NBN Co pushes pause on HFC rollout amid service issues

NBN Co chief insists the pause won't delay the 2020 network rollout deadline
Bill Morrow - NBN Co CEO (NBN Co)

Bill Morrow - NBN Co CEO (NBN Co)

The company behind Australia’s national Broadband Network (NBN) rollout, NBN Co, will temporarily pause all new orders over its hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) access network as it works to improve service standards across the network.

"We are going to delay the rollout of the HFC network until we can go back and calibrate a number of processes so we can adjust a number of issues on the network to give the level of quality that we know that HFC network is capable to give," NBN Co chief executive officer, Bill Morrow, revealed on 27 November.

"This will result in a six to nine-month average delay for those people that have yet to connect to the NBN network over HFC.

"We’re going to work through a number of issues, focused primarily on those customers that already have the service today, and once that is complete, we will advance those improvements to the future areas continuing with the rollout sequence that is already within out systems," he said.

According to Morrow, NBN Co will immediately implement new initiatives designed to improve the quality of service for end users on its HFC network.

“With the incremental work now required before a home is declared ready to connect, we are focused on providing a better service to our customers (the internet service providers) and thereby improving the experience for the end user,” he said.

While NBN Co hopes to address a number of process-based issues that have seen lengthy connection and service times for end customers, it also wants to fix network problems that have been affecting the HFC infrastructure specifically.

“For many it’s [customer connection] is just taking too long, or there’s too many appointments, or missed appointments in the field. Or, when it is done, it’s not being done correctly” Morrow said. “So we want to address that.”

“The second issue is, in fact, with the network, where we are seeing, for a minority of the customers, drop-outs. And we’ve been investigating this for some time, and just recently over the last week we discovered that there are a number of things we can do with the network to be able to lift that quality of service.

“We could do it while we’re continuing to roll out, but we’ve taken the decision, putting the customer experience first, that we want to stop sales until we actually have this properly addressed,” he said.

The move comes after the volume of service issue complaints from customers accessing the NBN via HFC technology begins to surge compared to those from customers using the other access technologies being employed under the Federal Government's preferred multi-technology mix (MTM) approach to the rollout. 

The company's HFC infrastructure – built predominantly for cable television services – was acquired from Telstra and Optus for billions in 2014, and represents one of the more recent technologies in the MTM rollout to be launched by the company.

HFC is just one of the network access technologies employed the so-called MTM approach, which has been championed by the current Government, ostensibly as a cheaper, faster alternative to the previous Labor Government's predominantly fibre-based rollout plans.

Other technologies include Fibre-to-the-Node (FttN) and Fibre-to-the-Distribution Point (FttDP), among others.

However, a leaked internal NBN Co document published by Fairfax Media in late 2015 described the Optus HFC network as “not fit for purpose”

In September last year, NBN Co decided to move away from the existing Optus HFC network altogether, instead looking at FttDP technology for the 700,000 premises that had been earmarked for connection via Optus HFC infrastructure.

However, NBN Co indicated that the existing Telstra HFC network remained viable.

In fact, in November last year, NBN Co indicated it would lean on a raft of recently-signed delivery partners to ramp up the rate of its HFC connections this year.

“The Telstra HFC technology remains a significant and vital part of our network,” Morrow said at the time. “We expect it to deliver a great to service to millions of Australians, both now and in to the future."

Now, NBN Co has said that there will be a delay of the current rollout timing of new HFC areas while the company undertakes work in both the existing HFC footprint and areas not previously declared ready for service.

The company said it will be performing advanced network testing and remediation where needed, wholesale connector replacements, signal amplification calibration, and lead-in work as required.

This pause will be in effect until incremental field work is undertaken to raise the quality of service for end users, the company said.

Morrow insisted the HFC rollout pause won't delay the NBN's 2020 network rollout deadline.

At the same time, internet service providers (ISPs) are being informed of the changes, with NBN Co’s website set to be updated in the weeks ahead so end users can check their addresses and understand any changes that may impact their eventual switch to the NBN.

NBN Co noted that its current corporate plan calls for nearly three million premises to ultimately be served by HFC access technology. At present, nearly one million premises are ready to connect with 370,000 having done so already.

The HFC network seems to have been an ongoing source of challenges for NBN Co, with the company revealing in August last year that it would ease back on its reliance of existing HFC cable infrastructure in its rollout, citing rising costs associated with the technology.

The company decided to lower the number of premises to which it will roll out the network using the HFC infrastructure from, four million to between 2.5 million and 3.2 million during the coming year.