Fifield stands by stalled NBN HFC network

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Fifield stands by stalled NBN HFC network

Can be fixed, won’t be scrapped.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield is standing by the stalled NBN HFC network rollout, claiming its problems can “absolutely be fixed” and the technology won’t need to be scrapped.

Speaking on ABC Radio National, Fifield called HFC a “terrific technology” that “can get gigabit speeds”.

“There’s no problem that’s been identified that can’t be fixed, and they will be fixed,” he said.

“The problems … [are] to do with essentially two issues: one is some taps or connectors as they’re called which join things between the cable in the street and the cable that goes to someone’s house, and the other is an issue of spectrum frequency where there’s some interference between the various users of the cable.

“Those things are all very fixable and they will be fixed.”

Fifield’s backing of HFC comes as the fallout from NBN Co’s decision to freeze the HFC rollout and activation of new orders continues.

In particular, there are open questions on how long NBN Co and the government have known about the need to delay the HFC rollout.

However, speculation has also turned to how costly fixing the HFC network might be, and whether NBN Co may simply cut its losses and shift portions of the HFC rollout to a different access technology, such as fibre-to-the-curb (FTTC) or fibre-to-the-node (FTTN).

NBN Co has - at least publicly - favoured FTTC as a technology it wants to make more use of for the remaining part of its build.

Fifield is standing by HFC for the time being.

Both he and NBN Co have talked down the problems on the HFC portion of the network over the past week.

When NBN Co CEO Bill Morrow was asked direct questions on problems with the HFC rollout and “the areas that need attention” at a senate estimates hearing on Thursday afternoon last week, he gave little indication that much - if anything - was remiss.

Morrow had indicated HFC build was no different to any other access technology that NBN Co was dealing with.

“With every technology that we have deployed as we start building the network it encounters
certain issues that we then correct and remediate, whether it is FTTP, FTTN, fixed wireless or the satellite services,” he said.

“Similarly with HFC, as we ramp this up, we will start to discover areas that need attention and we will apply that attention to that network.”

Morrow did raise the issue of radiofrequency signals leaks, but it was largely dismissed as something all HFC operators experienced and had the equipment to deal with.

“All around the world when people are assessing their HFC cable they run around and look for leaks,” Morrow said. “There is sophisticated equipment able to help them do that.”

Just four days later, the problems on the HFC network were serious enough to halt the rollout and stop new orders being taken.

Fifield today repeated some of Morrow’s assertions, though added that the issue was in part the “maturity” of HFC in an NBN context.

“HFC as a technology isn’t as mature as fibre-to-the-node or satellite or fixed wireless,” he said.

“With those other technologies in the initial rollout, there were issues to be worked through.

“That’s the case with HFC.”

Fifield also backed the Coalition’s multi-technology mix, refuting suggestions that the HFC problems amounted to further “evidence” of policy failure.

He fell back on the “faster, cheaper, sooner” mantra of the MTM policy, which he argued remained intact.

However, it may be weeks or months before the full effect of the HFC problems on the rollout are known. The company’s maps are yet to be updated to reflect the fresh delays.

Update, 3pm AEDT:  Fifield told question time in the senate that the had been advised by NBN Co "that they were looking to have a pause" of the HFC rollout on November 22 - the day before senate estimates and five days before it was publicly revealed.

The Minister also said he was awaiting "further advice" from NBN Co on the financial cost of the delays.

"NBN Co is still assessing these matters and is still to provide advice to government," he said.

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