It wasn’t all that long ago when getting broadband internet was a decision you could make fairly quickly. In many cases you only had one choice – ADSL. And if you were lucky enough to have access to the Telstra or Optus pay TV cables, going with that superior option gave you a choice of precisely one provider. It was only when Telstra started allowing other internet providers to install their own hardware in phone exchanges to provide dedicated ADSL services that competition really opened up. With that, for the first time, came real consumer choice – and we haven’t looked back since.
Now, with the arrival of the National Broadband Network (NBN) the choice is greater than it’s ever been before. Once you get connected to the NBN, you have access to a vast range of internet service providers (ISPs) and a vast and bewildering array of packages and plans to pick from. If you’re still waiting for the NBN to arrive (like much of Australia), you’ve still got options. Not just in choosing between whatever ADSL providers service your area, but also alternatives such as fixed wireless or 4G (not ideal, but a good alternative where the ADSL service is slow or non-existent).
So what should you be looking at when choosing a broadband plan? With the Internet now a vital part of the fabric of our working and social lives, having a fast, reliable broadband connection is a must. However, you shouldn’t pay more than you can afford for the privilege. And yet, you certainly don’t want to get a broadband connection that slows to a crawl during peak hours. Here are some tips on the basics to look for (and ask potential providers about) when you’re making the important choice of which ISP will connect you to the online world.
1: Be aware of contract options
A broadband plan is in a very different league to a mobile plan for one very simple reason – you can’t take it with you if you have to move. And with the vast percentage of the population renting, that can be a problem. Signing up for a 24-month contract with an ISP might give you some appealing benefits, such as the waiving of the “connection fee” or a free Wi-Fi modem. But before you agree to a long-term contract, ask the ISP what happens if you’re forced to move house before the contract finishes.
Many ISPs will let you continue the contract at your new address (and let you out of it if they’re unable to provide a broadband service there). However, some may charge a hefty early termination fee. In some cases, you may be better off putting up with the connection fee and opting for a shorter contract, or no contract at all. Note, too, that some ISPs operate on a no-contract basis by default, such as the Telstra-owned or the well-liked NBN provider Skymesh.
One other thing, by the way: if the NBN is not yet connected in your area, but is on the way, don’t make the mistake of signing up for a long-term contract with an ADSL service – even if they promise to switch you over to the NBN when it arrives. The reason? Once you have the NBN, you’ll immediately have access to a vastly larger pool of potential ISPs to choose from. By getting tied down to your ADSL provider you could find yourself paying more than you need to (or getting less for your money) when the NBN arrives.
2: Search for happy customers
You’ll want to be fairly sure of an ISP’s service quality before agreeing to a long-term contract. The last thing you need is to lock yourself in for two years with an ISP that can’t deliver a simple Netflix stream without severe buffering. Check popular online forums such as Whirlpool and Product Review and ask your friends about the ISPs they use.
Even then, there are no guarantees. Your best friend’s ADSL connection to an ISP might be blazingly fast, but you might find the opposite because of congestion at your local phone exchange. A good ISP will listen to complaints about slowdowns and congestion and take steps to fix it. Meanwhile, a bad one will be the subject of much complaining from unhappy customers in forums and elsewhere. Every ISP gets complaints – but if you’re seeing dozens about similar problems, it’s a big red flag.
3: Be wary of “unlimited” plans
We all love the idea of all-you-can-eat stuff, and “unlimited” has become something of a buzzword in the industry. Just like with mobile phone plans, where the idea of unlimited calls and texts is understandably appealing, so is the idea of an unlimited data allowance on your broadband service. No more worrying about binge-watching too much Stan or downloading 100GB worth of games. Just browse, binge and download to your heart’s content and never stress about what happens if you go over some arbitrary limit.
However, not all “unlimited” plans are created equal. An ISP providing unrestricted data downloading and uploading is making a pretty risky bet. They’re gambling on the fact that their many thousands of “unlimited” customers won’t all be trying to download and upload stuff at the same time. Like any pipeline, there’s only so much room in the data link between your ISP and your phone exchange. If everyone’s hammering their connection at the same time the end result can be that the internet slows to a crawl for everyone. When this happens with ADSL it’s only fixable by your ISP installing a “fatter pipe” to your exchange. And while some are happy to do this, others don’t bother.
The problem is amplified even more on the NBN because of how ISPs pay for access to it. Each ISP buys an amount of bandwidth from the NBN, with the idea that every one of their users won’t be needing full download speed at the same time. But in peak hours, user demand can exceed the supply of bandwidth the ISP has paid for. There’s a simple solution to that – the ISP can pay for more. But on super-budget “unlimited” plans, the chances of them doing so are much smaller. After all, bandwidth is expensive and they want to make a profit!
Unlimited-data plans can be excellent. But the good ones tend to cost a fair bit more than the super-cheap offerings you’ll see advertised. If unlimited NBN is what you’re after, consider budgeting around $100 per month for a 100Mbps connection. It’ll still probably be cheaper than your next power bill!
4: With Fibre-to-the-Node NBN, choose ISPs wisely
A large amount of areas getting connected to the NBN are being hooked up using a technology that’s a little less futuristic than fibre. They’re getting what’s called Fibre to the Node, with the “node” being a big green metal box out on the street. That box works as the central hub where the ordinary copper phone lines of all the surrounding houses run to. The idea is to make the NBN rollout cheaper while still giving users faster speeds.
But just like with ADSL, how fast you can go depends on how far away from that box you are. While FTTN NBN can do up to 100Mbps easily, in many cases you’ll get less than that because of the length your phone line has to run to get to the box.
So when you’re signing up with an ISP for one of these NBN services, if you want to opt for the fastest available speed, check with the ISP first. Can you drop your plan down to one of the lower speed tiers if it turns out you can’t get the speed you were paying for? There’s no point paying for a 100Mbps connection but only getting 45Mbps – you’d save money choosing a lower-speed plan. A good ISP will let you change plans without penalty.
5: Consider bundle deals
If you’re the sort of person who’s not only after fast broadband, but also has a mobile phone service or even pay TV, then it’s well worth checking to see if bundle deals are available to you. You might, for example, be able to get your NBN connection bundled in with Foxtel or Fetch TV, with the total rate being an effective discount on both. Or you might be able to bundle a home phone service (still available on the NBN) and get a deal on cheap (or unlimited) calls. Or, indeed, all of the above.
Bundles tend to be extremely attractive because the company offering them wants all of your business. Hence, it’s a good idea to compare bundle prices and inclusions. If you’d normally be paying for broadband, home phone and pay TV separately, for example, a bundle that includes all of them for a flat monthly fee could not only save you money, but also be a lot more convenient. They’re a great solution for those who just want to get everything connected and set up at once and know exactly what it’s going to cost them.
Choice, choice, choice!
It might all sound like a lot of research for something as simple as a broadband connection, but the more you shop around – and the more information you gather – the better. There are some fantastic ISPs and incredible-value plans out there for the taking. Think of it like, say, buying a car. There’s a mountain of options, and cheaper isn’t always better. But if you home in on exactly what you want, you can get a fantastic deal and be incredibly happy with the result.