NBN Vs ADSL – Is the Copper Phone Line Still an Option?


In the ten long years since it was first set in motion, you’ve probably heard so much about the NBN that you’re not sure whether it’s meant to be the next big thing for your home and work broadband, or just an expensive idea that still hasn’t done anything to make your internet life better.

Originally designed as a next-generation replacement for the entire country’s ancient copper phone network, the National Broadband Network was set in motion with the idea of connecting almost everyone with fibre optic cable, bringing immediate improvement and huge scope for later speed upgrades. But as you probably noticed, politics got in the way, and a change of government meant a change in the design of the NBN. The new plan was to use older technologies to roll the network out faster and at lower cost. Perhaps not surprisingly, it hasn’t worked out that way.

As we approach the long-delayed finish to the NBN rollout – now set for some time in 2020 – huge numbers of homes and businesses still don’t have access to the network. And some of those that have been switched over to the NBN have been less than impressed with the difference it’s made to their broadband speeds and connection quality. Many of them are likely thinking back to the days of good old ADSL with fondness.

But is the NBN really falling that short of expectations? And is ADSL really up to the challenge of rivalling the NBN for speed and reliability?

NBN vs ADSL: The Choice

The first thing we need to mention here is that, for most people, if there’s a choice available between staying with ADSL (or connecting using it) and switching to the NBN, it will be a short-term choice. Sooner or later, the NBN rollout in your area will have been completed and declared “ready for service.” You’ll get a letter in the mail advising you of that fact, and from that point, you have 18 months left – a year and a half – before your old phone line and ADSL service is cut off.

So while there is a choice to be made in the short term, eventually, like it or not, you’re getting the NBN. However, with a year and a half up your sleeve you’ve got a bit of breathing space to hold off on that NBN switch if you’re happy with what you’ve got now. If you’re moving into a place that still has ADSL, it’s up to the seller or landlord to give you a heads-up about whether the NBN is ready to be installed, and you might just want to stick with ADSL in the meantime while everything sorts itself out.

Not that there’s any reason to fear the NBN, assuming all goes well for your installation. With a properly working NBN installation and a good internet provider, you’re almost certain to see a noticeable boost to internet speed – faster downloads, faster uploads. You’ll also have access to a far greater range of internet providers, all competing for your business with some very keen pricing.

But the NBN change-over doesn’t always go smoothly for everyone, and that’s not completely unexpected. After all, this is already a project that set out to replace every single phone line in Australia – and with the later change to using a mix of cheaper technologies, there’s been more opportunity for things to go wrong.

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The Rollout Headache

With the NBN set to be installed in every home and business in Australia, one thing was an early indication that it might take longer than expected – the need to run new fibre optic cables into existing homes, businesses and apartment buildings, and install the equipment that made it all work on the customer’s end. That was expensive, sure – a necessary expense that would have been worth it in the long term – but it was also difficult. In many cases it meant digging trenches across lawns, drilling holes in walls, and negotiating with property owners even before work could begin.

The change to a mix of older technologies made the rollout theoretically simpler – for most people, the NBN would now simply connect to the existing copper phone line in your home, using fibre for most of the trip but saving time and money by using the existing home wires. The potential problems there mostly stem from the condition of those wires (some are very old and in poor condition) and the distance they have to run until they get to fast fibre cable.

That means the speed and performance you can expect from the NBN depends on a whole bunch of factors – the type of install you have being the major one. And the major problem install type is also one of the most common – Fibre to the Node, or FTTN. This is a setup where fibre cable runs to a box in (or near) your street, acting like a mini phone exchange which your home phone line connects to. Because those phone lines must carry both the NBN and the old ADSL signals on them for the 18-month changeover period, NBN services tend to be a lot slower than they eventually will be. SO much so, in fact, that ADSL can be faster.

ADSL – Fast and Reliable, If You’re Lucky

Tried and tested over many years, ADSL has served Australians well – and even as it nears its complete retirement, it still provides a stable, reliable broadband connection for millions of people. The thing about ADSL, though, is that it comes with a few inherent problems, many of which the NBN is intended to fix. For starters, connecting to ADSL requires someone to physically visit your local phone exchange to plug in a cable. That means getting connected can take up to a couple of weeks, and it can severely limit your choice of internet providers as well. Regional customers will know well how ADSL costs more for them than it does for city people, because the only ADSL equipment in many areas has to be rented from Telstra.

ADSL’s biggest issue, though, is the direct relationship the length of your phone line has to the top download speed you can get. The further you are from your phone exchange – and remember, phone lines often take long underground routes to get there – the slower your connection. If you’re one of the few lucky enough to live within a few hundred metres of your exchange, you’ll be able to get up to 24 Mbps download speed – easily good enough for 4K Netflix streaming. But you’ll also be the exception rather than the rule – most people see a fraction of that speed on ADSL, often in the realm of 5 Mbps or less.

Fibre to the Node NBN also depends on how far from the exchange you are – but it brings the “exchange” to your street. There’s still a difference in speed depending how far away you are from the box in your street, but everyone should see faster speeds overall, especially once ADSL is switched off.

And remember, ADSL has to travel a lot further on wires that have probably lain underground for decades – corroded, possibly water-damaged, and prone to introducing quality problems (and therefore slower speeds and dropouts) when it rains. With FTTN, at least the very short length of phone line limits the potential for things to go wrong!

Should You Choose ADSL Now?

Assuming you have a choice, ADSL can still be a smart move if the cut-off date for the NBN is still a while away. For one thing, because it uses existing lines and connections – and whatever existing ADSL modem you’ve got hanging around – it can be quick, easy and simple from the customer’s point of view. Just call to get it connected, wait a bit, then you’re online. This is, of course, especially preferable for renters, since any installation of new NBN equipment means getting landlord approval.

Many internet providers who offer ADSL plans these days also make it easy to switch to the NBN when the time comes, while keeping your existing account – they handle the transition for you. So you can get the best of both worlds – easy connection now, then a managed switch over to the NBN when the cut-off date approaches.

What about the NBN?

On the other hand, though, it’s well worth weighing up the benefits of going straight to the NBN if you have the option. Yes, there may be teething problems once it’s installed – but there can be with ADSL as well, especially when it comes to the quality of the home phone line. Opting to go straight to the NBN will give you a vastly larger choice of internet providers, and potentially cheaper pricing depending on what speed you want to pay for.

Despite the bad press about the NBN – which is mostly related to rollout delays and pricing for providers, anyway – the network is working extremely well, and there are millions of people enjoying substantially faster broadband speeds on it (the average is now approaching 50 Mbps). Pick a quality internet provider and you’ll likely have a good experience overall.

Say Goodbye to That Modem

One thing that will change when you switch to the NBN – no matter what type of connection you get – is that your existing ADSL modem won’t work on the new network. Your internet provider can sell you one that will (and in many cases will give it to you for free as part of your plan). And you might be able to give the old modem new use as an extra home wi-fi access point – or even continue using it purely as a router.

Can You Switch Back to ADSL?

If you get connected to the NBN and start missing that trusty old ADSL connection – even though it was probably not much more reliable and nowhere near as fast – you might be thinking of cutting g your losses and switching back to ADSL for the time being. Unfortunately, you can’t – and that’s set in stone. Once your home or business switches to the NBN, the old phone line ceases to exist and cannot be switched back over. That sounds daunting – and for some, is a good enough reason to stay with ADSL until the last minute – but chances are, once everything’s set up and working, you’ll end up happy with a faster, more reliable broadband connection.

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