If there’s one thing that we in Australia love, it’s being fiercely competitive. The legendary Aussie passion for all things sport – and especially our successes in elite international competition – is well known, but we’ve had many years of getting used to the idea that we’re up there with the best at everything. Science, art, movies, books – there’s that little bubble of national pride when one of our own gets the rest of the world’s attention.
When it comes to technology, we’ve been used to being up there with the best as well. Australians are famously eager early adopters of new technologies – we took the Compact Disc to heart at a rate not seen anywhere else in the world – and the all-fibre, world-leading National Broadband Network was set to be one of the only state-owned networks in the world that embraced the latest and fastest tech.
Until, of course, the NBN was redesigned and cut back to a shell of its former self, using a hodge-podge of technologies that were already being phased out overseas in favour of fibre. Quoting statistics that claimed most Australians didn’t even choose the fastest connection speed when they had access to fibre, the government made a promise – everyone would have at least 25 Mbps speeds as the new standard once the NBN was completed (by comparison, the fibre option delivers up to 250 Mbps now and is easily upgraded in the future to do 1,000 Mbps, and even 10,000 Mbps).
By comparison, over in New Zealand, their Ultra-fast Broadband Project is rolling out to 87% of all residents using fibre with speeds that start at 100 Mbps; some cities already have access to 1,000 Mbps.
While a certain Australian politician famously claimed that 25 Mbps was good enough “to watch five full length movies at the same time” (we assume he doesn’t watch in HD), the reality is that it’s not very fast at all by global standards.
Why Do We Need the Speed?
While it’s easy to point at things like Netflix as though it was a trivial use of an expensive network, the reality is that services like it have become the way most of us watch television for a good percentage of the time – it’s why the amount Australians download every year has doubled since Netflix arrived. But it’s not all about entertainment. If you’re buying software or games online, as increasing numbers of people do, you can find yourself with huge downloads in the tens of gigabytes just to get your purchase onto your PC or game console. If your work involves a lot of “telecommuting” – working from home – you can find yourself having to download and upload large files, especially graphics and photos. Video producers have to try to upload massive files to services like YouTube at speeds that mean publishing a new video can take days rather than minutes.
And as the technological advances of the future arrive, we’ll see the Internet used for more and more things that have high data demands – even the medical profession can benefit from fast broadband speeds, enabling things like remote consultations.
If you think about just how much of your life has an online component these days, you’ll see where things are headed. And Australia is going to need a fast broadband network to be competitive on the world stage. So how are we doing right now?
Not very well at all.
Where We Stand
Every month, the popular site Speedtest.net puts together a list ranking each country based on their average broadband speed – a number that comes from actual real-world speed tests run by customers. While it doesn’t give a picture of exactly what’s available – the numbers will, of course, be affected by people subscribed to plans with lower speeds than they could actually achieve – it’s a pretty good snapshot of just where we rank in the world for our broadband.
And as of May 2018, Australia ranks… 56th. No, that’s not a typo – with an average speed of just 30.5 Mbps, Australia comes in 56th place – behind countries like Russia, Estonia, and even Reunion (a French island in the Indian Ocean that averages nearly double Australia’s speed).
New Zealand, meanwhile, is rocketing up the rankings as their fibre roll-out continues, now in 19th place with 75.71 Mbps (they’ve dropped a couple of ranks despite substantially increasing in average speed since February), while the USA sits in the top 10 with 92.66 Mbps. Singapore and Iceland are the unlikely pair battling it out for the top spot, with Singapore currently just ahead with 170.99 Mbps – beating the famously broadband-friendly South Korea by a hefty margin.
Australia, meanwhile, ranks barely higher than Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
Will It Improve?
We’re likely to see Australia start to gain a few places thanks to a combination of the continued NBN rollout coupled with NBN’s plan to encourage as many people as possible to take up 50 Mbps connections. But the tech being used for a big chunk of the NBN simply isn’t capable of delivering the sort of speeds that are seen in the high-ranked countries. The switch to Fibre to the Curb (FttC) for a large amount of current and upcoming installations is our best hope in the speed department.
Does it matter? Well, it depends. There’s obviously the fact that the rank tells a story about how far behind the curve we are in broadband speeds. And being seen as a broadband backwater could have unintended consequences – for example, a company deciding not to set up operations here because the Internet is too slow for their needs.
More than anything, though, it’s a continuing reminder of what could have been if the fibre NBN rollout had been allowed to continue. Not everyone needs blazingly fast broadband – not yet, anyway. But knowing that in the future Australia is likely to fall further and further behind in one of the most important infrastructure areas, that’s a real shame. Because there’s a lot more than national pride at stake.