Acronym Nirvana

The LNP’s MTM (FttN-HFC) NBN is inferior to the ALP’s FttP NBN, but what about FttDP? What about ‘skinny fibre’? Is that a real thing, and why doesn't it have an acronym? Can we have too many acronyms?

Back Story

For a time, Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) was to be primarily constructed from fibre optic cable, which would go right to your house, whereupon it would politely knock and ask to be let in. This was called FttP, which stands for Fibre-to-the-Premises. Sometimes this was called FttH, or Fibre-to-the-Home. This was the NBN policy of the Australian Labour Party, or ALP.

Sadly, the ALP grew more focussed on internal brawling than actual governance, which didn’t impress the public, and were summarily voted out. Thus was FttP(H) lost to all but the lucky few whose homes had already been connected.

In came the Liberal National Party (LNP) whose vision for the NBN centred on Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN). What, you wonder, is a node?

This is a node:

Fibre runs from the exchange, all the way to that box. Well, not that specific box. There are lots of those boxes. If your suburb has been connected to the NBN in the last two years, you undoubtedly have a box like this on a nearby street. Chances are it has been graffitied.

Your house is connected to this box using copper wires; more or less the same copper that previously connected your old PSTN phone line (Public Switched Telephone Network) and ADSL service (Asymmetrical Digital Subscriber Line). So the copper is now used for FttN instead of PSTN or ADSL. You follow?

Unfortunately, FttN is slower than FttP. The main sales-point was that it was also cheaper and quicker to deliver, but even that conviction is growing increasingly contested.

That being said, there’s very little point going on about FttP anymore. Lots of people have gone about it at very, very great length for quite some time, and it hasn’t done much good. They continue to present elaborate arguments to prove that FttP really is better, even though everyone agrees it is.

Even if the ALP were to be returned to government – not out of the question given the LNP’s increasing taste for internal brawling over governance – it’s unlike they’d return to a full-fibre deployment. There are too many factors already in place – too many nodes on street corners, so to speak.

If only there was a compromise.

Distribution Points

It turns out there is a compromise, and, as luck would have it, it has an acronym that’s quite similar to existing acronyms, thus ensuring maximum confusion.

It’s called Fttdp, which stands for Fibre-to-the-Distribution-Point. Really rolls off the tongue, like the drool of someone lobotomised by the ongoing NBN debate.

The ‘distribution point’ in this case is really a kind of node. However, instead of sitting on a street corner and servicing up to 384 homes, this node sits in the pit out front of your house, and services only that one premise.

Whereas FttN is hobbled by its ‘last mile’ copper – it was never actually a mile of copper, and usually a few hundred metres at most – Fttdp only requires a few metres of copper. This allows for much faster speeds than FttN, and, crucially, is far cheaper to install than FttP. Apparently, Fttdp is only slightly more expensive than FttN to install.

There's an understandable tendency to regard all this internet stuff as largely consisting of nerds, acronyms and fairy dust. But when it comes to installing this stuff, the effort and cost is really down to having burly men in high-vis gear excavating pits in the street. FttP is so expensive mostly because it requires running fairly thick cables down ducts in each street, many of which are blocked or damaged. 

The cost-effectiveness of Fttdp derives from the use of 'skinny fibre'. Skinny fibre is a technology whereby a much thinner fibre cable – about a third of the cable used in the existing NBN fibre deployment – is pushed through existing ducts without having to widen them.  It diesn't have the same capacity as the thick green cables used thus far, but it can still achieve gigabit speeds. Trials of this are currently under way.

There’s also the issue of future-proofing. Sooner or later, Australia will need a full fibre network, meaning FttP. There’s just no way around that, and no one besides Alan Jones realistically doubts that. The issue has always been how that is achieved. The original plan was to, in Tony Windsor’s famous phrase, ‘do it once, do it with fibre’. 

Malcolm Turnbull’s approach was to do it at least twice, using a heterogenous mix of interim technologies, at theoretically lower initial cost, though much greater cost in the long term, which will be borne by future tax-payers. (If you write for The Australian you term this ‘good economic management’.)

FttN did little to address that issue. Future upgrades would be very costly and disruptive. Fttdp, however, gets the fibre much closer to each building now, meaning that pushing it those last few metres will be considerably easier later on.

Industry experts have widely tipped that the Opposition’s NBN policy for the upcoming election will abandon full FttP in favour of Fttdp. We imagine it might well be the policy of the government, too.