NBN Cable Rollout Delayed As HFC 'False Activations' Leave Homes Offline For Months

Ongoing NBN installation faults have delayed the Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) rollout, while red tape has left hundreds of homes in broadband limbo for months – with relief finally on the way following Fairfax Media investigations.

The move comes as NBN pushes to accelerate the nationwide rollout, recently putting another 90,000 complicated connections on hold amid the growing complexity of the Multi-Technology Mix rollout.

Some homes earmarked for an NBN HFC cable connection, but without an existing lead-in from the street, will now be pushed to the back of the queue – waiting up to an extra six months even if they are in an NBN Ready for Service area.

Stuck In Broadband Limbo

Beginning around December 2016, the NBN HFC cable installation issues have plagued new customers across the cable network signing up with various Retail Service Providers (RSPs) – but appear to predominantly affect TPG and MyRepublic customers migrating from ADSL copper lines to NBN cable.

Regulatory red tape has left homes across Australia without broadband and phone services for months, after NBN HFC cable installations failed to activate. Photo: Glenn Hunt

In many cases NBN's complex migration agreement with Telstra has prevented TPG and other retailers from reconnecting ADSL broadband while the NBN connection issues are resolved, leaving homes without fixed-line internet and often no home phone access for months. NBN, Telstra Wholesale and the Communication Minister's office are still debating which body has the power to cut through this red tape.

Several thousand NBN connections have failed across the HFC network, although not all have left customers cut off from their previous broadband and phone service. Areas affected include Melbourne's Glen Iris, Balwyn, Canterbury and Glen Waverley, along with Sydney's Fairfield and Cabramatta, Brisbane's Ferny Hills and Perth's Atwell. The activation delays are separate from the large backlog of customers still awaiting an NBN cable installation.

Jesse of Glen Iris has been without home internet or dial tone since early February, forcing his partner to run her online business via expensive mobile broadband. A TPG ADSL customer, Jesse signed up for the NBN but the service refused to activate after NBN installers connected his home to the cable network in February.

On the same day TPG disconnected Jesse's ADSL-based broadband service and has refused to reconnect it, with TPG call centre staff insisting that TPG is legally forbidden from reconnecting the ADSL service. After researching the problem online, Jesse convinced TPG's support staff to grant him access to a temporary "raddy" ADSL account but this service was cut off after two weeks.

TPG Telecom's chief operating officer Craig Levy. Photo: Tanya Lake

"The TPG tech support member sounded exhausted, explaining that there are many thousands of customers calling up their service provider complaining of 'false service' activation via HFC NBN," Jesse says.

"Even worse, apparently service providers are also not able to switch you back over to ADSL, I was told that 'legally, due to legislation, we are unable to switch you back to ADSL once you're in an NBN Ready For Service area'."

Many installations have failed due to a 'false activation'. Photo: Glenn Hunt

NBN Confirms HFC Activation Faults And Rollout Delays

Both TPG and NBN have confirmed that blame for the connection issues lies with NBN rather than with the individual RSPs. The NBN cable installation process is still suffering from a number of "teething problems" since the first HFC cable areas were declared NBN Ready For Service in late 2016.

Back in December a batch of NBN HFC cable installations failed due to an issue with traffic routing on the network, yet NBN's systems reported these services as active to the RSPs. This issue was rectified in January.

Meanwhile, some NBN HFC services have failed to connect due to poor signal strength coming from the NBN Point of Interconnection (PoI), typically located at the nearest telephone exchange. Resolving this issue requires engineering work in the field.

Other installations have failed due to a "false activation" – caused when the wrong location ID is allocated to a new NBN NTD cable modem. This LOC ID mismatch causes the modem to attempt to connect to the wrong Point of Interconnection and rectifying the issue requires NBN installers to return to the premises to change the modem's settings.

Mitch Fifield could have the power to break the deadlock. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

NBN Forms Specialist Team To Deal With HFC Connection Issues

All of these connection faults are NBN's responsibility and the RSPs are not to blame, according to an NBN spokesperson. NBN has formed a specialist team to deal with HFC connection issues.

