Understanding NBN Broadband Tiers: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

There’s a lot of confusion around about the NBN at the moment – understandable, considering how it’s been reworked and remodelled over the past few years since the current government took over the project. Whether it’s the technologies being used (a normal-person-unfriendly set of terms like FTTP, FTTC, FTTN, and so on) or the constantly evolving state of the national rollout, the NBN can be a difficult beast to understand.

With the rollout now progressing at a fast pace (though temporarily on hold for those who were to be connected via Foxtel’s pay TV cables), we’re seeing a skyrocketing number of people moving over to the new network. If you’re one of them, and you’ve browsed the websites of potential new ISPs to pick one that gives you good value, you’ve probably run into a choice between different speed tiers.

Usually quoted as a pair of numbers, the various speed tiers available on the NBN differ depending on the technology you’re using to connect to the network. But do know that there’s one common truth: the cheapest plan you see will almost certainly be the slowest when it comes to both downloads and uploads.

So what are these “tiers” exactly, and why do they exist? After all, you’ve been happily connecting to broadband for years via ADSL and paying based on the data included with your plan – the actual download and upload speed was entirely up to how good your phone line was and how far from the exchange you lived.

NBN Broadband Plans

Unlimited Data
  • Free BINGE Standard for 3 months
  • Online bonus: 20,000 Telstra Plus points
  • Unlimited Data
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • Up to 40Mbps Standard Plus Evening
  • Unlimited Data
  • NBN 50™ Fixed Line
  • Buy online: no connection fee
  • #1 provider to stream Netflix
  • $90/mth
Min Cost - $2,160 when you stay connected for 24 months, and may change if the month-to-month plan price changes

nbn™ Unlimited Broadband Turbo
  • nbn™ Unlimited Broadband Turbo
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • Up to 40Mbps Standard Plus Evening
  • Unlimited Data
  • NBN 50™ Fixed Line
  • Ideal for households of 3-4
  • For gaming & video streaming
  • $75/mth
Min Cost - $75 over 1 month

Unlimited 100/20Mbps Flexi
  • Unlimited 100/20Mbps Flexi
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • Up to 80Mbps Premium Evening
  • Unlimited Data
  • NBN 100™ Fixed Line
  • BYO Modem
  • Great plan for a larger household
  • $89/mth
Min Cost - $89 over 1 month

NBN Sky Muster - 200GB Sonic
  • PlayOn Cloud free for 3 months
  • NBN Sky Muster - 200GB Sonic
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • Up to 20Mbps Standard Evening
  • 200GB Data
  • NBN 25™ Satellite
  • 65GB peak, 135GB off peak data
  • No excess usage
  • $54.95/mth
Min Cost - $54.95 per month

Unlimited Data nbn50 Month to Month
  • Unlimited Data nbn50 Month to Month
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • Up to 40Mbps Standard Plus Evening
  • Unlimited Data
  • NBN 50™ Fixed Line
  • Landline w/ pay as you go calls
  • Add Fetch from $10/mth with 1 free channel pack
  • $75/mth
Min Cost - $189 over 1 month ($99 setup & modem + $15 P&H included)

Last audited 14 September 2020

With the NBN, the potential maximum speed of your connection can be extremely high, with 100 Megabits per second if you have fibre running right into your home, for example. That’s fast enough for six simultaneous 4K streams on Netflix and fast enough to download a new game for your console in minutes rather than hours or even days. Heck, it’s even faster than your computer’s hard disk capability to copy a file.

That maximum speed is pretty much only guaranteed on FTTP (Fibre to the Premises) by the way – other technologies involve some length of copper wire or cable that can limit the top speed of your connection. But the NBN, as a whole, is designed around the idea that there’s the potential to go very fast, but that most people won’t want or need to.

There are lots of technical reasons for the way things are set up in speed tiers, but for end users like you and I, it comes down to one thing – cost. The NBN was set up to make a profit by giving everyone reasonably cheap broadband access and charging extra to those who want more speed. Just like with the much-publicised “peak hour slowdown” that some providers had to deal with when they didn’t supply a fat enough pipe to handle the sudden growth of streaming services like Netflix, the NBN itself has to fit everyone’s data within downpipes that aren’t designed to deal with everyone downloading at top speed at the same time.

But wait, now isn’t that a bit limited for a network that’s the future of broadband in Australia? Well, no. In reality, most people don’t even come close to using the full capacity of their broadband connection most of the time and the NBN is designed to handle the kind of evening demand that Netflix brings (as long as your ISP has also planned for it!).

