NBN HFC: Everything you need to know

01 August 2017

Short for Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial, but also colloquially referred to as "cable", HFC is an existing network technology that's being repurposed as part of the Coalition Government's "multi-technology mix" (MTM) National Broadband Network plan.

What is HFC?

HFC is a broadband technology that uses a combination of fibre and coaxial cable to deliver connectivity. As with Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN), fibre is laid to a central "node" in a neighbourhood. Coaxial cable is then used to connect premises to this node. Coaxial cable is similar to the copper used to deliver ADSL or FTTN internet, but is insulated to prevent interference.

In Australia, HFC has traditionally been used to deliver digital pay TV services such as Foxtel. Telstra and Optus have both also offered internet over HFC for many years. 

In the context of the National Broadband Network, HFC ostensibly refers to the "augmentation and expansion" of Telstra's existing HFC infrastructure. 

Who is connecting to NBN via HFC?

Somewhere between 21% to 27% Australian premises will be connected to the National Broadband Network through HFC. Most of these houses will be in capital cities where HFC connections are already used to provide pay TV (Foxtel) or cable internet.

What equipment do I need for a HFC connection?

When you connect to the National Broadband Network through HFC, you'll end up with an NBN Utility Box on the outside of your place, and an NBN Connection Box inside. These are provided and installed by the NBN.

The NBN Connection Box then connects to a cable modem to fill your house with internet. If you sign up for a 24-month internet contract, your telco will almost certainly include a compatible modem with your plan.

You'll need two spare power outlets: one for the NBN Connection Box, and one for your cable modem. 

If you're also subscribing to a pay TV service such as Foxtel over your HFC connection, you'll need a splitter to ensure it keeps working. NBN will provide this as well.

How fast is HFC?

HFC offer download speeds of up to 100Mbps and upload speeds of up to 40Mbps. Your actual speeds will be determined by the type of connection you choose. A basic NBN connection will provide download speeds of up to 12Mbps. The next step up is 25Mbps, followed by 50Mbps, and 100Mbps.

How much does HFC cost?

All fixed-line NBN plans use a similar pricing structure, regardless of the connection technology in question. For example, if you're looking at a monthly Telstra NBN plan, it will cost the same whether your house or business is connected via FTTP, FTTN, or HFC.

National Broadband Network plans vary from telco to telco, with pricing dependent on the speed tier you choose, the amount of data included, and whether you bundle other services, like Foxtel entertainment packages. However, as a rule of thumb, basic fixed-line National Broadband Network are comparable to ADSL broadband in terms of price. Choosing an NBN plan delivers the benefit of faster speeds, and subscribers can further increase their speed if they wish.

What's the difference between NBN HFC and Telstra or Optus Cable?

While NBN's HFC is based on Telstra's cable network, existing cable customers who get moved onto the HFC National Broadband Network will benefit from much faster upload speeds. On a top-tier plan, HFC customers will be able to upload at 40Mbps, whereas pre-NBN cable speeds were as low as 2Mbps.

NBN is also promising more capacity, which should reduce network congestion in peak times. This will however depend on where you live, your provider and the amount of capacity they purchase.

What is DOCSIS 3.1?

DOCSIS 3.1 is new technology that ostensibly increases the speeds of existing HFC networks by transmitting data more efficiently. This will allow NBN resellers to provide services as fast as 1Gbps in the future, ten times faster than the fastest speeds currently available.

NBN says the first DOCSIS 3.1 services should be available to NBN customers connecting via HFC in 2017. If you want to take advantage of the faster speeds offered by DOCSIS 3.1 HFC, you'll need to get a new modem when the standard goes live.

Why are some HFC areas being converted to FTTC?

Under the Coalition Government's MTM rollout, Optus' cable network was also going to be used as a basis for the HFC portion of the National Broadband Network. In fact, NBN bought the Optus HFC network for $800 million before deciding that it needed to decommission the ageing equipment.

Leaked NBN documents published by Fairfax last year revealed internal concerns about the quality of Optus' network, describing it as "not fully fit for purpose". The documents suggested that some Optus equipment had reached the end of its life and would need replacing, and that network was congested due to over-subscription.

Instead, NBN is using FTTC (Fibre-to-the-Curb) technology for as many as 700,000 premises originally due to connect to the National Broadband Network using Optus' HFC.

"HFC remains a highly valued part of our MTM deployment," said NBN Chief Network Engineering Officer, Peter Ryan, "however in balancing the requirements to convert Optus’ current network architecture and design to be NBN ready, and the opportunity to introduce FTTdp, makes the new technology compelling in these selected areas."

FTTC can almost be described as a hybrid of Fibre-to-the-Premise and Fibre-to-the-Node. Rather than taking fibre to a central node in a neighbourhood, fibre is laid directly to a property's kerb. The final connection is made with copper. This facilitate faster download speeds of up to 500Mbps, and should also make it cheaper to get fibre laid directly to your home, if you want to upgrade down the line.

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