Updated 19th August, 2019
The long, long rollout of the NBN has been well documented by the media – especially over the last few years, as the inevitable problems with such a massive project have cropped up. For those who have been lucky enough to have the NBN come to their home or business so far, things are generally great (niggling technical issues aside). There’s plenty of Internet providers offering a range of great deals on NBN plans – something for everyone, whether it’s raw speed you’re after or just unlimited downloads at low cost.
What are the Best Alternatives to the NBN?
But for those who’ve still got months – or even years – to wait before the NBN is deployed in their area, what are the alternatives for those struggling with a slow ADSL connection or no connection at all?
Believe it or not, there are actually several other options if you can’t get the NBN including 4G and 5G Wireless broadband – and while they won’t compete on a price-per-gigabyte scale, they’re surprisingly affordable regardless.
4G Mobile Network
It’s no secret that 4G – when running at peak speeds in ideal conditions – can deliver a faster broadband connection than even the fastest current fibre NBN connection can. The problem is the download limit. As anyone who’s shopped for mobile plans knows all too well, the data limits on 4G phone services are not exactly generous – at least, not for use outside of the stuff you’d do on a phone. Yes, there are “unlimited” plans available, but they’re actually slowed down to a near-unusable speed once you pass a certain fixed data limit.
With most mobile phone providers and using a suitable smartphone, right now you can connect your computer (or even your entire network) to 4G via a feature known as “tethering” (basically, you plug your phone into the computer and it becomes a 4G broadband modem). But even the most generous data allowances will not be sufficient for even the most modest internet user, or for those that just want to stream video in particular.
Over at Telstra, the 4G broadband is much faster and works with a choice of very high-tech 4G modems that do cost extra (starting at $3.33/month depending on device), but here’s where the speed versus data limit equation comes into play. $25 a month gets you only 10GB, and the plans top out at 100GB – for $75 a month. However, you get the full speed of the Telstra 4GX network at your disposal, and unlimited access to the many Telstra Air hotspots around the country. You also get free (and data-free) streaming of Australia’s biggest sports – AFL, AFLW, NRL, Netball and the Hyundai A-League, as well as data-free streaming on Apple Music.
Last audited 16 September 2020
Fixed Wireless Broadband
The NBN uses a technology called Fixed Wireless for its more remote connection areas, but if you’re living in a city – and in the right part of one – you can access an alternative brand of fixed wireless that promises massive speeds.
Lightning Broadband markets themselves as an NBN alternative, and have the credentials to back that up – including certification from YouTube for HD streaming and a promise that you’ll be able to stream 4K video effortlessly. Their network is already using 5G technology to attain speeds up to 1000 Mbps.
The tech behind it is certainly proven – fibre feeds running to microwave towers (microwave can transmit high-speed data incredibly fast, which is why it’s used by TV networks) and a small dish on your roof to complete the connection. Lightning charges by connection speed, with prices ranging from $100 a month for 25 Mbps to $250 per month for 100 Mbps – yep, that’s the same speed as fibre NBN. Data is unlimited on all plans.
The catch? Well, there are installation costs involved, and because the wireless service relies on line-of-sight between you and the tower, it’s not available to all areas. But if you can get it, Lightning Broadband is a very real alternative for those after high-speed broadband.
Third-party Fibre to the Building
The NBN uses FTTB – basically, running fibre into a building than regular cables to each user – in some apartment buildings already. But there are other companies that have made a move into doing the same thing – most famously TPG, who built out quite an extensive FTTB network even as the NBN rollout was starting up.
To have access to TPG’s FTTB service, you’ll need to be living in a building that has it – this is almost entirely apartment buildings – but if you can get it, a mere $59.95 per month will get you unlimited data on what is, from all reports, a very fast broadband connection.
Lightning Broadband also offers FTTB plans, and at some truly eye-popping speeds, with plans ranging from $75/month for 25 Mbps all the way up to a hefty $450/month for a staggering 500 Mbps.
Lighting Broadband also offers FTTB connections in some locations – and there’s a small group of companies that service specific buildings with their own FTTB networks. Ask your building manager if you’re not sure what broadband services have run their fibre into your basement!
