It’s been a tumultuous time for the NBN, with endless negative media coverage about delays and technical problems, customer complaints about unreliable connections and slow speeds, plus a hold placed on a large part of the network rollout while issues are addressed.
So is it all bad news when it comes to the NBN right now?
Thankfully, no. Despite the major technical challenges brought on by the complete change in policy since the last change of government – where all all-fibre network rollout was stopped in its tracks and converted to a mixed-technology one – the rollout of the NBN has been picking up speed and the network now reaches millions of people.
This is, after all, a huge undertaking – to completely replace the telecommunications infrastructure of the entire country in only a few years. The old copper phone network we’ve grown to rely on took many decades to roll out – but of course, that was in an era where the internet didn’t exist, and the only measure of quality was whether you could hear the person on the other end of the phone line or not.
Regardless of the disappointment many feel about the abandoning of the all-fibre model for the NBN, the company has been making solid progress with getting people connected via the most appropriate technology for their area – and that means Fibre to the Node in most cases, along with HFC (the coaxial cable that Telstra installed for Foxtel years ago) and fixed wireless for more remote areas, with the possibility now being brought up of introducing Fibre to the Curb (FTTC) – which will bring the optical fibre cable right up to the boundary of properties and potentially give individuals the opportunity to inexpensively make the connection into their homes a fibre one as well.
One of the oft-heard complaints about the NBN is that it slows down drastically in peak hours, especially evenings. That’s a complex issue that has more than one possible cause. Most commonly, though, the issue has been the way the NBN sets the prices that internet providers have to pay to connect to the NBN. Put simply, ISPs pay on a basis of a certain amount of megabits per user. Even if you have a 100 megabit connection, your allocation is more likely to be 1-2 megabits – and the presumption is that not everyone will be using the internet and downloading at the same time, so nobody notices.
That all got sent a little south with the massive growth of streaming, especially Netflix. Suddenly everyone’s evening TV was being sent down the internet, and if too many of an ISP’s users are doing so at the same time, they all suffer from a slower connection as the ISP has a limit on the total data speed they can deliver across all their customers at one time.
NBN has now taken steps to fix this. Part of the issue was the cost to ISPs making providing more bandwidth unprofitable; NBN has encouraged ISPs to switch customers onto faster 50 Mbps plans, and provided big data boosts and discounts to make it worthwhile. That’s why you’ll likely see your ISP offering cheap or even free upgrades to a faster plan – on that faster plan, you get better service and the ISP makes more money. Everyone wins!
NBN’s effort to restructure how all that back-end stuff works is still ongoing, and more changes are coming; all you need to know is that the end result should be you getting faster speeds for the same (or even less) money.
The NBN Rollout – Where’s It At?
Let’s take a quick look at the various technologies at play with the current NBN, and where things are in terms of rollout. As of February 1st 2018, NBN had connected 3.5 million properties to the network, with 6.2 million ready to connect – in other words, it’s getting close to the half-way mark and accelerating.
Fibre to the Node (FTTN)
The initial go-to technology for the revised NBN, FTTN has been criticized for its reliance on ageing and unreliable copper phone lines to make the connection from a node box in the street to each individual property. NBN has been looking at alternatives, the main candidate reportedly being Fibre to the Curb, where fibre optic cable runs right up to the front of your property. It’s seen as a good compromise, especially since connecting directly to fibre in a FTTN area could otherwise land you a bill in the tens of thousands of dollars.
HFC (Pay TV Cable)
As many, many long-time users of cable broadband will attest, it’s a fast and mostly reliable way to get connected to the internet – and NBN plans to leverage the existing Telstra HFC cables to do just that, eventually upgrading them to the latest cable tech that’ll significantly boost speeds. The initial rollout has had its issues, though, and NBN has temporarily suspended new HFC connections until they sort out the problems people have encountered.
That means if your property was slated for an HFC connection to the NBN, you’re going to have to wait until the second half of this year while things get resolved. There have been rumours that some HFC areas might end up with Fibre to the Curb instead, which would be a big improvement.
People in more remote areas – and that can include sparsely populated urban areas – get a fixed wireless connection that involves an antenna outside your home sending and receiving data from a local NBN tower. The tech is fast and mature – but it wasn’t necessarily designed for mass uptake in the Netflix age. As a result there’s a few heavily congested towers that can be a frustration for anyone connected to one. NBN’s goal is to fix it; the problem is it’ll take time, as additional towers and infrastructure take a while to build.
Fibre to the Premises (FTTP)
It’s still around, and in use in many inner city areas as well as those lucky areas that got it before the policy change. FTTP is still the “gold standard” when it comes to fast NBN broadband, and there are still new developments and buildings having it installed. The biggest issue FTTP customers face is ISP congestion, something easily solved by switching ISPs.
Fibre to the Basement/Building (FTTB)
Done well, FTTB can actually be faster than current FTTP services, and many inner-city buildings make use of this type of connection – it’s very much like FTTN, but the “node” is private to the building and the copper run to each apartment is short (and in many cases done with Ethernet which eliminates quality issues).
As 2018 rolls on, the NBN continues to be controversial – but thankfully, most of the major issues are in the process of being sorted out, especially the biggest one – congestion. We’re not quite there yet, but ISPs are being given a lot more room to provide a quality service at a decent price, and the various technical issues with the different modes of delivery are being actively worked on.
The NBN at the start of 2018 is still very much a work in progress, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. How this year’s federal election will change things, well, that’s for the future to decide!