Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
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Diary of a UFB install - and those horrors wait times in store for others

Chris Keall on getting fibre — and the latest on the painful wait times in store for others. With special audio feature.

Fri, 12 Feb 2016

I was crushed when I recently moved the family into a new home in Mt Eden.

It was a sunny and pleasant house but the broadband was a miserable 2Mbit/s.

Happily, the owner (about to depart for the UK for a year) let slip that Chorus had just rolled Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) fibre down the street. He gave me carte blanche to organise a UFB install. After all, a UFB install is free whether it’s standard (a home near the kerb) or non-standard (down a right-of-way or inside a block of flats; the clock is ticking on free non-standard installs, however, unless the government and Chorus can arm-wrestle a new agreement on that front).

I took the UFB plunge and it went swimmingly. I’ll go through the details here so you can see that a UFB install can actually be a straightforward process for a home or small business, its bad word of mouth notwithstanding.

That said, some elements of the UFB are still a big mess, which we’ll get to shortly.

The UFB rollout, banked by $1.35 billion in taxpayer cash, is now roughly half way through. It’s being carried out by Enable Networks, North Power, Ultrafast Fibre and (in the lion’s share of areas) Chorus.

If you want UFB fibre, the first step is to hit the Chorus website and click the Check Your Broadband link, then enter your street address.

The next step is to contact your ISP, which approaches Chorus (or your local UFB company) on your behalf.

I approached Spark (our house owner’s ISP) to kick things off. After filling out a quick form on Spark’s website, I was sent a txt from Chorus setting a time and date for a site visit.

A standard UFB install involves up to three visits – although, all going well, it can be one or two. The first is literally to get the lay of the land. The official word is to allow half a day on a workday, which isn’t brilliant. But if everything’s straightforward it can be done in under an hour and the engineer can text you an hour before they’re due.

In my case, it involved checking if fibre could be easily brought on to the property. That was no issue. Chorus had run fibre down the south side of the street, stringing it over power poles. It was straightforward to sling it across to a power pole on my side of the street, then overhead to the house. If you want to trench the cable when there’s the cheaper option to sling it over poles, that’s at your own expense – and in my case rather pointless since power lines were overhead anyway. The engineer also checked whether there was easy access to underneath the house (there was) and where I wanted fibre to emerge inside. Somewhere central makes sense, assuming you’re going to use wi-fi to distribute your new superfast broadband around the house.

The second visit is the “Build Day,” which involves external work, or connecting the fibre from the street to a paperback-sized External Termination Point (ETP) on the outside of your house. You don’t need to be there for this.

The third visit is the “Connect Day,” (which you do have to be present for), which involves bringing the fibre inside your home to a brick-sized Optical Network Terminal (ONT) that attaches to an internal wall. The ONT then attaches, via Ethernet cable, to a router supplied by your ISP, which will also have wi-fi. The Chorus engineer sets up your router and tests the connection. You don't need a new wi-fi/router, but it's an opportune time to upgrade to ensure it's not a weak link.

In my case, as with many standard installs, Build Day and Connect Day were squashed into one session. In fact, with no complications, it was all done and dusted in two and half hours flat.

I was immediately enjoying 100Mbit/s download speed – enough to watch Netflix in 4K (ultra high definition) without putting a dent in any other family member’s surfing experience. Jessica Jones never looked so good. was a revelation: suddenly games looked better, smoother and sharper than broadcast TV when Airplayed to my 50-inch telly.

Beyond raw bandwidth (or speed), the key advantages over copper are that you also get superfast upload speeds (which you need for full-blooded cloud computing) and consistent speed – there’s none of that peak-time slowdown you get with copper. Some readers won’t be thrilled their tax dollars went toward me watching Jessica Jones in higher resolution, and I get that, but in years to come the UFB is going to form part of the solution to traffic congestion as people get better ability for remote working, and better bandwidth is going to change the way we deal with everyone from hospitals to IRD from our home or office.

BOOM: First speed test post-install. 

At NBR Towers, we now have a UFB fibre connection (through Voyager, whose chief executive Seeby Woodhouse notes that in terms of the wholesale market, UFB is now the only game in town. Other solutions just can’t compete on price). And my local primary school is now hooked up to UFB fibre, with the kids using Chromebooks and Google Apps. It’s impressive stuff. In a few years, all computing will be cloud computing, and fibred-up New Zealand is going to leave Australia, with its less ambitious National Broadband Network, behind.

Having said that, it's also important to note UFB is no universal panacea. Any internet connection is only as fast as its slowest link. If you're trying to access a site or service hosted on a weak or overloaded server, it's gong to be slow whether you access it via dial-up or fibre. Similarly, on the internet geography is destiny. There will always be a little bit of lag on content served from offshore, especially if it's something intensive like video.

