29 August 2016
The NBN new hope

EXCLUSIVE: A simple hose and the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner may save the National Broadband Network’s fibre-to-the-premise rollout model.

A simple hose and the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner could save the NBN fibre-to-the-premise model. Image courtesy of the Communication Workers Union.

If implemented nationally, it has the potential to deliver fibre to the home at half the cost of Labor’s original costing of $37.4 billion and in just five years, thereby giving fibre a serious advantage on the $41 billion multi-technology rollout model proposed in the NBN strategic review.

The pipe-cleaning technology, originally used in the sewerage and water industries, is proving miracles on the NBN rollout, enabling NBN Co to pass about 2500 premises in six to eight weeks as opposed to six months.

Introduced by a West Australian contractor, the technology was trialled and used on the NBN rollout since about October last year.

It consists of a hose, which nozzle-jets a high-pressure water spray at the front, and four more at the back – allowing it to propel itself down the pipe and clear out any debris encountered on its way. The water and debris are then sucked out the other end of the now unblocked pipe into a sealed container, leaving the pits and pipes clean and fibre-ready.

Due to non-disclosure statements the WA contractor says he signed with Telstra – which allegedly contracted him to help unblock its pit and pipe infrastructure across the country – he declined an interview with CIN.

However, his method was observed in the field by the Communication Workers Union.

“It’s truly remarkable,” WA branch president John O’Donnell told CIN.

“Already with the technology that these guys use, they clean the pits in seconds.

“It used to be that you would have to dig in with a sugar scoop and spend probably 20 minutes on each pit just to clean it out – they’re doing it in less than a minute.

“So there is a productivity gain there straight away.”

O’Donnell said that this productivity gain was sizeable, with the contractor and his two units progressing at a rate of about 30km a week and cutting Telstra’s remediation costs by about $1.5 million per fibre-serving area module (FSAM) – money that would otherwise be spent on extra labour and replacement pipes. With 500 FSAMs comprising the NBN, the savings are significant.

If implemented nationally, this technology has the potential to halve Labor’s original costing of $37.4 billion of a fibre-to-the-premise model and complete the network by 2019.

Based on these estimates, this technology puts into question the findings from the Liberals’ government-led national strategic review of the NBN. This predicted that a fibre-to-the-premise rollout would cost up to $73 billion and take 10 more years to complete.

In contrast, the advised mixed-technology rollout seemed attractive, with a completion date of 2019 and a price tag of just $41 billion. But with this innovation in the equation, O’Donnell said that the debate had to be reopened and the maths re-done.

“The data they used (in the strategic review) has come from the old methods which weren’t cost-effective like this one,” O’Donnell said.

“I hope that the ALP and the Liberals can actually sit down and offer a bipartisan solution to what could now be done with the prospect of the cost savings, the time savings and the return on investment that we can demonstrate.”

Federal Labor Member for Perth Alannah MacTiernan is already on board with evaluating the benefits of this technology when used on a national scale.

In a phone conversation with CIN, she advocated that the government conducts a second strategic review of the NBN rollout, taking into account this innovation and its benefits.

“This is a real game-changer because this will inevitably reduce costs,” she told CIN.

“This technique means that you can do the job far more quickly and at about 50% of the cost. So it should be reducing the cost of the fibre rollout, which means that fibre-to-the-premise is actually becoming not all that much more expensive than fibre-to-the node.

“My view is that this has to be brought to his (Malcolm Turnbull) attention and the government has to be held to account and has to revise their figures because now we see that there is this new technology that is dramatically reducing the cost (of fibre), therefore there has to be another strategic review.”

MacTiernan wrote a letter to Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull about the new methodology, which she witnessed in the field herself.

Defending Labor’s view that a fibre-to-the-premise rollout model would provide better quality broadband services to Australians than a mixed-technology or fibre-to-the-node rollout would, she made him aware of this innovation already working miracles in Perth.

“…in the spirit of bipartisan commitment to delivering an NBN in the most cost-effective manner possible, I want to ensure you have been made aware of new cable-laying technology that has been developed in Perth that is dramatically reducing the cost and delivery time for laying fibre optic cable in brownfield sites,” she wrote.

Detailing the cost benefits of this technology, she said she hoped to see the government embrace it and allow the percentage of premises to be connected directly with fibre to be significantly expanded.

CIN sought comment from Turnbull’s office but was advised that the minister had not yet received MacTiernan’s letter. They also informed CIN that they were not familiar with this technology and they were not aware of its application in Perth.

They referred the inquiry to NBN Co, which also seemed unaware of the situation.

“The minister's office has asked me to respond to your email. However it's difficult to comment without knowing any details about this technology,” NBN Co media officer Andrew Sholl said.

After outlining the technology’s benefits as demonstrated by the WA contractor in eight FSAMs, CIN asked whether the government would consider this technology and MacTiernan’s suggestion that a second strategic review needs to be conducted in order to assess the costs-benefits of this technology on a national scale.

In response, Sholl said that NBN Co would examine all proposals to reduce the cost of the NBN and accelerate the rollout on their merits.

“Any such proposals, along with the findings of the strategic review, would be factored into the next corporate plan, which we are due to present to the government in the middle of the year,” he concluded.

Telstra confirmed the use of a high-pressure water system in areas of its network where pit and pipe blockages were tough to clear, but denied it was innovative to use it in the communications sector.

Further, it could not give an answer as to why it did not make the federal government and NBN Co aware of the benefits and potential of this technology, as observed in the field, on the NBN.

“The practice, as we understand it, is not new and has been used for a number of years. It is one of a number of techniques available for cleaning ducts depending on the circumstances of the required work,” a Telstra spokesman said.

“The speed at which Telstra's network is remediated is impacted by a number of factors, including NBN Co's plans and requirements.

“Any questions on the cost, speed or method of the fibre deployment should go to NBN Co.”

Telstra could not confirm that this West Australian contractor was Telstra-contracted.

A public hearing on the National Broadband Network is currently being held by a Senate Select Committee at Parliament House in Perth.

The CWU will be making a submission.

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