Australia’s shiny new National Broadband Network was meant to be the great equaliser when it was conceived. For years, Internet providers came in two flavours – those who had the money to set up their own networks and equipment (Telstra at first, then Optus, iPrimus, Internode and others) and those who had to rent space from one of the big companies and hope it all ended up making a profit.
With the NBN, the idea was to have one national network – owned and operated by the Government – that any provider would have equal access to. It would mean that no matter where in Australia you lived, you had a full choice of Internet providers. And whichever one you picked, you’d be connected to the world by the same advanced network.
So quite reasonably, you’d think that it really shouldn’t matter which provider you choose, as long as you get connected to the NBN. The reality, though, is it very much does – and there are several reasons for that. The ACCC’s intervention in late 2017, which forced providers to quote the sort of speeds customers can expect, was a rare public clue that there’s more to your NBN provider than just giving you a connection onto the NBN.
Here’s some of the factors that can make a big difference depending on the provider you choose.
Evening Peak Speed
This is the big one – and the focus of a lot of attention in the last few years since Netflix and other streaming services became a part of the evening viewing habits to millions of us. To be fair, it was an issue even on ADSL with some providers, but the NBN adds a whole new spanner into the works because of the way it’s set up.
The original problems when Netflix arrived were mostly due to a sudden, unexpectedly huge increase in the amount of data that customers were streaming to their home connections. The super-fast links that providers had set up to send data between them and the various phone exchanges (and now NBN connection points) were suddenly being asked to carry more data than they could handle when everyone sat down of an evening for a Netflix binge session.
That’s a problem that was identified early on, and providers had to spend a good chunk of money upgrading those links to meet the demand. This all happened while the NBN was still in its early days when hardly anyone was connected to it; and with links swiftly upgraded, everything looked like settling down. But the NBN had another surprise waiting, and it’s the cause of most of the slowdown pain customers see today.
The Capacity Problem
The NBN was set up by the government, sure, but set up in a way that would ensure it eventually would make a profit. Therefore, it wouldn’t be counted as a humongous dent in the national budget. To do that, the NBN decided to do a couple of things: charge customers extra (via their providers) for faster speeds; and charge providers based on how much bandwidth they expected to use.
Without getting too technical, think of “bandwidth” like this: a provider buys a certain amount of speed from the NBN for each connection point. So a provider might buy 1000 Mbps of capacity, which is enough for 20 users on 50 Mbps connections simultaneously to download at full speed. However, there might be 1000 users connected to that same point. The gamble the providers take is that: a) not everyone will be online at the same time, and; b) that very few of those online will be downloading at full speed at any one time. And usually, that’s true.
But if a provider decides to save money by buying that 1000 Mbps connection and putting 2000, 3000, 5000 users on it, the chances of that capacity being used up during busy times start to rise – a lot.
What this means is that, as the evening rolls around and more and more customers fire up Netflix for some high definition streaming, that connection reaches its maximum speed very quickly. The only solution at that point is to start slowing customers’ connections down (this is done automatically), so everyone can still get online. But for things like Netflix – which needs a nice fast data rate – that translates to a lot of buffering and frustration for the end user.
As this issue has gotten more publicity recently, NBN has decided to take steps to help fix it. They’ve reduced the price that Internet providers have to pay for bandwidth on the network in order to encourage them to buy more, which then lets them have more speed in reserve for peak times without paying extra (and passing those costs onto customers).
And that’s the key thing here – whichever Internet provider you pick on the NBN has a huge bearing on how fast your connection is, especially at evening peaks. Ideally, you want a provider that’s seen a problem and fixed it, mainly by buying more capacity to better suit the number of users they have. Not every provider does that, and it’s one reason why you should be wary of “unlimited download” plans (though there are some providers that do Unlimited right, such as Aussie Broadband – and even the big ISPs have massively improved with these plans). Download limits exist to encourage customers not to use data when they don’t really need to. This is so there’s far less likely to be too many users downloading stuff at once and slowing everyone down (it’s why mobile networks still don’t do unlimited data plans).
