The NBN and the teething problems it’s had might be giving consumers the realisation that not all Internet providers are equal – not even on a supposedly “equal access” network like the NBN was designed to be. But the reality is that for many years now, there’s been a real divide between two types of providers – those that spent huge sums of money to lay Internet infrastructure across the country, and those that pay one of those larger companies to “borrow” their national network to deliver broadband to customers from around Australia and across the globe.
Those national networks of fibre optic cables – known as “dark fibre” in the industry, because they have the capacity to spare for others to use – can make the difference between super-fast broadband and endless frustration. However, that depends on one main thing: how much bandwidth your Internet provider buys on their network of choice.
The Slow Old Days
Back when ADSL broadband connection was the only choice for most people (except for the lucky few that got access to faster cable broadband, supplied by only two companies), this wasn’t an issue for most. You signed up with an ISP and got your broadband, with the key point of difference being that some providers installed their own hardware in phone exchanges to deliver more reliable service without having to rent capacity from Telstra. And just as the NBN was getting off the ground, Netflix happened.
The much-publicised “Netflix effect” – where thousands of customers streaming their evening viewing at the same time could slow a provider’s network to a crawl – really brought the issue of congestion and network capacity into the limelight, where even now, controversy over claimed download speeds continues.
To some extent, that slowdown can be caused by your provider themselves – for example, if they don’t buy enough capacity on the NBN connection point you’re on to meet the peak hour demand – but that’s only part of the story. It’s those fibre networks that connect all those points to the wider Internet and the world that can make all the difference. NBN connection points are called PoIs or “Points of Interconnect” – and they function very much like the phone exchanges of the ADSL days did. There are 121 of them across Australia, and each one needs to be connected to the world by a very, very fast set of fibre cables.
Information Infrastructure Investment
Setting up a network like that is not cheap. In the ADSL days, iPrimus spent a truckload of money on getting fibre to as many exchanges as possible to keep speeds high and long-term costs low. These days, the bulk of Internet connectivity is handled by the fibre networks of four companies – Telstra, Optus, TPG and Vocus (who inherited iPrimus’ links when they bought the company).
If this makes you think there might be some advantage to going with one of those “big four” companies for your home NBN connection, you’d be right. As they own and control their own networks, those providers can give themselves as much “space” on their fibre cables as they need to, while also making a profit on the side by leasing space on them to other providers who don’t have a network of their own.
That gives the “big four” the ability to respond to congestion problems quickly, while other providers have to order more capacity on the network they lease from – and usually have to wait to get it.
Bigger Doesn’t Mean Faster
That doesn’t mean that going with one of those companies directly automatically means congestion-free broadband. Fast-growing independent ISP Aussie Broadband discovered that early on, when they initially leased capacity and hardware from Optus for most of their customer connections; they soon discovered that congestion on the Optus network was a growing problem, one which was leading Aussie’s customers to think the ISP was slow and congested.
They solved the problem by spending big on getting direct connections set up to all 121 PoIs – a massive undertaking for a small company – and then leasing network bandwidth from Telstra that was not shared with any other provider. The result is a reliable, fast network that doesn’t suffer from “peak slowdown,” but it was far from cheap for them to get to that point.
Finding out which backbone network your ISP uses can be difficult or impossible – and that’s a shame, as there are other advantages to specific networks as well, especially when it comes to overseas connectivity. When you connect to an overseas server, your data is sent from point to point until it gets there, and how long that takes depends on how long the journey is. This is especially important for online games, where that distance can cause big delays in your data getting to the other side and back again.
So, while one network might send your data to Los Angeles directly via the undersea cable from Sydney, another might opt to go via Asia first or take a longer trip around the US once it arrives there.
Can You Predict Speed?
Unfortunately, until you try an ISP yourself there’s no way to know for sure (aside, of course from reading customer reviews and comments on forums). The same goes for peak hour slowdown. And this is exactly why you should always prioritise providers that let you try their service without agreeing to a long contract.
Or you could go with one of the “Big Four” directly (with iPrimus and Dodo being the Vocus retail brands, and iiNet & Internode falling under the TPG umbrella). You’ll know exactly what network you’ll be getting – and at least in theory, removing that backbone connection as a potential slow-down point. You’ll still have to contend with the potential problem of the ISP not buying enough capacity at your connection point, though that’s becoming far less of an issue now thanks to NBN price cuts and ACCC intervention.
Just remember – as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And in the new NBN world, there’s no such thing as a super-cheap unlimited plan that’s also both fast and congestion-free. We’ll get there eventually. But for now, remember that it’s worth paying a bit extra to go with a provider that delivers a great quality service.