At the end of 2016, Australia had grown to a population of 24.3 million people. And as fast as that number has grown over past years, the percentage of people who have access to the Internet at home has exploded at a far faster rate. The latest census data makes a well-educated estimate of 13.4 million broadband subscribers. Bear in mind, many of those are used by multiple people, such as broadband services used by families or share houses. As more people are going online, it’s important to understand the different types of connections available, as well the pros and cons of each one. We’re here to help.
Broadband is a truly massive growth area, even today. 2016 alone saw an extra 4.7% added to the total number of broadband customers. What was most remarkable, however, was the number of customers connected to fibre internet, which grew by 122% in a year. The reason for this, of course, is the rollout of the NBN, which has been increasingly picking up speed recently – despite all the arguments about which technology it should use.
And yes, there’s been a lot of politics involved in how the NBN’s rolled out. As a result, multiple different types of broadband connections are available in Australia at the moment. Which ones are available to you depends entirely on where you live. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a choice between them. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll have been part of the initial full-fibre rollout that was abandoned with the change of government.
But what actually are all these different types of broadband connection? What do all those confusing initialisms – FTTP, FTTB, HFC and so on – mean? Wonder no more. We’re going to give you all the info you need about each type and explain what it means for you.
At the very base level, you are choosing between four different connection types – dial-up, ADSL, Cable (via Telstra or Optus) and the all-encompassing NBN. Once the NBN arrives in your street, you’ll be told when it’s being installed and what type of connection you’re going to get. You have no say in what that NBN connection is, unfortunately. But in theory, at least, it should be an improvement on what you have now. The other connection types are being phased out – more or less. Dial-up internet is gone completely, aside from a few enthusiast services. ADSL will disappear in stages as the NBN takes over areas gradually, but is still dominant today. And cable is staying as cable – but a new, upgraded cable.
This was the plan for most of the NBN as originally designed. With FTTP, a fibre optic cable runs directly from a central exchange to your actual home, giving you a high-speed link directly to the global internet. Because it uses light to transmit data from start to finish, it can hold great speeds over long distances. FTTP installations are capable of 1 gigabit per second today. That’s ten times the fastest actual available speed. It’s not offered by ISPs as the way the NBN currently charges for connections would make is ridiculously expensive.
With a FTTP NBN connection, you don’t need a modem, just a router (though your typical current modem/router combo will work just fine as long as it has a WAN port). The heavy lifting is done by what’s known as a Network Termination Device, or NTD – it converts the beam of laser light back into data and sends it to your home network.
FTTP connections are reliable, fast and, most importantly, deliver the advertised speed every time. If you pay for 100Mbps, you’ll get 100Mbps. However, note that your choice of ISP will be the deciding factor in what speed you actually get, especially at peak times. If you’re living in a home or apartment that has FTTP, you’ve got the current best-in-class broadband service. Feel lucky!
Fibre to the Building (FTTB)
This is sometimes also referred to as “Fibre to the Basement.” That’s because it was originally used for older apartment buildings where running fibre optic cable to every residence would be impossibly expensive. Hence, fibre was run to a special router in the basement of the building, then sent to each apartment. Now, FTTB is used as a default technology even in new multi-dwelling buildings. The fibre optic cable from the nearest NBN exchange runs to a point inside the building where it’s converted to a copper-compatible digital signal for each apartment. Then, it’s sent via the existing copper phone lines already in the building.
That sounds horrible – old copper phone lines, right? But FTTB can produce startlingly fast results for residents – results that sometimes outpace the 100Mbps FTTP version of the NBN. Done right, FTTB is a perfect connection type for apartments. The only downside is that you need a modem/router that can do a connection called VDSL – and most ADSL modem/routers can’t. More and more are coming onto the market from leading brands, though, thanks to FTTB as well as our next connection type…
Fibre to the Node (FTTN)
The technology that’s now being rolled out instead of FTTP in most urban areas, Fibre to the Node, sounds like the future. At least until you learn that it’s actually almost exactly the same sort of technology that was used for cable TV back at the end of last century; just with copper wires delivering the data to your home instead of coaxial cables. That’s the big issue with FTTN – the copper wires. They were designed for lo-fi voice phone calls and never intended for high-speed broadband. The fact that they’ve worked reasonably well for ADSL for years is pretty incredible.
