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Gigacountry: the UFB up north

On Friday I spent the day in Whangarei, visiting NorthPower and having a look at the UFB rollout in the city.

It's nearly done.

When I say that, I mean the entire city will soon be completely fibred up. Every home and office, school and hospital, everything.

This is an extraordinary achievement, particularly when I look at the Chorus map for my home and see I'm not slated to even see a fibre network for two years or more. It really does mean Whangarei and other regional centres will have stolen a march on the big cities and, as Northpower Fibre CEO Darren Mason says, it gives people a reason to move out of the main centres.

Mason believes Whangarei can become an exemplar of what a fibre-rich city can truly be. Not just an offshoot of the big city but an alternative.

He says families will move to the regions if they can find work, can be assured of good schooling and that employers will find staff more willing to stay for the long term because they have what they need locally.

Whangarei is bustling along if my brief visit is anything to go by. The region's attractiveness will only increase once the motorway goes through (you can forget the "holiday highway" nonsense - it's a vital road link that should have been upgraded years ago) and as a place to do business you'd be hard pressed to better it.

This is one of the major advantages of a fibre deployment that runs faster in the regions than it does in the two main centres. Uptake is higher than in Auckland or Wellington (Enable in Christchurch is pushing 6%, Northpower close to 7% and Mason expects to see that hit double figures before too much longer) as residential and business customers feed off each other's experiences.

We went out on a site visit to see a team in action. Northpower has pioneered a new approach to connecting properties to the network. Instead of digging a trench and putting all the equipment under ground, they put everything in a box on the pole outside the customer's house. Overhead fibre lines are impossible to tell apart from the power lines and Northpower has designed and built a splitter box that sits on the pole making it both quick to deploy and easy to revisit should the need arise.

Each box serves four households (with another four splitters in place for any future unbundling move) and as a plug and play unit is so simple even I could connect each house, although I'm happy to say I wasn't allowed to have a go.

The time to connect each property is reduced - on average it takes a couple of hours but the record is just over an hour from the time the team of two arrived on site to fully connected to the house. Mason says the advantage is twofold - a faster deployment and a cheaper one. Much cheaper than digging trenches and laying cable and much less invasive.

I wonder why Chorus doesn't do this where it's able - given its cost blowout (the last news story I saw quoted a figure close to $300m) surely this is a viable alternative?

Northpower does trench where it needs to but where it doesn't the savings are tremendous.

So what's next for Whangarei and Northpower? Mason would like to see the company deploy fibre further into the surrounding areas, but one thing is holding them up - access.

Access is the 900lb gorilla in the room when it comes to fibre deployment. Costs balloon out of all proportion when the lawyers get involved and working out access rights to drive ways, right of ways and multi-dwelling units makes it almost uneconomic to deploy fibre without a government level investment.

Much better to change the rules to allow fibre deployments along existing utility corridors and to give the network companies the right to connect customers up by default. Opt out if you must but most people adopt the line of least resistance and we would see a much faster, cheaper deployment if we turned the rules around.

Mason has volunteered Whangarei as a test bed. Try it out in Northland, he suggests, and if it works roll it out nationwide. If not, no harm done.

I like that idea. I think we should change the rules and make it easier to deploy networks without having to pay lawyers a fortune to say it's all OK, and if it works in Northland we should move swiftly to do it for the rest of New Zealand because that would mean phase two of the UFB could be really quite powerful - fibre to the country.

Northpower sees no reason why a combination of cost savings through using overhead lines and having access to properties guaranteed shouldn't lead to us become a Giga-country, and that's something TUANZ wholeheartedly supports.

Imagine that - every home and property in the land connected to a fibre network in much the way they are connected today via the power lines.

Now that's something worth changing the law for.

Paul Brislen is CEO of the Telecommunications Users Association of NZ

Comments and questions

Interesting article. What isnt mentioned is who was responsible for getting Fibre from Auckland to Whangarei (it wasnt Northpower) and if you live anywhere in-between Orewa and Whangarei you cant get it

The gap between Orewa and Whangarei isn't covered by the UFB build but rather by the RBI (Rural Broadband Initiative). You should be able to get rural broadband (either copper lines to a fibre-fed cabinet or fixed wireless) with speeds of up to 5Mbit/s.