The Numbers

When you’re shopping for an internet provider, you’ll often see NBN plans with a pair of numbers for each tier – like 12/1 or 100/40. Those numbers are the top speed of the connection you’ll get in megabits per seconds – download/upload. Some providers have dropped the use of these numbers and instead opted for descriptions like “normal” and “fast”. But no matter which provider you choose, you’ll be picking one of a set of speed tiers.

These range from 12/1 to 100/40 for most providers – though some, such as Aussie Broadband and MyRepublic, are experimenting with faster tiers (which are very expensive for the average user). So which one should you go for?

In an ideal world, if you’re connected with fibre right into your home, you can pick any of the tiers and know that’s the speed you’ll get. With fibre to the node, HFC, and other technologies, there are limits to how fast you can go depending on your location and connection quality. Keep this in mind when choosing a plan on those connections and ask the provider if they can give you an idea of the maximum speed your connection will be able to handle.

Speed TierIdeal Usage
12/1Web browsing, email, Facebook
HD streaming, online gaming
50/204K streaming, photo and video uploading
100/40Multiple users streaming 4K, uploading, etc
250/100 and higherCloud backups, super-fast downloads

Free Upgrades!

One of the drawbacks with the 12/1 tier (and even the 25/5 one, to some extent) is how limited the upload speed is. That can have a noticeable effect if you’re doing more than one thing at a time. For example, if your phone is uploading all its photos and videos to the cloud, that upload can slow your downloads noticeably. Fortunately for 2018, the NBN has changed their pricing to make the 50/20 tier the same price as the 25/5 one for providers, which simply means that the cost-saving gets passed on to customers. The 50/20 tier is being offered by some ISPs as a free automatic upgrade, while others have reduced their prices but require you to take the step to change your plan.

It’s very much worth doing even if you think your connection is fast enough right now. It also makes that 50/20 tier the sweet spot in terms of value versus speed. It’s plenty fast enough to handle anything Netflix can throw at it, but not so fast that you’ll be asked to pay a premium to access it.

Which Tier is for You?

Ultimately, you’re the best judge of what you need from your broadband connection – it all depends on how you use the Internet – and perhaps, also how you’d like to. If you’ve been happy up till now with ADSL and don’t care about uploads, that base 12/1 tier will probably suit you just fine when you get switched to the NBN (if your ISP still offers it). But if you’ve been looking for faster downloads, easier video uploading, or effortless HD and 4K streaming, head straight for the faster tiers if the budget allows it. And of course, if your NBN connection can support it!

Frequently Asked Questions about NBN

  • What is the NBN?

For many years, Australia depended on a network of phone lines owned by Telstra, and broadband equipment owned by a handful of companies, for both home phone and internet services. Not only was it slow, it limited consumers’ choice of providers. The NBN – National Broadband Network – replaces that with a high-speed national network for all communications, which all providers can offer services on. That keeps prices down – and thanks to newer technology, speeds are faster than ever possible before.

  • Is the NBN in My Area?

The rollout of the NBN, started in 2010, is almost complete – so by now, most areas and households have either been switched over to it, or have access to it. There are a handful of properties around Australia that still can’t get the NBN, but even those will gain access eventually. You can check your NBN access and the type of connection you have using our interactive NBN rollout map.

  • How Do I Connect to the NBN?

Once the NBN is available in your area, you should get a letter in the mail letting you know you can switch over. At that point you can either contact your current provider to make the switch, or choose a new one – it’s good to compare NBN providers and plans before making a decision, as there are many great-value deals available.

  • Do my Phone and Broadband Have to be With the Same Provider on the NBN?

Yes, usually they do. With the old copper phone network shutting down, your home phone will now work on the same connection as your NBN broadband and will need to be provided by the company that delivers your broadband. That’s not a bad thing – usually, you’ll find the home phone line is included at no extra charge. If you’re on Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) or Fixed Wireless NBN, you can have home phone and broadband with different providers, but the cost of doing so makes it better to stick with the one provider.

  • How Do I Know if the NBN is Down?

As a vast national network, the NBN itself is designed to never be “down” completely (though occasional technical problems can crop up). However, if you’re unable to access your NBN internet service it’s entirely possible that the NBN connection point you’re on may be having an outage, or your internet provider may be having technical issues. Your first port of call is your internet provider’s support line – they have access to all the info about the NBN and can tell you if there’s an outage and how long it may last, or get things fixed if there’s a fault in your service.

  • How do I Get an NBN Connection Box?

