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NBN flags frozen HFC connections thawing over the coming months

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(Image: APH)

Close watchers of the weekly rollout numbers from the company responsible for deploying the National Broadband Network (NBN) across Australia will note the number of Service Class Zero (SC0) premises had spiked just over a year ago, following the November 2017 pause on selling hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) connections.

In May, NBN labelled the ring-fencing a momentary inflating of the SC0 number, but it has stayed high ever since, with 1.4 million premises currently unable to connect to the network across all technology types.

Speaking to Senate Estimates on Tuesday night, NBN CEO Stephen Rue said that of the 1.4 million SC0 premises, 1,251,000 are HFC connections, but salvation could soon be at hand.

“There’s quite a lot of HFC premises will be made ready to connect, quite a lot in the next four months,” Rue said.

NBN was at pains to explain to senators that the number does not represent a static pool of premises, with a number leaving the SC0 classification when the HFC network was relaunched, as more are added to the network.

“At the end of this month, all of those ring-fenced premises will be released back. So what’s essentially happened is we’ve progressed from April last year, we started releasing the HFC network gradually back and testing all of our processes again, and then by June and July, we started releasing back at scale,” NBN chief network deployment officer Kathrine Dyer said.

“We have been building out a lot of new areas in HFC whilst we have been taking the premises out.”

Read: ACCAN: Low-income Australians cannot afford NBN

At the end of 2018, NBN had 512,000 active HFC premises, the company said in its half-year results last week, out of a total of 4.7 million active connections. Overall, NBN has 9.5 million premises labelled as ready for service.

Rue told Estimates that the company is “well on track” to meet its September goal of reducing congestion on its fixed wireless network to less than 1 percent having speeds under 6Mbps in busy hours threshold.

NBN’s wholesale business-grade satellite service will also see a soft launch in mid-year, before a full launch around the end of 2019, Rue added.

Australia is one of the more affordable broadband markets

The NBN CEO opened with a claim that is unlikely to be met with a chorus of agreement from the nation’s NBN retailers — that Australia is one of the more affordable broadband markets. Citing a study conducted for it by AlphaBeta which looked at 4,500 product and pricing plans in 22 countries, Rue said Australia placed seventh overall.

“The medium broadband price in Australia is equivalent to 1.4 percent of Australian per capita income, which is the seventh-lowest amongst the 22 countries analysed,” Rue said.

“And this should come as no surprise, as we must continue to remind ourselves one of the original policy goals of NBN, which was to enable more competition in the retail market through providing a wholesale-only open access service to any retailer who wanted to sell a product.”

In October, Aussie Broadband made the decision to shelve its lower-priced services after NBN ended its discount on 50Mbps connections.

“In our view, it will not be possible for providers offering a service under AU$55 a month floor price and an unlimited offering under AU$69 using the bundles,” Aussie Broadband MD Phillip Britt told ZDNet at the time.

“Providers below this price point will most likely be short-changing their customers on the CVC bandwidth provisioned.”

Also: TPG keeps top spot for download speeds in fourth NBN report

The retailer killed off any plan that was paying less than AU$55 a month, which saw customers on a 12/1Mbps or 25/5Mbps service with less than 100GB of included data.

Last week, Britt said CVC costs are holding back his company from offering unlimited data on plans faster than 100Mbps.

“The CVC pricing construct is the primary limiter here; we’ve only got 2.5Mbps of CVC allocated under the bundled model and someone on an unlimited plan on those higher tiers would have the potential to really cause some damage,” Britt said.

The Aussie Broadband chief said the 100Mbps price will come down, but it will need a write-down of the NBN for the price pressure to be passed onto consumers.

“They can’t hold onto the AU$51 [average revenue per user] amounts they are trying to achieve, because the mobile guys will wipe the floor with them,” Britt said.

“As to when it will occur, that’s hard to predict. They have released a short-term promotion around the 100/40Mbps services currently, but it has some conditions around it that requires a customer to stay with that service provider for X period of time, so its risky to implement.”