The Future Arrives – 5G Wireless
As you’ve probably seen in the media, 5G is the Next Big Thing that’s going to make the NBN obsolete. But is it really? Well, probably not. While extremely fast 5G is a reality and has been demonstrated in the real world, it’ll be some years yet before there are affordable devices to access it – and support for it across the mobile networks. And then there’s going to be that same problem of congestion – while 5G handles many, many more users at the same time compared to 4G, it’s still subject to the laws of physics and it’ll be competing with every mobile phone and tablet user for data bandwidth.
And then, of course, there’s the need to run extremely fast fibre to each and every 5G tower to get the data moving in the first place.
While at this stage deadlines for the rollout are still up in the air, the big three Australian networks have already made a significant investment and a commitment to 5G in Australia, and Telstra has begun rolling their first 5G infrastructure out to major capital cities. If you’re willing to pay for the compatible wireless modem that Telstra sells ($27.33/month over 24 months on top of your plan cost) then you can have free access to the new 5G network all the way through until the end of June 2020, just by signing up for one of the Telstra 4G mobile broadband plans mentioned above.
Until 5G rolls out more extensively, though, the NBN alternatives that are currently available are doing a great job of filling the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Last audited 16 September 2020
ADSL2+ – Still Working!
When the NBN comes to your area you’ll know – you’ll get a letter in the mail with all the details – but you won’t have to move to it immediately. For some people, that can be a good thing – after all, ADSL2+ has served Australians well for many years, and some people living close to their local phone exchange are getting download speeds that already rival more expensive NBN plans (though for most, ADSL is so slow that even the lowest-tier NBN plan is going to be a noticeable improvement).
ADSL won’t be around forever, either – once the NBN rolls out in an area, ADSL is on an 18-month journey to being switched off. But until then, if you’re getting solid ADSL speeds and on a well-priced plan, you can do worse than to just stick with what works. Just keep in mind that the day will come when you’re switching to the NBN whether you like it or not!
Last audited 14 September 2020
How to Pick the Best NBN Alternative
If you’re lucky enough to have a choice between two or more NBN alternatives, the choice is your as to which one you go with – but make sure that you pick the one that suits your needs and budget.
4G and 5G mobile broadband is undeniably capable of very fast speeds, but it loses out in terms of latency (the time taken for data to get from your device to the other end) which can have a noticeable impact on gaming, especially if you play multiplayer online games like Fortnite. Once 5G has rolled out more extensively, it may become a real option for low-latency gaming, but in the meantime, you’re likely to see more responsive connections on FTTB, some types of fixed wireless and even ADSL. That said, a quality gaming experience can still be had on mobile broadband – just be careful about those huge downloads!
However, if your priority is general internet use and streaming video, you’ll be looking for plans and services with large data limits (or no limit at all) – and that rules out 4G and 5G, which will turn your streaming into a blocky mess after you use up the monthly limit.
How to Check Your Internet Speed
To get an idea of where your current internet provider sits in terms of speed, there are some great resources available – including the regularly-published list of the best internet providers for Netflix, published by Netflix themselves from data they collect from their own servers.
You can also measure your own internet connection by running a one-click broadband speed test, which will show you exactly what speeds you’re able to get – try running it during evening peak hours to get a true picture of how your connection fares during the busiest time of the day.
Australia’s consumer watchdog, the ACCC, is actively monitoring the performance of internet providers, and publishes a quarterly report detailing who the best and worst performers are across a range of conditions. The “typical evening speed” you see advertised on internet providers’ plans is a requirement imposed by the ACCC which providers have to be able to meet.
What is the Best Alternative to the NBN?
If you’re heading into this era of ever-increasing broadband demands for everything from TV entertainment to gaming to work, you’ll probably be looking forward to getting off ADSL (reliable though it may be) and onto something faster. If you get the choice, FTTB (Fibre to the Building) is currently delivering some of the fastest speeds in Australia at very competitive pricing, and we’d recommend you put it at the top of your list if you can get it. Otherwise, though, 4G/5G mobile broadband is well worth considering – Australia has some of the highest mobile speeds and lowest prices in the world, after all.
But do remember to take another look at the constantly updated NBN rollout map to see if your address has the NBN coming sooner than you think. When it arrives, it will open up a vast range of choice between providers, plans and pricing that’ll make sure you get the best internet for the best possible price.