ARRIS pledges major upgrade of HFC networks for NBN

HFC can be as good or better than fibre, says cable broadband equipment provider

Most National Broadband customers with hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) connections won’t be able to tell the difference from fibre after the network is upgraded to the latest cable broadband tech, according to ARRIS, the company assigned to provide HFC equipment for NBN Co.

NBN Co announced today that it had signed a contract with ARRIS Group to upgrade HFC networks around Australia with new cable broadband technologies that provide faster speeds and more reliable connections.

ARRIS plans to upgrade Australia’s HFC networks to the latest cable broadband standard, DOCSIS 3.0, and the equipment will be upgradable to the upcoming DOCSIS 3.1 standard in the future, officials said.

The parties did not disclose financial terms of the deal including the length of the contract. While expected to be a multi-year initiative, “the objective is to have a lot of progress this year on DOCSIS 3.0 technology,” said Bruce McClelland, ARRIS president of network and cloud, global services.

NBN Co estimates that HFC will represent about 30 per cent of the 8 million connections expected to be reached by the fixed line portion of the NBN.

ARRIS has provided cable equipment to major ISPs around the world including Telstra in Australia, and Comcast, the largest cable provider in the US. The company has a direct presence in more than 30 countries and made $5.2 billion in sales over the last 12 months.

ISP customers of ARRIS have achieved HFC speeds of up to 150Mbps in North America, 200Mbps in Europe and 300Mbps in the Asia Pacific, McClelland said. In addition, pilot tests in APAC have achieved speeds up to 1Gbps, he said.

“In terms of speed, this network is just as good” and possibly “even better” than a fibre-to-premises (FTTP) network, said Joshua Eum, chief technologist for ARRIS in the Asia Pacific.

NBN Co and ARRIS officials stressed that Australia’s HFC network would see a significant upgrade under the arrangement.

“We are not simply rebadging the existing HFC networks from Telstra and Optus,” said NBN Co CTO Dennis Steiger.

In December, NBN Co announced it had struck deals with Optus and Telstra that will see the telcos transfer ownership of their HFC networks to the NBN wholesaler.

“We are substantially building a new and upgraded network,” Steiger said.

“Of course we get the benefits of the infrastructure already in place, but we will be significantly extending that network and putting at its heart a new engine, a very powerful new engine.”

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It’s a big upgrade for Australia’s aging HFC network, said McClelland, noting there is “a fair amount of infrastructure” still out there today that is DOCSIS 1.0, which is the first generation of the cable broadband standard released in 1997.

“The experience that the Australian public currently has ... is not going to be the same once we upgrade the network to the same standard or even better than what we’re doing at Comcast,” said Eum.

“The Australian public hasn’t really had the opportunity to experience a lot of the world-class standard DOCSIS 3.0 technology in the marketplace.”

Reliability or congestion problems experienced by customers with the current HFC network “are not an artefact of the technology,” said McClelland. “It’s an artefact more of perhaps how it was designed or operated.”

The ARRIS equipment will also allow for future upgrades. Under the NBN Co contract, ARRIS will provide DOCSIS 3.0 kit that can be upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 at NBN Co’s discretion, said McClelland. The 3.1 standard, not yet released, won’t be as significant an upgrade as the jump to 3.0, but provides greater efficiency, he said.

ARRIS officials also touted the benefits of HFC to fibre-to-the-node. HFC network architecture looks similar to FTTN, but uses coaxial cable to connect the last mile to the home rather than copper telephone lines.

Cable provides higher capacity over longer distances, up to 10km, estimated Eum. The nodes themselves are also much smaller, about the size of a shoebox, and can easily be placed on the pole or in the pit, he said. In comparison, FTTN using VDSL over copper requires large cabinets on the side of the road for the nodes.

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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