Ultimately, how an Internet provider handles the NBN bandwidth problem will directly show in the numbers they quote for evening peak speeds. Look at the numbers for the 100/40 plans and you’ll see a hefty gap even between the major top-tier providers. Notably, relatively new provider, Aussie Broadband, recently topped the speed rankings because they actively manage the capacity of each NBN connection point and refuse to connect new customers when there’s not enough room for them.
Large providers like Telstra or TPG will probably never top the evening speed rankings, but they’ve got the financial muscle to fix problems if they appear for the basics like Netflix. And largely, they do indeed fix them. But don’t write off smaller providers, some of which – like Aussie, Exetel or Mate – actually have an advantage thanks to their smaller user pool and ability to fine-tune connection quality.
Anything Else to Worry About?
There are other things that can affect the quality of service you get through an NBN provider as well — ones which are completely out of the NBN’s control.
One of the most important is “peering”. These are agreements that providers have with huge networks that specialise in moving data around the country. These networks help connect providers to the big data centres where a surprising amount of your downloads and streaming come from. For example, Akamai, Amazon and Google are among the companies that runs cloud servers around the world that host your Windows update files, the games you download to your console, or the video you stream of an evening (Stan’s streams are hosted by Akamai, for example, and the entire Netflix website – but not their streams – lives on Amazon’s servers).
The ideal situation is that your provider will have peering in place that puts your connection nice and close to the nearest server. So if you’re streaming something on Stan, you’re streaming it from Melbourne if you’re in Melbourne. That means buffer-free streaming, faster downloads and an overall better time online. The closest server to you is almost always the fastest and least likely to cause buffering or download pauses.
And if you want to stream a lot of stuff from overseas – if you’re using HBO Now or Hulu from the USA for example – you’ll want your ISP to have their own network set up so that your stream takes the shortest trip possible. It’s no fun trying to watch Game of Thrones when the stream is being delivered to you via a grand tour of the Asian region before it arrives in Australia!
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to find out how good or bad a particular provider is when it comes to these things without trying it for yourself. That’s why we strongly recommend you don’t sign up for a long contract. Contract-free plans are available from many providers, and some offer a guarantee of performance that lets you out of a contract if you’re not happy – iPrimus is one that offers this.
And then there’s the final link in the chain – the connection process itself!
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The NBN was designed so that providers can easily and quickly connect customers to it – once, of course, the NBN is fully active at your home. But providers vary wildly in how long they actually take. For Fibre to the Home and Fibre to the Curb connections, you should be able to get connected in minutes rather than days. But of course, that is all up to the provider you choose and how they talk to the NBN when setting things up for new customers.
It’s worth giving your potential new provider a call and asking them how long the whole setup process will take. Many of them are used to the ADSL broadband era, when a technician had to physically go down to the phone exchange to plug your line in. Ideally, on the NBN, the entire process should be getting you online and ready to go the same day, if not sooner.
Imagine if you called to get the power connected after moving in and got told it would be ready in a week (which does actually happen sometimes, to be fair!). The Internet is very much like an essential utility these days, and you don’t want to have to sit around waiting for it to be connected when the process on the NBN should be simple and quick (again, as long as the NBN connection to your place is finished and ready to go).
It might all seem like a highly technical minefield, but pick the right provider and you’ll be able to enjoy everything the NBN-powered Internet has to offer without hassle. So ask your friends who they’re with and what they think, look through online forums to see if current customers are happy, and again, try not to lock yourself in to a long contract just to get a special deal.
The teething problems with the NBN and the providers that connect you to it are gradually being sorted out. But then again, there are still slowdowns and buffering to be had if you choose unwisely. Remember, if that low, low monthly price with unlimited data seems too good to be true, it very possibly is.