Mind, blown: hands on with UFB fibre

KeallHauled

Chris Keall

Last weekend I dropped in on a friend who is trialling UFB fibre (of the 1000 or so souls lucky enough to have a connection under the Ultrafast Broadband rollout, backed by $1.35 billion from the Crown, a good chunk are those trialling it for their ISP. Telecom and Vodafone/TelstraClear, who account for 75% of the home market won't launch a commercial service until well into next year).

Like most of the city (and NZ as a whole), my part of Auckland won't see fibre until some time after 2014, but it was interesting to see what a UFB install looks like, in terms of the visual impact on the home, and the hardware (keep reading).

But first thing I did was jump on Speedtest.net. Test after test looked like this:

Wow. Just wow. 

I knew, intellectually, that a UFB connection could hit close to 100Mibt/s (or roughly 10 times the download speed of the copper/DSL connections most of us have at home).

But to see it action in a Kiwi home is mind blowing. Multiple video streams could be run at once. We downloaded a 6GB game (a pack-a -lunch situation with copper) at rate of about 1GB every 40 seconds. 

And look at that upload speed. 

Sweet screaming monkeys.

Most copper/DSL connections have the upload speed throttled beneath 1Mbit/s. Fibre can go full-speed in both directions.

In a world of cloud computing for business, and social sharing of photos and videos, upload speed matters. And we're not talking marginal faff here, or stuff that only big companies can handle. Imagine if every small business could biff its expensive, troublesome inhouse server and instead run Microsoft Office 265 or Google Apps and other software, and services like printing, from the cloud. My friend's wife is an architect who, with a young family, does a lot of work from home. And as you can imagine that involves some very big files, and very intensive software.

Now, just to wallow in copper misery, let's checkout a typical Speedtest.net result at my house on copper/DSL:

If data traffic in the neigbourhood is light, I might sneak over 8Mbit/s. But by the same token, if I hit rush hour it could crawl (the CIR or committed information rate or guaranteed minimum speed for DSL is dialup-like bandwidth - which it can glug too if there's a lot of contention, or too many people in a neighbourhood sharing the same bandwidth, and everyone trying to use it at once).

Fibre frees you from the contention problem. Its CIR is 50 times that of copper/DSL (and that figure is mandated in Crown Fibre Holdings' template contracts with the four companies handling the network side of the UFB rollout: Chorus, Enable, Northpower and Ultrafast Fibre).

So we're not just talking speed but, crucially, consistent, reliable speed.

At this point some people will say, what about VDSL - the fastest type of copper line broadband, which can reach fibre-like speeds?

For some, VDSL will be a cracking solution. But the problem is you have to live on the doorstep of your local phone exchange or neighbourhood cabinet to get the maximum bandwith hit.

Like any type of copper connection, performance degrades rapidly with distance (and for someone like me who lives roughly 2km from their nearest exchange - and that's not as the crow flies, but as the wire snakes) there is no benefit whatsover from VDSL. And you also suffer the same contention or overloading issues.

Fibre doesn't degrade with distance (well, they need to use repeaters on the Southern Cross Cable and so fourth over thousands of kilometres, but for our city limits purposes it's not an issue).

The install
Anyhow, to the install itself.

Those following the UFB will have ready about some messy installs, and a small army of techs who have taken one or two days to wrestle fibre into a home.

And Vodafone boss Russell Stanners and Telecom CEO Simon Moutter have both told me that, while they see big potential for UFB fibre, the installation process is nowhere near ready for prime time. 

In this case, the install was painless.

It took place in early November and (being Auckland), it was handled by Chorus, which has been hooking up customers since June (it recently said 700 in total; fibre now passes more than 100,000 premises nationwide).

Two Chorus engineers arrived at 7.30am.

One worked outside the house, one inside.

The pair left at 2.30pm.

The fibre's hummed along fine since.

The Chorus linesman seemed to have got a good handle on the install process, and chewed through their work without encountering any major problems.

Still, seven hours is a fair whack of time. If you want to oversee the install (and who wouldn't, given there will be decisions about where to run fibre down the side of your house and forth), then you're looking at a day off work.

It should move things along that Chorus has agreed (at a cost of $20 million to itself) to provide free residential connections until the end of 2015 (the other UFB companies have agreed to the same terms with the government, although in most cases they were providing free installs already).

