The national broadband network is about to get seriously quick, with speeds up to 20 times faster than the most popular current residential plan going on sale from Friday – for about a third of Australians who can actually take advantage of them.
The NBN has announced new speed tier bundles available to retail service providers (your telco), who purchase access to the network to sell on to their customers (you).
The new residential speed tiers include a tweaking of the current 100mbps offering, a 250mbps tier, and one delivering speeds of almost 1gbps.
But the speeds aren’t the most exciting part.
Perhaps spurred on by a claim from a former prime minister that no one needs a connection over 25mbps, some have questioned the need for faster internet speeds, especially ones that approach the 1gbps mark.
The new upgrades to the NBN also include increased capacity that should hopefully put an end to speeds being slowed and connections dropping out when too many people are using the network at a time.
NBN Co said it plans to “overprovision” the new speed tiers, and do the same for existing ones over the next few months to give people a better chance of actually achieving the advertised speed of the internet plan you pay for.
The company already increased capacity for telcos after the great work-from-home migration of late March, when huge numbers of office workers shifted to their homes, bringing their business traffic onto the residential plans with them.
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Communications minister Paul Fletcher said the NBN had proven its worth during the pandemic.
“Over the last few months, the NBN has been the digital backbone of productivity, social cohesion and connectivity with more Australians than ever before relying on the NBN to connect, work and learn from home.
“NBN Co successfully managed this increased traffic by working constructively with the industry and its customers to help them adapt to the changing environment,” Mr Fletcher said.
This sudden change in how we use the internet, as well as more gradual changes over the past several years, make it a good time to bring faster speeds to market according to NBN chief customer officer Brad Whitcomb.
“We’re trying to help retailers educate customers that your needs have probably changed,” Mr Whitcomb told news.com.au.
“You may have come on to the network years ago, and we’ve seen consumption growing 30 per cent per year, that means more and more applications.
“Some of those applications really like to run better on high speeds, and now is probably a good time, especially if you’re working from home or you kids are studying from home, to revisit whether you’re on the right speed plan, and that coincides hand-in-hand with the fact we’re now offering much more choice at the very high end of speed,” Mr Whitcomb said.
As is unfortunately too often the case with the national broadband network, the news isn’t all as good as it first sounds however.
The national broadband network was originally intended to make internet access equitable for Australian netizens, but paradoxically, most of us won’t be able to take advantage of the new plans.
If you’re somewhere like Armidale for instance, where the NBN was rolled out early enough to be full fibre, then you’re in luck and can get the best version of the network.
Customers who can use the old Hybrid Fibre Co-Axial (HFC) networks used to deliver subscription television services will also be able to connect to the faster plans, though performance will be limited.
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But more Australians are connected to the NBN via the fibre-to-the-node (FTTN) connections than any other connection type, and for them, pretty much nothing will change.
NBN Co’s hands are essentially tied on that front, but it’s decided to rollout the faster speeds for the customers who can access them.
“We have built the network consistent with the statement of expectations which has come from our shareholder,” Mr Whitcomb said, referring to the government.
“That is for 90 per cent of the fixed line network, which includes FTTN, to deliver a minimum of 50mbps download. We are just about a month away from completing that initial volume build out to 11.5 million premises across the entire nation, and we can deliver that.
“Now we do have parts of the network which are capable of delivering higher speeds today, and what we have put into the market is leveraging the investment we’ve made and making those speeds available to a substantial number of customers.”
Shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland said the new plans were “a vindication of the original fibre plan” but raised “troubling questions”.
“Why is the Morrison Government now prioritising 1,000mbps speeds on HFC, when some Australians can’t even achieve 25mbps over copper?”
“And why is funding from the regional fixed wireless network being cut, in order to funnel more money into Telstra’s ageing HFC network?”
Ms Rowland added the government “doesn’t have a clue” what it’s doing and is “leaving regional Australians behind and deepening the gap in digital capability.”
NBN Co has said of its new plans, only one — with a top theoretical speed of 100mbps — will be available to FTTN customers, which is already the case.
Not all telcos will sell that speed tier though.
Telstra has stopped selling its fastest NBN plans to customers on FTTN connections (which again, is more than on any other connection type), because the connections can’t reliably deliver the speeds, leading to dissatisfied customers.
Of the newly announced plans, Telstra is selling only the Home Fast plan at this stage, and only to FTTP and HFC customers.
It wants $110 a month to connect that plan, which also includes a home phone service.
Optus is yet to comment on whether it will sell the new, faster NBN bundles.
So far only Aussie Broadband has come out and said it will be selling the faster new plans.
The NBN’s new Home Fast bundle available to FTTN customers offers quoted theoretical speeds within a wide range: 25mbps to 100mbps, with uploads varying between 5mbps and 20mbps.
The Home Superfast bundle offers FTTP and HFC customers theoretical speeds of 250mbps down and 25mbps up, while Home Ultrafast quotes a range between 500mbps and 1gbps, though the actual maximum is 990mbps due to network overheads.
HFC customers will also be limited to a maximum of 750mbps for the majority of the time they’re using the network.
NBN Co has said around a third of premises will be able to connect to the 250mbps speed tier, but only around 18 per cent of homes are ready to connect to the fastest speed tier.
It’s likely far fewer will, because being “ready to connect” only means the technology is available in the area.
Additionally, fibre-to-the-premises is now rolled out exclusively for new developments, meaning some of these “ready to connect” premises are likely to be new homes without occupants, or even ones still under construction.
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On this version of the NBN your connection terminates the fibre network at a “node” or telephone exchange, then uses the old copper network to take data the rest of the way to your house.
Performance across FTTN connections varies widely based on the wiring in your house and your proximity to the node, as well as how much extra capacity your telco purchases when structuring their plans.
While FTTN connections account for 95 per cent of under performing connections, and better technologies now have access to much faster speeds, Mr Whitcomb said it ended up being a great decision to bring in FTTN rather than continue pursuing a full-fibre network.
“I wouldn’t want to think where we would have been had we made a technology choice that would have taken quite a bit longer to deploy and then be facing something like the COVID crisis we’re in today,” Mr Whitcomb said.
He conceded the then unforeseen pandemic wasn’t a factor in the decision making process, but said it wasn’t just a case of good luck.
“There’s nothing lucky about picking technologies that allow you to deploy a network much faster and much cheaper, that’s just engineering and it’s a trade off.
“We couldn’t have predicted this particular incident but we certainly saw a need to get high speed into as many people’s hands as quickly as we possibly could, which we’ve done, and now we’re building on top of that which is going into even higher speeds where it makes sense.”
The rollout for the NBN is due to complete next month, but work will continue on the network, upgrading it over time to bring better performance.
The most immediate upgrades will still be to the full-fibre networks that most customers don’t have access to.
But Mr Whitcomb said the FTTN connections might eventually be upgraded to full fibre.
“The logical upgrade on that one is to get fibre deeper into the network, and that’s something we’ll turn our minds to I’m sure once we complete this initial rollout,” he said.
Currently there are no plans to actually do that, though they might appear in NBN Co’s next three-year corporate plan, due to be released at the end of August.
If you do want to connect to one of the faster plans you’ll have to do a little hunting, and expect to spend big.
NBN Co will sell wholesale access to the “Home Fast” plans for $58.
Telcos pay this wholesale price to NBN Co, and factors like their own business operations and any additional capacity they purchase determines how much the telco will charge you (though knowing how much they’re paying could prove useful if you’ve got telcos competing against each other for your money).
Wholesale access for Home Superfast is $68, and for the Home Ultrafast it’s $80, but telcos will likely charge considerably more.