You get home after a long day at work, looking forward to grabbing some dinner and settling down for an evening binge-watching of Stranger Things on Netflix. Sinking into the couch, you hit the “play” button and the first episode starts… and then stops. And then you see that dreaded “buffering” circle sitting in the middle of the screen. What was meant to be a few hours of enjoyment turns into frustration, as you realise that your Internet provider of choice is so busy during those evening hours that streaming or downloading anything is going to be a recipe for frustration.
The “peak slowdown” is a relatively new phenomenon – caused in large part by the explosion in popularity of streaming services, like Netflix and Stan, as a replacement for broadcast TV of an evening. Initially caught by surprise, Australia’s Internet service providers were faced with a decision – to upgrade their service in order to handle the demand, or just shut their eyes and hope it would all sort itself out.
We’re in a much better place with general speeds on the NBN now than we were a few years ago, but the problem still persists. The use of Fibre to the Node technology on a great many connections isn’t exactly helping, since it’s bringing the unpredictability of old copper phone lines into the chain of potential weak spots. Those on full Fibre to the Premises connections, where connection speed is pretty much guaranteed, felt the pinch with some NBN Internet service providers that didn’t buy enough capacity to go around.
Setting the record and the expectations straight
In August 2017, the ACCC threw down the proverbial gauntlet by issuing a set of industry guidelines that are changing the way NBN services are advertised. Now, you’ll increasingly see a top speed quoted for the evening peak period on ISP websites – and that has to be a real, attainable speed. It’s a great change, one that’s encouraging all providers to compete on what their network can do at its busiest times. And for consumers, you can now know upfront what to expect before you even sign up.
The elephant in the room is, of course, the use of NBN connections that involve copper phone lines into your actual home. Fibre to the Node and Fibre to the Basement (the latter used in many apartment buildings) adds that wild card of often very old copper wiring into the mix. This means that everyone connected to those technologies has a maximum speed they can attain as a hard limit – so paying for a 100 Mbps connection when your line only supports 20 Mbps is just throwing money away. Telstra recently paid compensation to 42,000 customers for exactly this issue. Providers these days are likely to test your line when you sign up and tell you what the top speed you’re likely to see will be.
But given ideal conditions, what you want to know is how fast an ISP can deliver data on your selected plan. That’s where the NBN speed claims come in – for each tier of NBN speed, providers are asked to give an accurate Mbps number that reflects what you can expect from your Internet service during the evening peak.
Last audited 14 September 2020
Broadband rankings and what’s good for you
The latest rankings are interesting to see – not least because of the large gap between slowest and fastest at the top 100 Mbps speed offered by most providers.
At the bottom end – the 12/1 and 25/5 tiers – most of the big providers clocked speeds that came pretty close to that maximum (strangely, an exception was Telstra, whose top evening speeds on those tiers was the lowest of the big ISPs – though still plenty fast enough for HD Netflix). That’s not surprising in itself. After all, those speeds are on par with what people used to get using ADSL. When we move up to the 50/20 tier, though, we start to see things vary much more.
Five providers ranked their 50/20 connections with an evening speed of around 42 Mbps – iiNet, TPG, Westnet and Internode all quoted an identical 46 Mbps (not surprising, since they’re all part of the TPG network). Outsider Aussie Broadband, meanwhile, quotes 45Mbps. The big surprises are the two big guns – Telstra and Optus – who both rate their evenings at only 40 Mbps. Again, it’s plenty fast enough for HD Netflix, but add a few family members to the mix and that bandwidth gets used up pretty fast.
That 50/20 tier is now the NBN’s preferred speed target for broadband providers to put customers on and they’ve given those providers discounts to encourage it (if you got a free speed upgrade recently, that’s why!). But for those who want the fastest speed they can get, the 100/40 tier is where it’s at – and it’s also where the big differences are at.
Again, Telstra and Optus come in at the bottom at 80 Mbps. Those nice even numbers suggest that both providers are limiting speeds slightly during peaks to make the service more usable by everyone in their huge customer bases – or perhaps just quoting a lower number than the real world to be on the safe side (Telstra does claim that customers have more recently hitting 90 Mbps at peak times). The TPG providers nudge ahead with 80.2. Meanwhile, Aussie Broadband topped the list with a confident 90 Mbps, a remarkable number that’s probably a direct result of their policy of stopping the sale of new connections before a particular area gets congested.
So, what does this all mean for you? Well, the numbers are there for you to see, and remember, these are claimed speeds, not a guarantee (though with the ACCC paying close attention, you can bet that they’re conservative estimates!).
How fast you need your connection to be at peak periods will come down to your home usage. If you’ve got a family of streaming-happy people, or someone wants to download the latest PS4 game while others watch Netflix, those faster speeds can make all the difference.
All in all, though, it’s a very encouraging result across the board, and it’s likely to get better rather than worse. Thanks to Australia’s consumer watchdog being very much on the case, you can now be far more informed ahead of time when choosing a broadband ISP and a NBN plan that suits your needs – and that’s a great result for everyone!