Meanwhile, Rue told the Joint Standing Committee looking into the business case for the NBN last week that there are no impairment issues that would see the company needing to write down the value of the company, and that those calling for such action are just after a wholesale price cut.

“When people say there should be a write-down, I don’t think that is what they are really calling for. Essentially, they are calling for the wholesale price to fall dramatically,” Rue said.

“Calls for a large wholesale price cut puts at risk the long-term viability of the company … without that, I truly believe you put at risk the digital future of the country, and all the benefits that flow.”

Rue reiterated on Tuesday night that NBN is banking on enterprise services and customers moving up speed tiers for the company to make its AU$51 average revenue per user (ARPU) target that will see NBN become cash-flow positive.

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2022 Ford F-150 Lightning gives new electric pickup its EV name

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The all-electric Ford F-150 may still be a ways out from hitting dealership forecourts, but we now know what it’ll be called: the 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning. The plug-in pickup will be unveiled officially on May 19, though Ford hasn’t been able to resist confirming the badge that the new EV will wear.

It’s not the first time that a Ford truck has borne the Lightning name, mind. Back in 1993 the automaker launched the SVT F-150 Lightning, a performance pickup intended to take on Chevrolet’s 454SS.

That, though, had a V8 under its hood, whereas the new F-150 Lightning will take a very different approach. It’ll be fully electric, with Ford promising more horsepower and torque than any other F-150 currently on sale. It’ll also have sky-high towing and payload ratings, the automaker says, and accelerate faster than even the speediest current F-150.

“Every so often, a new vehicle comes along that disrupts the status quo and changes the game … Model T, Mustang, Prius, Model 3. Now comes the F-150 Lightning,” Jim Farley, Ford President and CEO, said today. “America’s favorite vehicle for nearly half a century is going digital and fully electric. F-150 Lightning can power your home during an outage; it’s even quicker than the original F-150 Lightning performance truck; and it will constantly improve through over-the-air updates.”

This isn’t the first time Ford has opted to use a familiar name with a new, electric twist, of course. The automaker risked frustrating fans when it opted to brand the its all-electric crossover, the Mustang Mach-E, with a name more commonly associated with gas-burning two door coupes and convertibles. Even now, years after that announcement, arguments about whether the Mach-E is a “real” Mustang continue.

Meanwhile, GMC took a similar strategy with its high-profile electric SUV. It resurrected the Hummer brand – probably best known for its profligate gas engines – for the all-electric reboot, keeping the burly styling but pairing it with up to three electric motors.

Ford hasn’t said exactly what configuration it has planned for the 2022 F-150 Lightning. The expectation, however, is that there’ll be a dual-motor arrangement for the electric pickup, for all-wheel drive. Battery size and range haven’t been discussed publicly, either, though given electric truck rivals are talking 300+ miles on a charge – and Chevrolet is promising 400+ miles from its upcoming electric Silverado – it seems likely that Ford will aim for something similar.

Part of the F-150 Lightning’s charm, however, will be how functional it is when it’s standing still. Though the current F-150 can act as a generator for worksite equipment, camping, and other situations, the electric pickup will be able to do that without a gas engine running.

Ford plans to begin production of the 2022 F-150 Lightning in spring 2022, at the new Ford Rouge Electric Vehicle Center. Deliveries are expected in mid-2022.

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Harley-Davidson sparks LiveWire as a standalone electric motorcycle brand

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Harley-Davidson will spin out its LiveWire electric motorcycle into a standalone brand, with a whole range of EVs planned. Announced in production form back in 2018 – though dating all the way back to a 2014 concept – the original Harley-Davidson LiveWire bypassed the clutch and the familiar rumble in favor of a battery and zero emissions, though when preorders opened the following year it was with an eye-watering price tag.

0-60 mph in under 3.5 seconds and instantaneous torque – plus around 110 miles of range – would set you back about $30k, the iconic bike company conceded. The LiveWire was to be the first of a series of Harley-Davidson electric models, as it tried to expand its footprint beyond its traditional audience.

