tell you that the person on the other end of the line met a grisly death. If a ringing phone is picked up only to play a dial tone, you know something bad will happen soon. 

Those old folks who can’t get a dial tone don’t know how lucky they are. 

This story first appeared in The Download magazine.

Categories
telecommunications

What Hyperfibre says about fixed-line broadband

Early next year Chorus will start rolling out Hyperfibre, that is faster fibre services of up to 4Gbps. Forget whether you might need that speed today and focus instead on what it says about fibre broadband.

Not many countries boast residential broadband services running faster than a gigabit per second. When I looked, I found seven. Perhaps there are ten.

Soon New Zealand will be one of them.

It turns out when government and industry are right when they remind us we have a world class broadband network. It isn’t just idle boasting.

Fibre is fast and reliable. It’s not expensive.

Hyperfibre shows it can go faster still. It’s the Porsche option, although without the price tag.

Chorus hasn’t announced the Hyperfibre wholesale tarrif yet, but it says it will be only a ‘modest premium’ on gigabit prices. That said, early buyers are likely to be business users willing to pay a premium for the extra speed.

At first Chorus will offer 2Gbps and 4Gbps services. An 8gbps service will come later. On paper the XGS-Pon standard being used can crank all the way up to 10Gbps.

Faster fibre is not for everyone. Few people other than movie and TV professionals need Hyperfibre speeds.

That’s really not the point. Having it available as an option is important. It tells us where things can go. If you need more speed, it’s there.

Marketing types might tell us it’s an aspirational thing. Perhaps. Yet it does get us thinking about faster fibre and what we might do with it.

If we’ve learnt one thing about data networks, it’s that what seems like more bandwidth than you ever need soon becomes not quite enough.

When the UFB project started, most users took 30mbps down, 10mbps up services. That quickly climbed to 100mbps plans. Today the majority of customers have 100mbps, but the fastest growing market is for 1gbps services.

We don’t need to go over the why would anyone need a 1Gbps service argument any more. A family with HD TV, Playstations and other devices can easily make use of the bandwidth.

Faster broadband means a better experience for everyone. If you shop around, it only costs the price of a coffee or two to move up to a faster plan.

Some of the talk after Chorus’ announcement pitched Hyperfibre as a counter to the fixed wireless threat. That’s the angle Chris Keall took for his NZ Herald story.

There’s no question that Spark and Vodafone will attempt to sell fixed wireless broadband as a fibre alternative. Yet few, if any, customers are going to make a choice between fixed wireless and Hyperfibre.

Fixed wireless is best for people who either can’t get fibre, have a difficult-to-connect home, or are happy with a basic, bare-bones and sometime slightly cheaper alternative1. Hyperfibre is for people bumping up against the limits of today’s 1Gbps fibre plans.


  1. Not much cheaper. The lowest cost 1Gbps fibre plan is $5 more than Spark’s cheapest fixed wireless plan ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Fibre uptake passes 60% mark in 10 NZ cities

According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s latest Quarterly Connectivity Report, 10 cities now have fibre uptake rates of greater than 60 percent.

Rolleston tops the list with 74 percent of homes and businesses connected to the fibre network.

The national uptake rate is now 55 percent. That’s up from 52 percent in the June quarter. An additional 58,912 premises were connected to the UFB network in the three months to the end of September.

Rugby World Cup surge

Much of that would have been a surge of customers getting ready to stream the Rugby World Cup on Spark Sport.

Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says the MBIE report shows the UFB network is not just providing benefits in the larger cities.

He says; “With UFB roll-out in 126 cities and towns around New Zealand, the deployment is now 87 per cent completed and still ahead of schedule.

“This investment and the connectivity it is making available shows this government’s continued commitment to closing the digital divide so all New Zealanders who want connectivity, have it”.

Rural too

Rural broadband is also growing fast. The MBIE report says phase two of the Rural Broadband Initiative means 40,000 households and businesses in “hard to reach regions of New Zealand” now have access to improved broadband.

In the September quarter 17 marae were connected to broadband. This brings the total number of connected marae to 31.