Here are some pics of the setup, and the hardware involved:

Fibre has been run down one side of our UFB trialist's Auckland street. He lives on the other side. So the fibre is slung overhead - in the same manner as phone lines in the street - to reach his house. It would of course be cleaner to run fibre down both sides of the street, but it is already costing Chorus an average $3200 to run fibre past each premise and as taxpayers we're chipping in $929 million to Chorus' for its 70% or so of the rollout (the money is repayable at the end of the 10-year project, but is interest free). And while it's not the cleanest solution, the fibre (the cable that stretches to the top right of the photo above) doesn't standout in the nest of power and phone cables that already snake around the street.

Above and below: the fibre cable, in a protective sheath is run down the side of the house to an external termination point (click photos to zoom).

Under the terms of its Crown Fibre Holdings contract, Chorus will run fibre up to 5 metres of fibre into your home, and other UFB companies 10m (UPDATE: under the new free connection deal that applies until renegotiation in 2015, any reasonalble distance into the home is covered, as long as it's to a single point. To get cable directly to multiple devices, rather than cover the last few metres with wi-fi, you might have to pay. Note that a retail service provider - that is, an ISP - could still charge you a connection fee for even a basic installation, but Crown Fibre Holdings does not expect people will have to pay).

Today, many people have a copper/DSL jack in a study, or wherever their home's phone happens to be.

With fibre, the aim of the game is to have the internal terminal point close to your TV. It's tidy to have it tucked away behind the telly, and move and TV delivered on-demand via broadband is going to be a big part of our future, whether delivered by Sky TV or a competitor (Sky TV is also likely to offer its core channels over fibre from some point). And for internet-borne content, cable always beats using (sometimes temperamental) wi-fi for getting broadband video to your television)

In the case of our triallist, there was some crawling under the house so the internal termination point pictured below could be behind the TV (click to zoom).

While all UFB accounts come with a VoIP (phone calls over the internet) service, it's notable this internal Chorus Optical Network Terminal includes a Pots (plain old telephone service) jack. Note also the the warning notice: "Please do not remove from this property."

The Network Terminal is not small; it's roughly the size of a thin phone book.

The last piece of the puzzle is cable modem with wi-fi, which spreads the ultrafast broadband around the home.

The modem could have been plugged directly into the Network Terminal, but your triallist took up a Chorus offer to jack it directly into the family's desktop PC (the better for speed; he's a keen gamer). The PC is on the other side of the living room. Cue more crawling under the floor.

My friend had used 70GB during his first fortnight with fibre according to his ISP's counter - or roughly double his previous amount. It's easy to see that heading rapidly north if, say, the family's MySky HDi account is one day routed over fibre or (much sooner) they take advantage of a movie download service like iTunes (or make like your correspondent and get their TV shows that way too).

So, was completely impressed all round.

Commercial reality is messier, unfortunately.

The cheapest fibre plans from Orcon, Slingshot and Snap cap speed at 30Mbit//s down and 10Mbit/s up. That's respectable, but their entry-level data caps are not. Slingshot's 20GB cap is particularly lousy (see more of its plans here). And while Orcon offers an unlimited plan, speed is potentially throttled at peak times.

And there are issues elsewhere. Pacific Fibre alumnus Sam Morgan has complained his local school has connected to fibre but can't afford to use it.

And without a second international cable - such as said Pacific Fibre - your ISP's international capacity (or at least the bandwidth it finds economic to purchase) often won't allow you to hit full tilt when you hit overseas sites and services. 

Against this, our ISPs are using more and more caching (storing popular content locally).

But, as ever, any internet connection is only as fast as its slowest link and our trialist has, for example, not found Steam (a popular service for buying and downloading games) that much faster. 

Still, I've had a little taste of the future, and I want it now.

ckeall@nbr.co.nz

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38 Comments & Questions

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I've now had 100mb fibre for a week ..... and it's absolutely briiliant (it runs at about 94mb/s)
The biggest change, apart from speed, is the 24/7 reliability and consistency. Here's the features I advised Orcon that I could now experience with the UFB/VOIP phone deal;

- full use of vieracast on the Panasonic TV - which didn't work before because of the slow (5mb/s) cable speed
- possibility to join quickflix and download / stream movies
- watching seamless HD Youtube clips
- accessing interactive BluRay DVD features
- use of the modem webserver for videocam capture so I can keep an eye on my house when I am away
- use of the room monitor feature on the phone to be alerted if the fire alarm goes off
- checking and listening to my phone voice messages via email

thanks to Mr Joyce.

