Article updated August 2017 to add HFC to the NBN connection methods now being used for the rollout.
While almost everyone will have heard to the National Broadband Network – the NBN – through the many news reports on its progress over the past few years, there’s still confusion about what it is, what it’s for, when it will be completed and how it’s going to affect the way you connect to the internet of the future.
For years now, you will have been connecting to the internet via either your home phone line or the pay TV cable network that runs past your premises. The vast majority of people are connected via the former method, using a technology called ADSL. It works, and it can be reasonably fast – but ADSL has many disadvantages. It relies on aging copper phone lines that were never designed to carry high-speed data, and as a result it’s prone to slowdowns or outages caused by faulty phone lines, being a long distance from the nearest phone exchange, or even the weather. Cable internet is more reliable, but comes with its own problems – not least, a very slow upload speed, and the need to share the available speed with everyone else on the same stretch of cable.
And then there’s the delays in getting connected. ADSL connections require a technician to visit a phone exchange and plug you in, and that can take weeks to happen. Cable, meanwhile, restricts you to one of two ISPs, and locks you into their services.
The National Broadband Network, NBN, was designed to change all this. Run by a Government-owned company not connected with any of the telcos, it treats all customers as equals regardless of which ISP you’re with, and it’s designed in such a way that getting connected (or changing ISPs) can be done almost immediately. It’s also designed to be fast – especially in its original form as an all-fibre network – and to deliver these decently fast speeds to all Australians rather than the lucky few.
While the internet is the prime reason for the NBN rollout, it will also replace the current landline phone system – though don’t worry, your existing phones will work just fine on the NBN. You can check to see if you have access to the speedy internet via our NBN Rollout Map.
Same NBN, Different Delivery
For those in capital cities and major centres, there’s four different technologies now being used to roll out the NBN – and which one you’re getting will depend on where you live. Each method connects to the exact same network, but what it can do for you in terms of speed will vary depending on which you have. All of these methods are able to provide speeds that outdo an ADSL connection, regardless of how far from a phone exchange you live. The four options are:
Fibre to the Premises (FTTP)
The original technology planned for the entire NBN rollout, this runs optical fibre cable down the street and into every home and business. Fibre has huge advantages – it’s incredibly fast, it works over long distances, it’s immune to the weather and it lasts for decades. This is the most expensive method, though, in terms of installation, as it requires techs to do works on your property to get the fibre cable inside. These days, FTTP is only being rolled out for brand new housing estates and apartment buildings.
Fibre to the Node (FTTN)
This one involves running fibre cables down streets to large metal cabinets on the footpath (the “node”). The regular phone lines already in place are connected to these boxes, and customers receive their broadband using a special high-speed version of ADSL, known as VDSL. Not as fast as FTTP, and with slower upload speeds, it’s also faster and cheaper to install, and doesn’t require new lines to be installed into properties.
Fibre to the Basement (FTTB)
This is the favoured method of getting the NBN into existing apartment buildings and flats. It’s similar to FTTN, in that the fibre cable is run to a central “node”, but in this case one located inside the building itself. That node is then connected to existing cables inside the building – though in some cases, FTTB installs can use faster Ethernet cables instead of copper phone lines. But the relatively short copper cable distance makes this method a very fast option for apartment dwellers, capable of speeds that match the full-fibre version of the NBN.
People in remote areas, meanwhile, will have alternative options including fixed wireless and satellite for their NBN access.
Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial (HFC)
Now the preferred method of NBN connection for homes where the Telstra/Foxtel cable exists in the street, HFC is the name of the tech that’s been used by Telstra for cable broadband for many years. It’s similar to FTTN except that the cable from the box in the street to your home is a thick coaxial cable that’s far less prone to speed loss. NBNco is taking ownership of these cables and upgrading them for faster speeds – and more importantly, for direct connection to the NBN, meaning that you’ll have your choice of ISP for fast cable broadband rather than being restricted to Telstra. While Optus also built a HFC cable network as part of its rollout years ago, that network won’t be used for the NBN.
While there are those who might insist they don’t need a Broadband internet plan, the reality is that it makes every user’s life much better – even if you’re not interested in the fastest speed available. Reliability is high – no more dropouts or slowdowns when it rains – and the increased speed makes everything you do online more responsive and smooth. It’s the sort of thing you need to try to really appreciate, and once you have, there’s no going back!
More reliable downstream speed also means that you can subscribe to streaming TV services with confidence, knowing that the dreaded “buffering” issues are going to be a thing of the past (barring technical issues on the provider’s end, and of course assuming that your chosen ISP is providing enough capacity to meet peak demand).
And higher upload speeds – especially with FTTP – means that uploading photos or videos to share with friends is smooth and seamless, and also helps prevent your connection from stalling due to lack of upload capacity (every downstream connection also needs its share of upstream to talk back to the server at the other end).
And, as we mentioned, you have your choice of ISP and can change at any time (choice of Broadband offering permitting, of course) without needing to put up with no internet at all for a week or two while you wait for your new connection to be plugged in at the exchange.
There’s been some suggestion of dumping FTTN in favour of a newer technology called FTTdP – Fibre to the Distribution Point. This would run the fibre cable to right outside the front of your premises, and then connect to you via the existing copper phone wires. This method can achieve phenomenally fast speeds without needing to install cables into every building, and if it’s adopted for the NBN, it’ll be hugely beneficial for everyone. And that’s because the future is “gigabit” – an internet connection ten times faster than the fastest fibre connection you can obtain today. Sounds like overkill? Well, look at it this way: as our lives move more and more online, we’re going to be seeing many services doing the same. TV networks will inevitably move online, as will pay TV. Home automation is going to be a big thing in the future and a fast internet connection will be vital. 4k video streaming is here now, with 8k around the corner; virtual reality is now very much a thing you can buy, and will expand outside of the gaming world it’s currently marketed at.
The whole idea of gigabit is simple – you never want to be constrained by your broadband connection. It should always be fast enough for anything you want to do, and gigabit speeds deliver that. Not to mention, that Game of Thrones episode in HD that you bought from iTunes would take only 18 seconds to download and be ready to watch. A feature film would take under a minute. The internet, in other words, stops being a barrier and becomes a utility as dependable as turning on a water tap.