"Unfortunately we have been experiencing technical issues which have left some HFC end users unable to connect to the NBN HFC network for time frames outside NBN's expectations," the spokesperson says.

"NBN has identified these issues and we are implementing engineering solutions in the field and in our internal activations processes. We are treating these end-users as our highest priority and are working with our RSPs to reschedule their installation appointments."

Demand for connections in HFC areas are double NBN's expectations, forcing it to now prioritise homes with existing cable lead-ins when providing Ready For Service lists to RSPs. This could cause delays of up to six months for homes without an existing lead-in, although premises in the HFC footprint without a cable lead-in or those experiencing activation faults are not among the 100,000 "Service Class 0" complex fibre to the node connections which may be delayed until 2020.

"NBN has recently delayed making some HFC premises Ready For Service as additional work is required at these premises before they will be able to connect to the NBN HFC network," the spokesperson says.

"We expect that these premises that have been placed on hold will be able to order an NBN service within the next four to six months. To meet the high level of demand for NBN HFC services we are putting more resources into the field including specialised teams to conduct required civil works, which will help prevent delays in the future for homes requiring a new lead-in."

Telcos' Hands Are Tied On ADSL Reconnections

The decision not to reconnect ADSL customers does not lie with the individual RSPs such as TPG. Instead these homes have been trapped in regulatory limbo, with all parties adamant that their hands are tied on the issue.

TPG and other retailers are barred from reconnecting these ADSL customers due to Telstra Wholesale's "Cease Sale" regulations, introduced as part of Telstra's complex agreement with NBN which was overseen by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. The Cease Sale regulations take effect 10 days after an area is declared NBN Ready For Service, banning Telstra Wholesale from supplying new copper connections to retail providers like TPG.

As a result the RSP's hands are tied, says TPG Telecom's chief operating officer Craig Levy. While the issue is affecting customers of various RSPs, Levy says he is only aware of 77 TPG customers affected by the issue, mostly in the Glen Iris area – with an average disconnection time of seven weeks.

"We have no policy to refuse to permit a customer to go back to ADSL," Levy says. "The problem is that when an area is declared NBN Ready For Service the Cease Sale regulations kick in after 10 business days, which means we are prevented from re-ordering a new service from Telstra Wholesale in those areas.

"We have and will continue to escalate the issue with NBN and Telstra Wholesale, as we want to resolve matters for our customers."

While there are caveats in the Cease Sale regulations which could allow for the temporary restoration of copper services in these circumstances, neither NBN or Telstra Wholesale have invoked them. Neither NBN nor Telstra Wholesale deal directly with end-users, telling those affected to raise their complaints with their RSP.

Telstra has a "regulatory obligation" to disconnect the legacy service at these addresses, says a Telstra spokesperson.

"If a connection issue arises after a customer is migrated to the NBN, Telstra will offer an interim voice service, as per our Universal Service Obligation," the spokesperson says.

"We will also do our best to ensure that Telstra customers who have experienced connection issues are offered assistance, such as temporary mobile broadband devices to get connected to the internet."

Breaking The Deadlock

While Federal Communications Minister, Mitch Fifield, could have the power to break the deadlock and help restore affected ADSL services, when contacted by Fairfax Media the Minister's office initially declared it a matter between NBN, Telstra Wholesale and the ACCC.

At the time of publication, the Minister's office was continuing to investigate the issues surrounding the Cease Sale deadlock and consult with both NBN and Telstra Wholesale.

While the regulatory issue around temporarily restoring ADSL services still remains unresolved, during Fairfax Media's investigations NBN has fast-tracked efforts to rectify HFC installation issues and expects most affected NBN services to be operational by Easter.

"NBN is dealing with these incomplete HFC activations as an urgent priority and is aiming to have these premises connected to NBN services within the next week," says an NBN spokesperson.

"Even if there was an attempt to reconnect these premises to DSL services it would still take time to reconnect them. The fastest way to get these premises back online is to deliver them their scheduled NBN HFC connection."