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Actually you should be thanking the taxpayers of NZ ... like me, who, incidentally, will probably never see UFB at my location in my natural life. Cheers, live it up.

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Wait until the remainder of nz get on, and international data becomes the limiting factor, rather than the idealised chorus trial. 20gb data limits on high speed. Welcome to nz.

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Yup, that will be a big issue. Southern Cross Cable says it has enough capacity - but even if you accept that, it's still monopoly, which limits its incentive to upgrade and of course puts it in the box seat for charging.

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Sorry, but this is a myth.

SxC has plenty of capacity as it stands currently. The real drive should not be concern about offshore access, it should be the need for competitive onshore services that can compete with their overseas counterparts. This will make the project worthwhile. The speed issues we have accessing US sites is more to do with distance than any type of capacity and cannot be fixed with current technological limitations (being the speed of light).

Just because there is one cable operator feeding NZ does not mean it's a monopoly, considering that over 80% of the data transmitted on the SxC is for Australian users (and ISPs here pay the same capacity rates as they do there) and the SxC has to compete with the other submarine operators worldwide, most notably PPC-1, Endevour and AJC.

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Where exactly is the ROI for the taxpayer? Improvements for well-off gamers and recreational video consumers don't really cut it in terms of value for everyone else's money.

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All business computing is moving to the cloud. It's the cheapest, best way to use business software, and manage and store your files.

Cloud computing needs fibre rather than slower, inconsistent, less reliable copper.

A lot of people work from home, from managers clocking up extra hours from home to call centre drones who work out of their own houses. Employers are looking to cut costs or squeeze more productivity from people - but as more work remotely, and more distributed fashion, it will also help to solve our transport problems.

And we're also going to see most of our TV and other content delivered over fibre in future.

The internet is totally central to everything we do know, and in turn to our economy - and copper's reaching its limits.

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that was mind blowing 5 years ago. In 5 years, when most people have access to it, it'll be painful. #NotUltraFast

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For 99.9999% of New Zealanders (and people anywhere) 80Mbit/s is still completely mindblowing.

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that's a lot harder when you skimp by going PON. They skimped and deployed a PON.

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I think PON (passive optical neworking or point-to-multipoint rather than point-to-point) was chosen to save costs. No doubt Telecom/Chorus was pusing for PON too because it is more tricky and expensive to unbundle, too, if a future government decides Chorus shouldn't control it for 70% of premises.

But although PON means speed will degrade as more users share the same connection, Crown Fibre Holding has talked about 24 users sharing one 1.28Gibt/s GPON - albeit with a number of GPONs potentially sharing the same 1Gbit/s ethernet backhaul (see Juha Saarinen's backgrounder and figures here: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/juha-saarinen/news/article.cfm?a_id=98&objecti...).

The short story: there will be some degradation in speeds as more people pile on, but there's still a committed information rate (CIR or guaranteed minimum speed) that means you'll get true broadband all of the time - whereas when copper/DSL gets contended/overloaded it falls back to dialup speed.

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That CIR only applies to tagged traffic, so your web browsing/file downloads aren't part of that CIR. (ISP's will use it for VOIP and there's only 2.5mbit/s of it on the lower plans)

The 30-100mbit/s ontop of that 2.5mbit is just EIR and is "best effort" still.

See http://www.geekzone.co.nz/sbiddle/8252 for more info.

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... and as Kyhwana says the CIR will vary depending on the package purchased and the provider ....

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I've had UFB for a week - it's brilliant (after 5 hour painless instal) and I use LAN cable, not wireless, to utilise full speed

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interesting to see photos etc. Thanks

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Remember though that the architecture for UFB is such that increasing uptake will also degrade service.

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same could have been said when 2 lane roads were first built couldn't it?

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Sort of. Traditional fibre networks have been point to point, e.g. 1 road per user. UFB is not.

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but G[gigabit] PON is more expensive right. When will the village need a motorway is the question

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Point-to-point would have been the ideal, and you're correct there will be some degradation in speed as more pile on - but there's still a lot more bandwidth to go around. See my second reply to comment 1.

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Point to Point would have also been prohibitively expensive for the common end user. Businesses that need it will still be able to get a 'guaranteed' speed model if needed.

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how do we check when our house is scheduled for fibre?

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There's a broadband finder here: http://www.crownfibre.govt.nz/

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"UFB deployment dates for your area are still being developed" Boo Mt Eden isn't on the roadmap for years :-(

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can you get vdsl? Check with @SnapInternet . Good stopgap.

