Mission-critical utilities to look carefully at NBN fibre

NBN technology untested in event of disaster

A national fibre-based National Broadband Network will extend further than any existing utility network, but many mission-critical utility services for power and water will continue to run their own infrastructure to maintain higher data transport integrity and resiliency, even if the NBN is used for last-mile services.

Tanya Barden, director of smart networks policy at the Energy Networks Association (ENA), said the NBN will add to the data transport options for utilities.

“We will use NBN where appropriate, but not for mission-critical stuff where dedicated bandwidth and security are needed – this will be over our networks,” Barden said.

With the option of custom networks for mission-critical services, NBN and wireless, Barden said there will be no one type of technology for all situations.

“The NBN is a large and important issue, but one of a mix of technologies the industry is looking at,” she said.

Fringe users like emergency services and utilities may not get an idea of how resilient the NBN is until it’s too late

Anthony Merry, CTO and founder of Melbourne-based networking equipment vendor, Haliplex, questions whether the NBN can withstand natural disasters as well as existing circuit-switched fibre networks used by utilities based on Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) technology.

“I’m concerned about the performance of the NBN under catastrophic circumstances [so] power utilities will run their own networks even if there is an NBN,” Merry said.

“Our customers want hardened equipment and the question to ask is: How will the NBN perform in catastrophic circumstances? There have been decades of work on fault management and its all there in circuit-switched networks. In packet switched they are still scrambling to get this level of reliability.”

Merry says there could be some “eggs on faces” as there still are services that cannot be emulated over packet-switching as well as circuit-switched.

The ENA’s Barden says it’s difficult to say whether the NBN will me more resilient, but because the utility networks are of such a critical nature it may not be considered as a replacement for many existing networks.

“The NBN will certainly be more resilient compared to wireless networks. As we have seen natural disasters result in mobile congestion and networks going down,” Barden said.

NBN Co will offer layer 2 Ethernet services to a point of interconnect.

Haliplex’s Merry said in the past most gear had battery backup from the exchange, which is also backed up.

“With some of the recent natural disasters mobile phone towers don’t last long, only for a few hours,” he said.

“Currently most [phone] exchanges have a battery and generator. So the question is will they take the same criteria forward that were important to us with previous generation networks?”

Merry said there are already issues with who would be responsible for battery backups for FttH access devices which will be used for home phone access. “Will granny change the battery?”

“Many dedicated network operators have a quasi-military attitude – they like to use proven equipment with a quantifiable record,” he said. “And a lot don’t want to use to an Ethernet packet network as it means throwing out existing equipment.”

“The biggest issue is some people will possibly be forced into a revolution strategy, but I think you will find many utilities will want a migration strategy.”

Merry is not critical of the NBN as a concept, but questions whether the same level of reliability people have come to expect with circuit-switched networks will be replicated.

“We are moving into unknown territory for things like security and QoS,” he said. “As people are sharing the same pipe, the segmentation has to be right.”

“The NBN is visionary and whether we can afford it is arguable, but the powers that be are so caught up in the Internet and video applications that it will bring along, there is a possibility the fringe users like emergency services and utilities may get done by – or may not get an idea of how resilient it is until it’s too late.”

Merry says SDH networks are fault tolerant fibre optic rings that “self heal” in a sub-50ms time frame.

“The issue comes down to guaranteeing QoS and the security of people’s data,” he said.

“For example, if you have SCADA gear a lot of it is time sensitive – you need to detect and react to an incident in a certain amount of time – and utilities can buy bandwidth on a SDH network with the delay, jitter and time aspects guaranteed. On a packet-switched network this is harder to do.”

Merry says the decisions being made “seem to be so political” he is concerned that “important issues” are being ignored.

“Can we quantify what the resiliency will be? From a fault-tolerant point-of-view, I think a packet network is a lot more random when things happen to it. Older networks are more deterministic,” he said.

In the event of a floods, bushfires or other natural disasters such as cyclones, Merry believes copper has better chance of “hanging in there”.

“A lot people in utilities use SDH which is mature and we are selling piles of the stuff into utilities because they trust it,” he said.

Merry estimates more than 75 per cent of utilities still use SDH and circuit switching.

Follow Rodney Gedda on Twitter: @rodneygedda

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