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
  • Free Foxtel Now for 1 month
  • 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
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
  • $65/mth for 6 mths! Ends 31 July
  • 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
Min Cost - $65/mth, for 6 months. $75/mth afterwards.

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
Min Cost - $89 over 1 month

NBN Sky Muster - 200GB Sonic
  • PlayOn Cloud free for 3 months
  • No Lock-in Contract
  • Up to 20Mbps Standard Evening
  • 200GB Data
  • NBN 25™ Satellite
  • 60GB peak, 140GB off peak data
  • No excess usage
Min Cost - $54.95 per month

Last audited 27 June 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!


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