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no vdsl plans for our area of Mt Eden eithe

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Ditto. VDSL degrades rapidly with distance - even more so than other copper broadband.

You have to live on the doorstop of your local exchange or cabinet to get the full effect. If, like me, you live 2km equidistant from both, you get no boost.

Another problem - Telecom doesn't offer VDSL, so half the market is looking at the hassle of switching ISP to get it.

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i WANT!

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VDSL with Vectoring technology and more closer roadside cabinets will give 300-400mbps within the next couple of years for a fraction of the cost of fibering into houses.
The UFB is going to be stuck at a slow 100mbps for the next few decades. Not many people realise you share the single fibre with everyone else in the street, so it wont ever go more than 100mbps without a huge technology refresh.
Another case of the government trying to ram a specific technology down our throat, and once again forcing us to lag the rest of the world.
At least Australia also laid individual fibres as well, so you can upgrade to multi-gigabit speeds.

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No one is using Office 265, it's Office 365 and high latency from Singapore doesn't help. Wait until it is hosted in NZ.

VDSL doesn't help where you have a section of poor copper that Chorus won't fix.

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Serious question - why would a typical price conscious Kiwi consumer sign up to UFB if it is going to be just as expensive/more expensive and usage still rationed (throttled/capped etc).

Will the current network get faster as people jump to the new network?

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Over 800m distances VDSL will actually be worse than ADSL.

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Chris, here is the problem with your article and the relationship of NZ media and UFB in general:

You mention some business benefits, but the majority of your article focuses on consumption: watching HD TV, gaming, video streams. The underlying message everyone gets is that UFB is about the taxpayer subsidising us all consuming more digital goods. This is where our politians - none of them coming from an IT background and few with business background - learn what UFB is about and what the public wants to hear.

Your business examples lack detail and they focus on costs. But you can't grow a business by cutting costs. You grow it by increasing revenue: more sales, higher avg sale, more return custom.

Here is a practical business use example of UFB (this is not my industry, you could make this up as well): The plumbers who do video inspections of a property's pipes need to transfer these videos to at least two people. One to assess and edit it and one to view or file it (the council or owner). It will take a lot of administrative effort, because it either goes onto DVD per mail or it gets uploaded somewhere slowly. If you can eliminate the overhead by doing both moves via UFB, you could probably save 2hr admin overhead per job and maybe 30min on the plumber's time. The 2hr admin can be used to optimise the plumber's work further (by liaising with the customers more proactively). Let's say we can do 2 more jobs a week, that'll be a significant revenue growth for the one plumber.

If we had unlimited bandwidth, we could do the editing and assessing for North American and European plumbers. That'll be export income.

This is just one example. I'm sure you can find one more in every brick and mortar industry. Over to you.

Jochen

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I must be one of the few New Zealanders who is happy with adsl. I see fibre as being a white elephant because of the fact that the data plans are currently too low, not everyone can get it and the waiting list for my area is another 3-4 years. I don't think I'm the only one in that position.
Also, as more people take up fibre, that should slowly improve dsl all the more as it improves the contention ratio.

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It is sublime - so freaking good. All phone jacks now redundant, though which isn't a bad thing . Speed is brilliant - I do feel for those who cannot connect to it, but thrilled I can.

You can go on about copper all you like, but it is going the way of the dodo - new technology rocks.

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Gosh, that instal is ugly. Perhaps OK for a 100-year-old bungalow like this one, but what happens to a nice new house? I have a major question on cost and the taxpayers' contribution to Chorus in this instance. $3200 per pass is ridiculous cost compared to global FTTX rollouts. Furthermore, it took two techs seven hours (each), so 14 hours per house! Bearing in mind this would be the most simple instal (aerial from the pole and down a wall on some horrible 20mm PVC conduit). Therefore for 1.5 miilion homes this is going to take 500 techs 20 years to complete.

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Yep, great technology, for sure, at great taxpayer expense. I am still looking for the residential cost benefit. Business, hospitals, schools - got that. Residential - nice to have, but compelling? Geeks want it but doubt the rest do, shown by the fractional take up so far. Early days.

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My neighbour has no broadband at all now because the techs were using the old line as a drawwire to pull the new cable through, and the cable broke...
Now he is frantically getting 25m of concrete ripped up in order to reconnect...
Make sure you have mobile backup before you get any work done.

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