Sadly, that's all we're allowing for rural users, which is why Northpower's suggestion of reducing paperwork costs to increase deployment into rural areas is so intriguing.

If we can remove barriers to roll out then why shouldn't rural NZ have 100MBit/s service?

"If we can remove barriers to roll out then why shouldn't rural NZ have 100MBit/s service?"

Absolutely! Or--even--gigabit service?!

no mention of the Taitokerau Network cable frm Whangarei to Auckand - isn't it this capacity that maks the UFB roll out in Whangrei really functional? Suspect its also the reason that Hawaiiki are looking at landing their cable at Whangrei?

Lots of areas in Auckland would require the cables to be buried. It would be interesting to see what proportion they are required to bury and what if any implications they see down the line with having to underground services.

That's very true as I deed it is in Whangarei. But under grounding lines as part of a broader programme is quite different to doing it all in one fell swoop, in terms of cost.

Not all of Northpower's build is above ground but where it is they've saved a huge amount. This is to be recommended.

Crown Fibre Holdings told NBR this morning: "Deployment method isn't covered in the contract between CFH & Chorus (or the LFCs)."

Further, a Chorus spokeswoman tells NBR:

"Chorus plans to complete 20% of its coverage rollout via aerial distribution."

That's 20% of Chorus' rollout nationwide.

Asked about the percentage above-ground vs underground, the spokeswoman said, "Currently planning is underway to get all the necessary consents in place so providing a regional breakdown is difficult at present."

So Chorus would be free to deploy overhead fibre to save costs and speed deployment in areas where they can get resource consent?

Sounds like it. Wonder why they're not doing more of this? The cold hand reaching into the public purse is easier?

Northpower's urban aerial power-pole network is extensive & they almost never do projects to put any pole line routes underground, therefore Whangarei has a huge amount of very ugly pole lines in the urban area. The speed & cost of aerial fibre implementation is admirable however the aerial fibre lines (& Northpower's power pole lines) will still be there long after the UFB project is finished & has been forgotten about. With aerial fibre cable, you "get what you pay for".

Many parts of the Chorus network are also a combination of both underground and overhead leadin - typically in areas where power is the same. Petone is one such suburb.

Why call it "Gigacountry".....are Northpower offering residential XG-PONx services?

I just don't see overhead lines as ugly. I just don't see them at all. They disappear from view just like cellphone towers, roadside cabinets and all the rest of the telco network.

I understand some people find them horrible but frankly they're invisible to me.

Paul, you'll find that the rons for north Auckland really only has benefits during the summer period, a recent nzta report said so. So implement "operation lifesaver" instead of your holiday highway and you'll get less debt, safer road and more $ to spend on schools, hospitals and other stuff rather than 4 lanes of blacktop to certain government ministers bachs.

And how many businesses have moved to Whangarei as a consequence? As the author points out, its not the fibre network that is the logjam, but the road to Auckland. No amount of fibre in Whangarei will alter the fact that if your customers are in Auckland (or beyond) you will have to visit them from time to time, and if your goods are not digital they will still have to move over the physical transport infrastructure. Moving to the regions is far more than just having fast fibre available.

The network in Whangarei isn't complete yet - in addition, only Northpower is promoting the scheme in the area. There's no govt spend on telling people what UFB is good for ...

Without that kind of push I'm surprised we're seeing any uptake at all outside of geekdom.

Northpower are a slick operation, just look at their performance as an electricity lines company, #1 in NZ.... One of the reasons for that is that they are community owned, and their focus is on providing better services to their community. They are deadly serious about doing the very best for their shareholders...

Chorus, as I have said before, are at best woeful, having had fibre installed at home and work we've had some pretty direct experience with the installation process. They could use micro-trenching, they have the most pathetic works management system for roll-out, the number of parties and contractor layers is absurd. Also no-one has yet looked at whether in fact they made the best technology choice... Chorus could learn something from Northpower, or actually just listening to their customers....

#11 Great comment. Not to mention how reliable Northpowers power is. I can count the number of outages in Whangarei for the last 5 years on one hand.