As a technology journalist I’ve followed the twists and turns of the government-backed Ultra Fast Broadband scheme before it was even a glint in the Prime Minister’s eye (the lobbying, the deal making, the regulatory holiday that didn’t happen, the connection costs that may see some government partners pay more than others, and so on).
So I figured I owed it to the readers of Computerworld to check out what a fibre to the home installation actually looks like. I asked Chorus’s media guy Robin Kelly if that was possible, and within a day he’d made arrangements for me to watch an installation take place in Greenhithe, Auckland for an Orcon customer.
As the saying goes; “there is no substitute to being there,” so here’s a top five list of what I learned on my fibre field trip.
1. It takes a long time.
The installation took four and a half hours – from 8am to 12.30pm, and the fibre installers did not stop for coffee. They had to splice the fibre cable three times, and each time ensure a precision cut and a clean fibre head. And they don’t line up a whole bunch of houses in one street and do them all at once. It’s a first come, first served basis, so if you do get a note in your mailbox telling you FTTH is on its way, then best you get your name down.
2. Copper cables
There’s been some discussion about whether Chorus is pulling out the copper line when they lay fibre. The installation I saw was called a “direct fibre haul” – where they disconnect the copper and use it to haul the fibre through the duct underground. My understanding is that the copper is then reconnected (customers may still have a Telecom PSTN account for example), although that is not always the case.
3. Battery back up
If the household opts to receive a voice service over the new fibre connection, then they will need to ensure some kind of battery back up if there is a power cut. This, I am told, is not Chorus’s problem; it is something the retail service provider needs to work through with the home owner. I presume there is advice given to a new FTTH subscriber. But it might be something that requires a little more public education (cue the sound of Wellington advertising agencies sniffing a juicy TV campaign).
One of perils of a live demo (which effectively is what happens when you allow a journalist to look at stuff you are doing), is that things don’t always go as planned. Chorus picked a good house to show me – it was less than five years old, with a distribution panel that had been designed to enable data connections. But something was bound to go wrong and so it did, right at the end, when they carried out the speed test and it indicated speeds of around 43Mbps up and down.
The customer was paying for a 30Mbps connection. It turned out that the speed test was wrong because of Orcon’s firmware (well that was what I was told) but it highlighted to me that the RSPs will have to actively throttle back the connection because Chorus enables 100Mbps up and 50Mbps down. Of course the RSP is not only paying for the connection from the exchange to the house, they also have to factor in the costs of national and international backhaul.
5. Visionstream installers
In Auckland Chorus has farmed out the maintenance of the copper and fibre network to Visionstream, which uses independent contractors (you may recall industrial action three years ago about this). The contractors – called Visionstream installers – must first go through an apprenticeship on fibre installation and they may have to pay for their own gear (a fusion splicer alone costs around $7,000).
Visionstream general manager Andrew Stevens: "As you know we use a mix of employees and contractors and are developing a view of what equipment will be required and whether we would own it or if our contractors will, but again it is really dependent on the services Chorus needs for its customers and the level of demand for fibre installations. While owning specialist fibre equipment may be financially beneficial in the long run for owner operators the significant investment can be challenging, so we’ll continue to offer them the support they need to build their fibre capability."
You have to think that Auckland is a big area and, if it takes at least four and half hours a job, it will be a long time before everyone is connected. Will there be a shortage of skilled fibre to the home installers?
Stevens says the company is building up its "field force to meet forecasted demand."
"We’ve ramped up our existing apprentice programme to develop more fibre skills / capability and currently have around 14 people trained onto this work, although many of them are of course existing technicians. We hope to increase this total number to 70 trained technicians on this type of work by the end of the year. An apprenticeship for this type of work takes about 5-6 months and we think its an exciting opportunity to attract new recruits into our industry."
By the way, the installers at the job I attended said nothing about their employment conditions and they carried out their job in an extremely efficient and professional manner.