NBN’s HFC is a complete dog’s breakfast

Those of you who know me, know that I am pretty mild mannered and don’t get excited about a lot, in other words your typical engineer. However over the last few months I have been getting increasingly frustrated with NBN’s HFC product. This morning I was sent this picture…

 

HFC has got to be the worst product NBN have – yes worse than Fixed Wireless – which has recently seen much of their congestion issues fixed. It creates so much work for us an RSP, let alone the poor service delivered to our customers. Here are some of the issues we encounter on a day-to-day basis:

  1. The service drops out a lot, for some customers multiple times a day. The NTD lights start flashing and your service is down until it can resync with the HFC Node.
  2. The NTD needs to be plugged in and connected before we can provision a service – this requires multiple contacts with the client to double check, get feedback on the lights etc. Even then we are seeing many provisioning attempts fail because apparently the signal levels are too low. This then requires an NBN technician to go out and install a new NTD. This can be on an NTD that had an active service just days previously.
  3. They did not bolt the NTD to the wall, like they did with FTTP and Fixed Wireless so it is common for tenants to take the old NTD with them when they leave a property. This NTD is useless to them because it won’t work at another address – so ends up in the trash. We then have to get an NBN technician out to install a new one.
  4. There is currently a shortage of NBN NTD’s due to an upstream manufacturing issue (Covid related), so NBN are “pacing out” the appointments in an attempt to manage their dwindling stock. The net result is appointments for a new or a replacement NTD is typically 2 to 3 months out. In fact it has become so bad that on many occasions there are no appointments available at all to be booked. We then have to raise a ticket with NBN to get that fixed (2 to 3 day’s delay).
  5. NBN’s systems often show multiple NTD’s listed as being on site, however only one is really there. There is no way to line up which NTD is the real one – they don’t list any identifying feature in the NBN provisioning portal that we can tie up with what the customer can see on the box itself (e.g. the MAC address). So we spend hours trying one NTD, failing and then having to try the other.
  6. We often see packet loss on a service that appears to get worse and worse until eventually it stops – we suspect NBN resets something in the node to fix it. Gives a whole new meaning to standard IT trick of rebooting your equipment to fix things.
  7. The HFC Nodes appear to have no battery backup, unlike FTTN. So when the power fails the entire area is out. We have seen issues caused by faulty electrics (e.g. an RCD failure) that have taken 24 hours to get an electrician out to fix.
  8. The upload speed on HFC is woeful. This is not surprising given that it was designed for cable TV (i.e. broadcast signals moving down to the subscriber). Upload was added as an afterthought, easily gets congested and often struggles to even maintain the 40Mb upload that comes with the 100/40 speed. If you want to know why NBN is pushing the 100/20 speed (“Home Fast”), it is because of HFC.
  9. Because it is a broadcast medium – all the subscribers in an area are essentially connected together on a single coax cable – any issues with any one of the subscribers equipment (e.g. a faulty NTD putting noise on the cable) and it affects the entire segment, creating packet loss and dropouts. To make matters worse tracking down that faulty NTD is extremely hard to do remotely, requiring technicians to measure what is going on on the cable.
  10. Despite there being two physical ethernet ports on the NTD, NBN will only allow a single service at a time. Now this is not unique to HFC, it is the same with the other MTM technologies. This creates issues because we are forced to do a service transfer (unlike FTTP & FW where we just activate the next port). This is OK, except when our customer has misunderstood the process and there is already a disconnection in process from his previous provider. The transfer fails, the NBN order bombs out and we then have to wait several hours for the port to become free before we can place a new order. All the time, the customer is down.

I cannot believe that NBN are sinking more money (upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1, rolling out new coax – yes new leadins – to subscribers who did not have the original cable TV) into this network. However in some ways they are stuck. The problem with infrastructure is that you can’t change course on a dime – it is extremely expensive to change technology in an area. FTTN now has an upgrade to FTTP plan in the works. There is no equivalent for HFC, so we are likely to be stuck with it for a while. The basic problem is that most people (including politicians and regulators) consider the speed of a service, not it’s reliability or cost of maintenance. For speed HFC actually looks pretty good.

For those people who originally had the Optus cable, which NBN bought and decided was in too poor a state to rescue, so dumped it, you guys dodged a bullet. Most people were put onto FTTC instead. While this is not as good as FTTP, it is way more reliable and predictable than HFC. NBN are now working on increasing the speeds for FTTC. If only Telstra had neglected their HFC network in the same way Optus did.

While NBN’s change to MTM, from the original FTTP rollout for political reasons (why were politicians were allowed to make engineering decisions?), was expected to save NBN money (it actually didn’t), all this has done is to dump a whole bunch of extra costs onto the RSPs and the users who have to deal with the mess. HFC is the standout mistake in MTM, yes worse than FTTN.

I would call on NBN to dump HFC, but that is not going to happen – we are all too deeply dug into the financial hole. My only suggestion is that if you are looking to rent or buy a property, lookup the technology type on our website, if it’s HFC, just move on. You may get lucky with HFC and it will be OK, but do you really want to take that risk?

Damian Ivereigh
Launtel