100-day waits
For me, Build Day was scheduled for eight days after my site visit. I was happy with that but what’s the typical experience?

I asked Chorus [NZX: CNU] for average install lead times. I wasn’t expecting great things, on the basis that here at NBR we recently had to wait weeks for a new UFB fibre connection to our building to be provisioned, and I recently wrote about the Privacy Commission’s multi-week mission to get fibre. And, indeed, it wasn’t that flash.

Chorus spokesman Nathan Beaumont came back with the following:

  • median time to connect a single dwelling is 22 days;
  • median time to connect mixed dwelling unit is 99 days; and
  • median time to connect a dwelling down a right-of-way is 104 days.

That’s a horror show. And 104 days is the median, so half of the customers will be waiting longer. It’s no wonder you don’t have to go far on social media to find UFB install grumbles.

For single dwelling units, Mr Beaumont notes, “In October this was 37 days. It’s important to point out that this figure doesn’t always tell the whole story. Often, when a customer phones to order fibre, they actually choose an install date themselves which they push out to suit when they can be home, so this can increase the median time.”

With buildings and right-of-ways, there has been no progress. This time last year, Chorus was quoting average wait times of three months.

What’s causing the delays?
There have been two problems causing the major delays.

One is consent issues. For a ROW or multi-tenant building, Chorus has to get approval from every owner concerned.

Chorus has long lobbied the government for change (and remember, we’re now five years into the 10-year UFB rollout. In June last year, wheels finally seemed to be turning as Communications Minister Amy Adams released a discussion paper, through the Ministry of Business, which proposed private land access rights for UFB contractors and deemed consent reform – that is, if Chorus or another UFB company doesn’t hear from co-owners within a given period, they are deemed to have consented to a UFB install in their multi-tenanted building or down their ROW.

It all seemed like promising stuff for Chorus, but now … it’s just languishing at a desk at MBIE. Mr Beaumont wouldn’t be drawn on whether his company hopes for any change this calendar year.

It shouldn’t. The mathematics of MMP following the Northland by-election mean the government is unlikely to get any resource consent reform through in its current term.

And even before the Northland upset, National has had limited appetite for deemed consent, which Chorus chief executive Mark Ratcliffe has been pushing for years. A desire to slash red tape bumps up against a desire not to trample over private property rights.

The second delay has been what ISPs have characterised to NBR as poor management by Chorus.

Mr Beaumont says Chorus has made a number of steps to improve the fibre installation experience, as the demand for fibre became mainstream. The changes include increasing the number of fibre crews, taking greater ownership of fibre forecasting and establishing a new contact centre to confirm appointments and ensure customers have the full picture of what to expect during an installation. “Chorus has also launched a higher level of service for business connections, to ensure smoother installation experiences and faster resolution if something goes wrong.”

The bad news: at an industry conference on Thursday: Chorus CEO Mark Ratcliffe said Chorus and others involved in the UFB would need double the number of technicians following unexpectedly strong demand in the New Year. There were 13,000 requests for UFB hookups during January, with Chorus connecting 400 per day — meaning a deficit of at least 1000 even if they worked every day of the month (and they are working weekends. My and install and one across the street were on a Saturday). Forsyth Barr senior equities analyst Blair Galpin says it's just not logistically possible to double the number of install technicians by mid-year, given the skill shortage and need to recruit offshore then train.

For its part, Spark [NZX: SPK] (which holds 50% of the ISP market) recently added 100 support staff (taking its total to 1200), citing pressure on UFB installs as the reason for the boost in headcount.

Spark Home, Mobile and Business chief executive Jason Paris said there were multiple visits and “a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the broadband provider, the local fibre lines company, the contractor laying the fibre cable and that company’s subcontractors.” “We’re seeing fibre customers call us four to 14 times during the course of their fibre installation.”

Vector, which focuses almost exclusively on fibre installs for business, was also blunt in its criticism.

Mr Beaumont says his company is getting there: “While we have made good progress improving the fibre experience for end-users, there is clearly still more work to be done. Addressing the challenges with fibre connections remains Chorus’ No 1 priority, and there will be no let-up.”

The company can’t afford to. The problems today have happened with demand for UFB still relatively low.

With its most recent update, in September, the government said 200,000 businesses now have access to UFB fibre. Of those, 40,000, or 20%, have chosen to connect.  Overall, 16% of the 815,000 homes, schools and businesses within reach of the UFB have chosen to connect (and that’s with Crown company Network For Learning connecting all schools). That’s not great but the speed of UFB uptake is increasing every quarter. My advice: if you can, get in before the rush.

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Diary of a UFB install - and those horrors wait times in store for others