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Understanding your Alternatives to the NBN

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.

But for those who’ve still got months – or even years – to wait before the NBN comes to them, what’s the alternative to struggling with a slow ADSL connection while the lucky ones get the fast download speeds?

Believe it or not, there are actually several other options if you can’t get the NBN – and while they won’t compete on a price-per-gigabyte scale, they’re surprisingly affordable regardless.

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4G Broadband

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 of data allowances with most mobile plans is not going to be sufficient for even the most modest use of the stuff we love – streaming video in particular.

Some providers, though, have moved into the 4G data plan business – and that’s where it gets interesting.

Through their acquisition of Vivid Wireless – formerly a provider of fixed wireless services (more on those in a minute) – Optus has thrown down the gauntlet with what would seem like the holy grail of 4G broadband – unlimited data. The Vivid Wireless unlimited plan costs $90 per month, and yes, they really do mean unlimited data.

Is there a catch? Absolutely. You’re limited to 12 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload – in other words, about the equivalent of a full-speed ADSL1 connection. But for those whose ADSL speeds were way, way below that, this is a very tasty alternative that you can have right away – with no contract – for $90 a month. There’s also a cheaper $70/month plan but it offers only 200GB, which is best suited to those who don’t use more data-intensive things like streaming video.

You get a 4G modem as part of the deal, too, so it’s really a case of sign up and go.

Over at Telstra, the 4G broadband is much faster and comes with a choice of very high-tech 4G modems, but here’s where the speed versus data limit equation comes into play. $45 a month gets you only 30GB, and the plans top out at 50GB – for $70 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.

Fixed Wireless

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.

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 $75 a month for 25 Mbps to $120 per month for 100 Mbps – yep, that’s the same speed as fibre NBN. Data is unlimited on all plans.

The connection is also symmetrical – which means your download speed and upload speed are the same.

The catch? Well, there’s installation costs involved, and because it 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 Basement

The NBN uses FTTB – basically, running fibre into a building then 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.

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 – 5G

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.

But down the track, it is entirely likely we’ll see very fast, high-data-cap 5G plans come onto the market – and for those stuck without NBN, they might be a godsend.

Until then, though, the NBN alternatives that are currently available are doing a great job of filling the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

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