Coming to a wall near you: Meet the NBN ONT

Alcatel-Lucent may provide up to 12 million Optical Network Terminals (ONT) over the life of the National Broadband Network

The announcement of an $85 million deal between Alcatel-Lucent and National Broadband Network (NBN) wholesaler NBN Co brought with it the news that the telco giant, and source of many of NBN Co's hires, would be providing the optical networking terminal (ONT) infrastructure, which would be installed in each home as contractors roam the streets of announced trial sites to install fibre-to-the-premise (FTTP) connections.

The ONT (also known as a networking terminating unit or NTU) pictured above is an example of the indoor units Alcatel-Lucent sells to 95 different FTTP deployments worldwide. However, the vice-president of the company's NBN division, Sean O'Halloran, told Computerworld Australia that the unit delivered to the NBN Co and subsequently to Australian homes would be unique.

Like any ONT, those installed in Australian homes will be capable of feeding an external fibre connection to Ethernet points within the home and, of course, delivering speeds of at least 100 megabits per second (Mbps). However, the ONT has been made specifically for the Australian market, providing four Gigabit Ethernet ports, two telephony ports and a single ADSL2+ simulation connection... that's right - ADSL2+.

An opened external Optical Network Terminal (ONT) An opened external optical network terminal (ONT)

The connection doesn't actually use ADSL2+ technology, but rather delivers a data connection over the copper-based wiring that continues to lurk in Australian homes. That allows NBN Co to install ONTs on the front of the house and use the existing internal wiring, while also affording customers the ability to connect to the NBN through their existing ADSL2+ modem gateways without having to purchase additional equipment. It also allows Internet service providers to continue flogging existing ADSL2+ hardware, as iiNet has done with its BoB ADSL2+ wireless modem router to NBN customers in Tasmania.

The two telephony connections will also mean customers won't have to worry about purchasing analogue telephone adapters (ATA) normally required to use their standard telephones with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).

Though Alcatel-Lucent's ONTs are already guaranteed for the first phase of the NBN rollout, NBN Co can shift allegiances and the remainder of the $1.5 billion it expects to spend on ONT and GPON equipment over the full deployment to another company, effectively changing the ONT design and characteristics. O'Halloran said Alcatel-Lucent believed it would go through two or three iterations of the device over the lifespan, with differing ports and capabilities, including support for fibre-based Ethernet cabling.

The company shipped its millionth ONT globally in February this year but, should it retain its contract with NBN Co, it could end up providing up to 12 million of the devices for Australia alone.

Optical Network Terminal (ONT) The optical network terminal (ONT), illustrated

The specifics of how these ONTs are to be installed, and what type of ONTs will be used, are yet to be formalised - according to both NBN Co and Alcatel-Lucent, installation at initial trial sites in Tasmania has largely been trial and error. Those who own the homes where fibre is to be installed have thus far had a say as to where the fibre would be run and the ONT installed, while the wholesaler and the telco industry as a whole is yet to decide how to best meet the challenge of installing fibre to each unit in an apartment block with minimal interference and without upsetting strata title owners. But, as NBN Co looks to ramp up to the 5,000 homes per day it hopes to reach at the peak of construction, it is believed these decisions will be either pre-determined or, at the very least, streamlined to minimise distraction.

A discussion paper on end-user migration released by the Communications Alliance suggested both external and internal, plug-and-play ONTs be offered to consumers as a range of options for installation and use.

However, more important issues, like power backup for ONTs and telephony use for emergency calls during an outage are yet to be addressed publicly by NBN Co.

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