Will the coaxial cables that bring pay TV and internet to about a third of Australian homes deliver a second-rate broadband service, compared to fibre-to-the-home? No, says the chief technology officer of Arris, the firm awarded a $400 million contract by NBN Co this morning to design and deploy the “next-generation” Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial (HFC) cable network. But sceptics remain.

Today’s announcement — supposedly embargoed until noon but reported this morning by The Australian Financial Review — is not an especially big deal in itself, being the logical follow-on to the selection of Arris over Cisco last December to supply the cable modem termination systems (CMTS) to the HFC component of the government’s mixed-technology NBN.

What’s important, however, is whether the multibillion-dollar investment the taxpayer is about to make in upgrading the HFC network represents good value for money or will prove to be wasted if home and business owners in the most well-off parts of the country wind up demanding all-fibre connections, and the HFC ends up being overbuilt.

Arris CTO for the Asia-Pacific, Joshua Eum, told Crikey that the broadband service offered via HFC — using DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) technology — would be indistinguishable from that using an all-fibre connection: “Why would people demand fibre-to-the-home? You’ve got to remember that globally, DOCSIS networks are delivering speeds that are matching fibre-to-the-home and even exceeding fibre-to-the-home in some instances, so this is not a second-rate product. There’s a perception in this country that HFC is a second-rate delivery network and fibre is the ultimate solution, and it’s not — you can do the speeds that you require on HFC for the foreseeable future.”

“The Australian public hasn’t been educated enough because it’s been a fibre-to-the-home world for the last seven years … so people have not had a dialogue about the DOCSIS technologies and talking about what DOCSIS can offer because it was basically a technology nobody spoke about and nobody invested in. The reason is because all the DOCSIS people left the country … I left the country when the NBN decided that they weren’t going to do this, and I was in Hong Kong doing DOCSIS for the region and then when there was a sniff that NBN could change their ways I saw an opportunity to come back and evangelise HFC again.”

Eum says, in North America, most broadband connections are via HFC networks and their capability is continually being improved, with Arris consulting to the likes of Comcast about an evolutionary path from HFC to fibre. He says overseas telcos like British Telecom have taken the same path as NBN: faced with the huge expense of trenching new fibre connections all the way to the premise, they have resorted to making best use of existing networks, including HFC.

Eum says the Australian experience of HFC-cable broadband varies considerably because many homes are using DOCSIS 1 or DOCSIS 2, rather than the current DOCSIS 3.0 technology. Next-generation HFC broadband will be much faster than today’s cable internet service.

“We’re going to match the NBN speeds already offered to the fibre-to-the-home consumers,” said Eum. “We’re not on a separate speed plan to fibre-to-the-home. Whether you’re fibre or you’re on HFC you shouldn’t see a speed difference, that’s the whole point.”

Eum canvasses download speeds of 2 gigabits per second or 2000 Mbps using DOCSIS 3.0, which sounds fast given Australians are used to average speeds of more like 6 Mbps, and the capacity should increase if there is a migration to DOCSIS 3.1 down the track, as Arris and NBN have flagged. The real debate is whether the cost of upgrading and re-upgrading the HFC network to DOCSIS 3.1 and beyond is so much cheaper than installing fibre-to-the-home, that it justifies any trade-off in broadband quality.

Dr Mark Gregory, senior lecturer in network engineering at RMIT University, suspects not but says we don’t have enough information about it to properly compare the HFC and fibre-to-the home networks.

“There’s so many limitations with existing HFC network in Australia that we’re talking about a major operation to bring it to a standard that’s going to be  suitable for the NBN,” Gregory said.

“The reason this is a particularly Australian argument is that the HFC networks in Australia have a very small footprint but an important footprint — where people will pay for pay TV. The belief was always that the uptake would be reasonably low. The networks weren’t designed as general-purpose access networks where every house in the street would be connected.

“To argue that the HFC network we have today has anything more than a 10-year lifetime is a big stretch because parts of that network are getting old and will need to be replaced and there’s also the capacity and contention problem that it was not designed to provide connections to every house in the street.”

Gregory says the HFC networks are a valuable asset that should be — and should always have been, including under the previous government — part of the NBN’s planning, if only because they could continue to be used in the near term while upgrading connections to areas reliant on copper phone lines for their broadband connection.

“You need to make a decision: do you utilise the HFC with a minimum investment whilst you upgrade copper to fibre and then overbuild the HFC with fibre? The other option is to make the decision that HFC is going to be here for the long term, at which point there needs to be a significant invest to upgrading HFC to be equivalent to fibre.”

What’s missing from the debate are the vital network design specifications that will determine the quality and cost of broadband services using the HFC network. “So far”, Gregory said, “all I’ve seen is lots of media releases and no facts.”

For his part, Gregory is sceptical that HFC (let alone fibre-to-the-node) can deliver the same broadband service as fibre-to-the-home. “That’s smoke and mirrors; it would never stand up to scrutiny.”

“In my view over the lifetime of the NBN, which you would say is 30-50 years, there is no saving and there is no benefit.”

In both the UK and Germany, he says, politicians have lashed the dominant incumbent telcos for cutting corners on broadband infrastructure rather than biting the bullet on fibre-to-the-home.

“Just before Christmas the German government released a report attacking Deutsche Telekom, saying they were letting the nation down. Over the last few days the English Parliament has slammed BT, arguing same thing Obama has argued — telecommunications should be a utility, and BT is letting the nation down.”