Fibre’s coming to your home – what you need to know

August 6th, 2009 | by Alfred Siew

As you may have heard, some 95 per cent of Singapore is being wired up with fibre optic cables for the country’s next-generation broadband network, which promises an almost unlimited speed boost over existing SingTel’s copper-line phone system and StarHub’s HFC (hybrid fibre coaxial) network.

But little has been said about what this cable laying project means to the average Joe.

Earlier this week, OpenNet, the consortium tasked with wiring up Singapore, gave the media a glimpse of how things will pan out. The quick takeaway is that it is on-schedule, and will be sending letters to residents in selected areas to inform them that contractors would be coming to their homes to hook up the new cables.

Here are some things you, the home owner and tech goondu, should be aware of.

1. It’s just the cable, stupid
First, to clarify things, what OpenNet (the “NetCo” in this broadband project) is doing is simply laying the fibre optic cable to your home, much like StarHub did with its cable TV network more than a decade ago. The difference this time: another company called the “OpCo” – Nucleus Connect – will have to “light up” the cables or basically enable the cables to do what they are supposed to do. More on this later.

Some lucky folks will get commercial services as early as the first half of next year, according to the Singapore authorities. But for now, the excitement will be confined to seeing a group of contractors come to install a new cable, which will be inactive for a while until another bunch of folks come to hook up additional gear to “light it up”.

When the OpenNet folks – look out for them in purple polo shirts – come knocking, they will bring the fibre optic cable inside your home and hook this up to a wall socket of sorts. Just think of it as another cable point next to your phone and cable TV sockets. This installation is free for most people – the exception being those who live in a big bungalow that requires more than 15 metres of fibre optic cables to wire up.

Just like StarHub’s cable TV rollout, this free offer to wire up is for one-time only. Should you reject it, you will have to pay S$220 or more when you change your mind later, after seeing your neighbour download his pirated movies 10 times faster than you.

2. Things might not be pretty
Singapore is such a beautiful city because most of its cables are hidden underground and this continues to be the case for the next-generation broadband network.

At Cantonment Drive, where the first flats are being wired up, OpenNet showed reporters how it will be using underground ducts provided by SingTel (one of its shareholders) to run cables all over Singapore – and all the way to the foot of your high-rise HDB flat – without having to dig up any ground.

From here, the fibre optic cables run up a riser and exits on every floor through the common corridor – think of the riser as a lift shaft for cables.

Up to here, the cables are still well-concealed. But this is where the difficulty begins. In some HDB blocks with ceilings that conceal existing wiring, like the Cantonment Drive flat that we were brought to, the new fibre optic cables have to be run along the corridor with rather ugly white plastic trunking. The trunking’s okay for one apartment, but when several apartments are hooked up with the trunking on each floor, it stands out.

To be honest, this is still ways neater than the bare wires you see hanging overhead in some other cities. But being the house-proud people that Singaporeans are, some residents will surely complain.

The irony is, if your estate is older (say, over 10 years old), OpenNet says you should already have some sort of ugly plastic trunking for existing cables. In this case, the new cables can just fit in there without making your corridor any uglier!

The same applies for running the cable inside your home as well. If you already have ugly plastic trunking all over your walls, then the contractor only needs to open up the trunking and stuff the new cable inside.

Unfortunately, if your apartment is less than five years old, you may already have cable points, phone sockets and network points nicely concealed and flushed against a wall. Now, you have to decide if you want ugly white trunking running across your living room.

When I put this to the folks from OpenNet and IDA (the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore), they said it was sometimes possible to squeeze the very thin fibre optic cables through existing concealed trunking.

On your common corridor, this means it can run inside the ceiling with the rest of the phone and StarHub cables. Similarly, if your home is hooked up with cables hidden inside the walls, OpenNet says there is a way to slip the new cable into the existing concealed trunking and have it exit through your existing phone or cable point.

The cable layers say this is done with a technique that uses “low-friction” cables that be slid through already tight trunking. But even they admit that this technique doesn’t work all the time, as was the case with the Cantonment Drive flats, so you just have to keep your fingers crossed.

3. Having more gear
Once the OpenNet guys are done with the cabling, you’ll need an OpCo (so far, there’s only one – the StarHub-owned Nucleus Connect) to come and hook up what is called an ONT (Optical Network Terminal).

This is like an additional modem of sorts, to the layman, as it will hook up the fibre optic cable from your new wall jack to your home network.

This ONT will come with several ports (IDA’s sample had four), which will allow several RSPs (retail service providers) like StarHub, SingTel and whoever wants to sell ultra-fast broadband here to hook up their set-top boxes or modems. Yes, one more modem compared to now.

So, if you have a cable/ADSL modem and a router now, in future, you’ll have an ONT plus a modem plus a router. And for now, I’m still not sure if you’ll connect an HDTV set-top box to an ONT or to an RSP’s modem.

To be fair, all of this is still new. Thus, there are bound to be some teething pains, some of which will be borne by early adopters.

Just as the first ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) users in Singapore in the 1990s were basically crash-test dummies for the bug-ridden SingTel Magix and its equipment vendor Alcatel, there will be goondus like me who will clamour to be the first on fibre and help service providers sort out the bugs!

I only hope there is a sustained test period – as StarHub did with its years-long cable modem trial before the commercial rollout – to iron out the bugs before unleashing FTTH (fibre-to-the-home) services on a hopeful public. What we don’t need is SingTel Magix redux.

UPDATE: IDA has set up a small site showing people what to expect with the FTTH rollout. Unfortunately, I don’t know why it still envisions slow powerline and phone line networking for your internal home network – these will become bottlenecks for an ultra-fast network promising 1Gbps.

I’ll have more about Singapore’s next-gen broadband rollout in an upcoming issue of Digital Life, which comes free on Wednesdays with The Straits Times.


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