Chorus may put UFB on power poles

TOM PULLAR-STRECKER
Last updated 05:00 18/02/2013

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Chorus is considering stringing more of the ultrafast broadband network up on power poles rather than burying fibre cables underground, sparking fears the flagship government scheme will be done "on the cheap".

The move would be a cost-cutting measure as Chorus seeks to contain the cost of building its 70 per cent share of the $3.5 billion UFB network.

The new emphasis on cheaper aerial cabling would likely lead to more street clutter as some copper cables that are now buried underground were replaced by overhead lines.

Experts said it would also mean the network would not last as long and be more prone to outages.

A construction industry source said the change was being considered because Chorus was struggling to bring down the average cost-per-premise-passed with fibre, to within its intended target band of $2500 to $2700 this financial year.

The review was confirmed by a source close to the company who said a shift toward aerial deployment would be "disappointing" but a real possibility.

Chorus spokeswoman Melanie Marshall said the company "had always said its preference would be for undergrounding but that there will be parts of the network that will be aerial".

Marshall said she could not comment further before the release of Chorus' interim results next Monday.

Green Party MP Gareth Hughes said he was concerned "the pretty important issue" had not been canvassed publicly.

It was important the UFB network was not rolled out "on a budget", missing an opportunity to future-proof crucial infrastructure, he said. "The Australians are spending an awful amount more than we are. We would be urging no above-ground poles in suburbs that don't have them already."

The source who confirmed the Chorus review said an underground network would be great on many levels.

"No-one really wants to see more infrastructure going up on poles.

"In the long term, ‘undergrounding' is always going to come out better as it has a lower total cost of ownership."

It would also make for a more reliable network, he said. Aerial cables could be "very susceptible to faults" and might need to be removed later in areas where power companies decided they wanted to get rid of power poles and bury their electricity lines.

But despite the disadvantages, a rethink over aerial cabling was always on the cards as Chorus had to live within its capital expenditure constraints and deal with the "terrible reinstatement" costs of repairing dug-up roads, he said.

A 2009 report produced for the Treasury by former Telecom chief technology officer Murray Milner, now a director of government UFB investment vehicle Crown Fibre Holdings, said aerial fibre could be deployed at a cost of $30 to $50 a metre, versus about $500 a metre for traditional trenching.

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But Milner said aerial fibre might need to be replaced every 25-30 years, depending on weather conditions, while underground fibre might not need to be touched for 100 years.

Crown Fibre strategy director Rohan MacMahon said that so long as Chorus abided by local government regulations and agreed technical standards, the method of the deployment was up to the company.

There were virtually no aerial phone cables strung down streets today, other than those leading into homes, the source close to Chorus said.

There might be alternatives to both aerial deployment and traditional trenches in some circumstances where micro-trenching could enable cables to be buried in shallow slits in roads and pavements, cut by special circular saws.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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