On Thursday last week I was invited on a tour of the Telecom exchanges and cabinets organised by Jay Best (adslgeek) and run by Telecom Wholesale. My knowledge of the inner workings of the broadband network was pretty limited compared to others on the tour, however it was very interesting to see exactly how internet is delivered to your doorstep.
All my photos were taken on my Nokia E71, see the end of this post for better high-res images from other tour participants.
The geek contingent gathered at Telecom HQ on Hereford St in Auckland to begin the tour. Four of us from Geekzone (scottpalmer, wazzageek, juha and me), plus a large group from GP Forums and the Press F1 forums.
The tour began at the Mt Albert exchange, and straight down into the cable pit which is underneath the exchange. The cable pit is where all the cables from the cabinets and other locations come into the exchange. All of the cables are kept under pressure 24/7 - should a cable be accidentally cut, water will be kept out through the pressure difference plus an alarm sounds alerting a technician. The leak can also help a visiting technician to find the break and lets them fix the cable before it becomes customer impacting. I'm embarrassed to admit that my South Auckland upbringing had me laugh at a piece of cable join called a "pot head". Very different from what I've seen at lunchtime on main street Manurewa!
From here, this is where my technical knowledge gets rusty. From the cable pit, the cable pairs are punched into blocks which is then paired to where the phone lines are actually allocated. Fibre pairs also come into the exchange, run from the new roadside cabinets (see further down for more info).
In the event of a power outage the exchange is fully operational; a separate room of batteries make up the UPS, plus it has two V12 (?!?) diesel engines to run the exchange in the event of an extended outage (these are tested weekly).
The one thing that amazed me about the exchange is the vintage of the equipment. Most of the gear was top of the line in the 80s, long before the idea of running ADSL over it was ever conceived. Fast forward to today, and it is expected to run voice and internet, which I think it does very well for its age.
After leaving the exchange, we visited one of the old style cabinets. Purely a distribution point, a large cable comes in from the exchange, and it is split out from there to the different residences. There is no smarts in this cabinet; it is very basic, small, and has done its job well up until this point.
As part of their FTTN (Fibre To The Node) project, and in order to deliver ADSL2/VDSL to more people, Telecom has realised it needs to bring it's exchange equipment closer to the customer. These new technologies operate at higher frequencies which heavily degrade over distance - the only way to make them work is to run fibre to an area, and pair off from there. With that thought in mind, the old style cabinets don't work.
We were shown the new "Whisper" cabinets, and it packs an impressive amount of tech gear. Worth around $150k each, Telecom Wholesale installed 95 of these cabinets in total last year. This year, they are installing 5 a day. The cabinets have their own power supply (with backup batteries) with the ability to plug in a generator for extended outages. Air-conditioning keeps the equipment cool, and when fully sealed up (the cabinet has two parts - an outer cabinet, plus a fully sound insulated inner cabinet) you can't hear it ticking over (hence the Whisper name). There is plenty of room for other ISPs are able to install their own equipment in each cabinet should they wish to run their own network. It really is impressive how much equipment these non-obtrusive cabinets hold, and I couldn't help but wonder how completely unawares passing pedestrians are to the high tech gear just off to the side of the footpath.
With all the expensive equipment in them, each cabinet is alarm monitored in real-time, with Telecom Wholesale alerted if the doors are opened. They come in two neutral colours designed to blend in with their surroundings, plus are covered with silicon based paint - graffiti is quickly and easily removed with paint thinner and a rag. The cabinets have been designed and are built in New Zealand by Eaton Power Quality in Christchurch.
Once we finished inspecting a single bay cabinet, we had a look at cables running underground to the cabinet (in a Telecom manhole) which also included half a metre of water. We were assured that everything works fine whether submerged or not.
To finish up we took a short drive to a double bay cabinet - pretty much the same deal, just with more room for equipment. The best part of the afternoon came after heading back to Telecom Wholesale in Airedale St, where a pile of Hell's Pizza and beers awaited. We had a Q&A session for roughly an hour with the Telecom Wholesale team - had I not been concentrating on eating pizza and drinking beers I would've taken notes to expand here. There are some very clever and passionate people who work there.
My impression from our day out is this is a very different Telecom under Dr Reynolds. We were given full access to take photos, ask any question, and blog uncensored about our experience. I would've thought that Wholesale would be sensitive about the photography of some of their gear (there was some equipment we couldn't take flash photography of, but non-flash was fine), but we were given full access to everything. Our discussions ranged in topics, and nothing was off limits - we were given good, clear, no BS answers. This is a very different attitude from the old "evil" Telecom we've known.
I like this "new" Telecom, and inviting tech community members to see infrastructure is a big step in the right direction to improving the public's perception of them. Beers and pizza help too.
On leaving we were given two handouts to take away (available to download here) which give even more technical documentation of the tour.
Thanks Telecom for inviting me on the tour, it really was a unique opportunity and I'm glad I went. Now how about a discount on my monthly broadband?