When the NBN is installed at your home or business, the NBN technicians will install all the things needed to get the connection into your home. Depending on your connection type, they will also possibly install a device known as a NTD where the connection enters the building, which is what you connect your modem or router to. With Fibre to the Curb connections, the NTD will usually be supplied by your internet provider, but sometimes may be installed when you have the NBN connected. In either case, it’s provided free of charge.

  • How Does the NBN Work?

A vast broadband network that stretch across the entire country, the NBN works as a central hub that all internet providers can connect to via any of 121 connection points around the continent. It provides the pipelines and computing power needed to move data to and from each of those connection points, sending it to and receiving it from your chosen broadband provider. It’s an incredibly complex network that’s designed to be, for the end user, as simple as plugging a modem or router into a socket on the wall.

  • Do You Need a Phone Line for the NBN?

The NBN replaces the old copper phone network, and with it, your traditional phone line is also replaced. However, with some NBN technologies – Fibre to the Node, Fibre to the Curb and Fibre to the Building – existing phone lines are used to carry the NBN data from the street into your home. Because this is a far shorter length of traditional phone line, much faster speeds can be reached. When the NBN is installed at your place, the NBN technicians will make the needed changes to your phone line so it’ll work with the NBN.

  • How Fast is the NBN?

While so far, most NBN connections have been limited to the NBN 100 tier as the top speed – that’s 100 Mbps downloads and 40 Mbps uploads – in 2020, new speed tiers were released, offering download speeds of 250 Mbps and 1000 Mbps (also known as “gigabit”). However, these speeds aren’t available for everyone just yet – in most cases, upgrades need to be made to the network to enable them for customers, and internet providers need to choose to offer them (at the moment, only a few do).

  • Is the NBN Compulsory?

While you’re not required to have a NBN broadband connection or home phone if you don’t want one, the old copper phone network is being decommissioned and you will lose access to it once that happens in your area, making the NBN the only choice for wired broadband and phone. That’s not a bad thing, since it gives all consumers much more choice and cheaper prices, and the ability to switch providers easily without a lengthy waiting period.

  • What Type of NBN Do I Have?

There are several types of NBN in use around Australia, and which one you get depends on your location – you can’t choose which type you get. All connect to the same NBN in different ways and have different advantages and capabilities. To find out which type you have, search for your address on any NBN internet provider’s web site – it will instantly show you which connection type you have.

  • Who Owns the NBN?

The NBN was a project started by the Rudd government a decade ago, and then modified and finished by the current government, as a publicly owned asset. At the moment, the NBN is still 100% government owned and run, but the longer-term plan has always been to sell it to recoup the huge cost of building it. While that will eventually happen, for the immediate future the NBN remains in public hands.

  • Why is my NBN So Slow?

If you’re experiencing slow or unreliable broadband on the NBN, the actual NBN network is unlikely to be the problem. It’s possible your internet provider may be having technical issues or suffering from congestion, so call them first. It’s also possible that you’re suffering from a local fault, either with the cable out in your street or the cabling in your home; you ISP can help you diagnose that. If you’re using wi-fi, make sure you test your connection using a computer plugged into your modem/router via Ethernet first – wi-fi is notoriously prone to interference causing slowdowns.

  • Bundling TV with NBN Internet Plans

TV and the internet are closely connected these days, and there are plenty of options if you’re looking to get some entertainment with your internet connection. Fetch TV can be added to unlimited plans from several providers (like iPrimus, mentioned above) or if you’re more of a streaming user, Telstra’s bundle pulling together a Telstra TV box, free months of Binge and Foxtel Now, a home phone and unlimited broadband is TV value that’s hard to beat for $99/month. Telstra also offers well-priced bundles with Foxtel included. You can check out all the latest TV and internet bundles on our comparison page.

  • What is the Cheapest NBN Internet Plan?

If money’s tight and you’re looking to get connected to the internet without breaking the bank, don’t worry – there are affordable plans available, and while they won’t break speed records, they’ll keep you connected just as well. Belong Broadband – which uses the Telstra network – has its Starter plan available for only $55/month, which gives you slightly more than NBN25 speed. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that – and they include a wi-fi modem too.

  • What is the Best NBN Internet Plan?

What’s best overall is going to depend on your specific needs, but the plan which gives the most bang for your buck is Telstra’s NBN50 Unlimited Data plan. It bundles a fast, reliable connection, a modem with 4G backup, a home phone with unlimited calls, free connection and three months of free Binge (more if you join Telstra Plus!)

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