Now, it’s shaking that strategy up a little. LiveWire won’t just be a bike, but a whole brand of its own, initially focused on urban use. It’ll have dedicated showrooms in select markets – initially in California – but also support digital from the outset. Select existing dealers from the Harley-Davidson network will be involved, but you won’t necessarily be able to go into any current dealership and find LiveWire product there.

Of course, though it may be its own entity, LiveWire will get to piggy-back on a lot of Harley’s existing setup. “With a dedicated focus on EV, LiveWire plans to develop the technology of the future and to invest in the capabilities needed to lead the transformation of motorcycling,” the company said today. “LiveWire expects to benefit from Harley-Davidson’s engineering expertise, manufacturing footprint, supply chain infrastructure, and global logistics capabilities.”

Developments by, and for, LiveWire may well find there way into future Harley-Davidson models, for example. Indeed, it sounds like there’ll even be electric Harleys in the future, as LiveWire tech goes full circle to help bring its originator up to speed.

Harley-Davidson has faced challenges in recent years, as it tries to modernize and embrace things like electrification while keeping a grip on its traditional audience and branding. The company launched its “Rewire” plan for restructuring in 2020, trimming select models in some regions, and generally aiming to cut costs. Key, though, is attracting a new, younger audience of riders with Harley conceding a few years back that its appeal among millennials was lagging significantly behind.

We’d already seen the first fruits of that expansion strategy late last year. In November 2020, the company unveiled its Series 1 Cycle e-bike line-up, the first models from its new brand for electric bicycles. Come July 8, meanwhile, we’ll see the first LiveWire branded motorcycle revealed. There, the big question will be whether Harley’s hewn-off nameplate can compete with existing electric bikes on factors like range and price.

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Sleeker Pony.ai self-driving SUV hints at more road-ready autonomous cars

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Autonomous car headgear keeps getting smaller, with Pony.ai revealing its latest self-driving car design and its much sleeker, Luminar-powered scanning hub. Far from the “upturned trashcan” aesthetic many still associate with the bulky LIDAR sensors atop driverless vehicles, the new version adds less than 4-inches of height to Pony.ai’s modified Lexus SUVs.

That’s a considerable difference from the vehicles the company has been using so far. The existing SUVs have a large, roof-rack style block on top, and then a sensor turret rises from that. It’s for good reason, mind: that allows the LIDAR sensors to have a full, 360-degree field of vision around the car.

For effective volume production, though, not to mention aesthetics and practicality, the system needed to be smaller. That’s just what Pony.ai says it has achieved now, tapping Luminar’s slimline Iris LIDAR sensor along with other tech for a much reduced profile roofline. It’ll be just 10 cm high, though still deliver 360-degrees of visibility for the various sensors inside.

The new design will be used in the company’s “automotive-grade production autonomous fleets,” it says, from 2023. Currently, it operates robotaxi services in three cities in China – Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing – and two in California, Irvine and Fremont. Its fleet of 200+ vehicles have collectively provided more than 220,000 robotaxi rides, Pony.ai says, with over 3.1 million miles of driving across a total operational coverage area almost 330 square miles in size.

Luminar is gaining a higher profile in LIDAR circles, including attention from not only autonomous vehicle startups like Pony.ai but established automakers too. Volvo invested in the company back in 2018, then two years later confirmed that Luminar LIDAR would be a key component in its upcoming SPA 2 platform. Expected to go into production from 2022, it’ll be used initially not for full autonomous driving, but for advanced driver assistance.

Indeed, that’s one of the key aspects of Luminar’s tech, and LIDAR in general: exactly what can be achieved with it depends on the software, the legislative environment, and the ambitions – and risk profile – of the company using it. Volvo’s system, dubbed Highway Pilot, will be a Level 3 system designed to take over on select highways and operate without human supervision. However it’ll hand control back over to the human driver outside of that domain.

Pony.ai’s approach, in contrast, is to relegate the driver to passenger status at all times. The company has been working with backer Toyota – which most recently invested $400 million in February 2020 – and the two developed the AV pilots in China together.

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