FTTN sends multiple fast fibre connections from the exchange to big green metal boxes set up throughout neighbourhoods, and the existing phone lines of the residences there are all connected to the closest box. Now, copper phone lines have always had the problem of offering slower speeds the longer they have to run. With ADSL, you’d get anywhere from 1Mbps to 24Mbps depending on whether you were 5Km or 500m from the exchange.
With FTTN, the potential speed is much faster, and the potential drop-off in speed happens much more dramatically. If you have a node box right outside your home you might get 100Mbps easily. But if your phone line must run half way down the block to get to one, you might only enjoy 50Mbps or less. At its best, FTTN can be just as good as other connections. However, it’s all down to the length and condition of that “last mile” copper line.
The “HFC” term you may have seen in NBN info sheets stands for “Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial” – or, in other words, fibre to the node! This tech has been around for a long time, since both Telstra and Optus rolled out their services across major cities (before making more of a move to satellite in recent years). While the concept is similar to FTTN, the actual tech is different – not least the cable to your home, which is a big fat well-insulated coaxial cable (similar to a high quality TV antenna lead) that runs to a special cable modem where you live.
Both Telstra and Optus have used HFC for years for broadband, but it’s not been without its issues. For one, the shared data bandwidth between multiple homes in an area has long led to peak-hour congestion (possibly the earliest example of broadband peak congestion, actually). But this is set to change, with the NBN taking over the cables and upgrading them to the latest HFC broadband tech. In theory, this should mean excellent speeds and service quality that’s noticeably better than the cable service you’d get now – especially in terms of faster upload speeds. Once it rolls out on a large scale (it’s in progress now) we’ll know more.
Fixed Wireless (WiMax)
If you’re in the unlucky position of not being able to get an ADSL connection because your exchange is full, and have ages to wait for the NBN, fixed wireless could be an option. This is a tech that’s being used by the NBN to deliver broadband to more remote areas, but it’s also available in some cities from companies like Vividwireless.
You will need to get a special antenna installed on your roof, and it may be slower compared to other broadband options, but as a reliable solution, it’s nearly as good as using 4G – and potentially cheaper if you have access to it.
3G/4G Mobile Wireless
Another alternative for working around difficulty getting access to more permanent broadband options? The current 4G mobile networks of all three big providers in Australia are more than up to the task of delivering blazingly fast speeds – but only if you’re in the right location on the right network at the right time. For most of the rest of the time, you’ll find 4G is more than adequate for casual internet use, as a substitute for fixed broadband when it’s unavailable, or for people who are constantly on the move.
The biggest problem with 4G broadband is latency – the time it takes to get a response from the other end back to you – which can be many times longer than wired broadband. That won’t affect most people, but those doing real-time video communication or gaming will feel the delay. Still, with generous monthly allowances available from companies like Ovo for around the same price as other broadband options, using the mobile network can be a great solution if you need it.
Our old favourite, still going strong after all these decades. While its days are numbered thanks to the NBN, ADSL can be an incredibly cheap and efficient way of getting broadband to your home. Of course, as long as your home is close enough to the nearest telephone exchange and the copper phone lines both in your home and out in the street aren’t falling apart.
At its best, ADSL can deliver up to 24Mbps reliably and quickly – though with similarly slow upload speeds to traditional cable internet – and the modems that run on it are everywhere. The downside is the way ADSL rolled out in this country, with Telstra maintaining a monopoly on the exchanges where every connection goes to. That means long waits for new connections or provider changes, as well as the dreaded “setup fees”. Those are all things that the NBN was designed to eliminate.
Which to choose?
In most cases, your choices are very limited – most will have access to ADSL, some will have cable as well, and almost everyone has access to the wireless options (though satellite is only available in rural areas). Once the NBN arrives, your choice will be made for you. You’ll get a letter in the mail telling you which connection type is going to be powering your broadband life going forward.
If you’re moving house, it’s a perfect time to scope out what broadband connectivity options are going to be available at your new home. In an increasingly connected world, making sure you’re happy with your broadband connection is going to be as important as ensuring good water pressure was to home buyers of the previous generation.
And finally, a lot of it comes down to your choice of internet provider. Because of the way the NBN is set up – at least for now – providers that cram as many users as possible onto their service for the lowest possible price aren’t going to be a great option if you’re looking for reliable broadband in the evening peak. Be prepared to pay a little extra and do some research. This way, no matter what type of connection you end up on, you’ll be heading happily into the future.