It’s almost trite to talk about how the original plans for Australia’s National Broadband Network didn’t quite work out the way it was intended, and there’s also not all that much argument that the NBN we’ve wound up with in 2020 isn’t exactly world class. While some premises enjoy blazing fast gigabit speeds, most don’t; with a hodge-podge of aging copper, wireless, satellite and fibre, there was no way we’d end up with universal gigabit-capable connections this year.
Many Australians can’t achieve connection speeds beyond 25 – 50 mbps, and for the small number who can, a hard limit of 100mbps is almost universal. Some HFC (hybrid fibre/coaxial, the network used by the cable TV networks) connections can reach 250mbps, while fewer still can reach speeds closer to 1gbps. Every FTTP connection can reach 1gbps today, but there aren’t – relatively speaking – very many of those.
From today, that’s about to change.
Australian Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has announced changes – considered by many to be a back flip – to the NBN which will bring gigabit speeds to around 75% of NBN connections by the end of 2023. There’s a number of reasons why this announcement is being made today – first up, the ‘original’ NBN roll-out is now complete, freeing up the infrastructure company to start work on bringing up the worst performing parts of the network to modern standards. Secondly, NBN Co has successfully raised a significant working capital from the private market, meaning taxpayers aren’t being asked to pay for this next stage. There’s also some positive employment factors to consider – this new phase of the build will employ some 25,000 people over the next three years, which isn’t to be scoffed at.
What’s coming to the NBN?
Minister Fletcher has confirmed this phase of the NBN overbuild will effectively focus on four areas:
- First, NBN Co will spend $2.9 billion to take fibre deeper into the existing fibre to the node footprint. This will allow 2 million homes which are today served by fibre to the node – including 950,000 in regional areas – to order speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second by 2023.
- Second, NBN will invest $400 million to upgrade the HFC, the Hybrid Fibre Coaxial network, allowing all 2.5 million homes in the HFC footprint to order gigabit speeds from December 2021.
- Third, NBN will commit $100 million to a speed uplift program for the 1.5 million homes served by fibre to the curb. This will give these homes access to gigabit speeds through G fast capability by 2023.
- Fourth, NBN Co will allocate $50 million for a program to target in home wiring in the homes of customers served by the fibre to the node network. Problems within the home can often mean speeds are five to 20 megabits per second less than they could be. A focus on this issue will bring noticeable improvements to many customers.
Perhaps the most exciting is the first point above, which will significantly improve connection quality for those homes served most poorly by the fixed-line NBN network. Fibre to the Node can use long lengths of the existing, aging (and degrading) copper network to deliver broadband to the end user. Some users – like myself – can achieve full 100mbps speeds over their FTTN connections, but many cannot.
So poor is the experience across the board that some providers (e.g. Telstra) refuse to sell plans over 50mbps on FTTN connections, because they just can’t deliver it.
How will the changes happen?
However, NBN Co won’t just be digging up your front yards to run fibre everywhere. Unlike the original rollout where everyone in a FTTP area got FTTP, this will be an “opt-in” type roll-out. Users will remain on their existing technologies until/unless they order a faster plan which requires fibre.
At that point, NBN will connect premises to an expanded “local fibre network” with no connection/uplift fee. Precisely how this will work is yet to be announced, but what it means is that you can order a 1gbps plan from your NBN provider, and NBN will come and hook fibre up to your premises to get it going sometime thereafter.
Upgrades to the existing HFC and FTTC networks will be welcomed; both are well capable of 1gbps speeds and the changes are – relatively speaking – somewhat easier to implement, and will affect lots of users very quickly and with minimal interruption.
For FTTC, most connections (including copper runs from premises to street-based pits) are capable of gigabit speeds, and for those that aren’t, NBN has hinted that it may run fibre lead-ins for some of these connections where copper is too long or not in a good state … but those details are yet to be finalised.
While this all sounds like good news, there’s a few people who are going to be significantly put out by the announcement.
Is it all good news?
First up, the federal opposition has made it quite clear they think this is a backflip from the coalition government; Labor’s original plan would’ve had near-universal fibre to the premises, but by all accounts, its original plan was too ambitious and perhaps too expensive and slow, meaning that while most premises might’ve had fibre, they wouldn’t have been connected for a few more years. Better to have something in 2020, than nothing until 2023 .. or so the argument goes.
Second of all is those consumers who’ve paid – out of their own pockets – for fibre upgrades because their existing NBN experience has been too slow or unreliable. With some consumers paying more than $10,000 to have fibre run to their own premises, to find out in 2020 that some two million homes will be eligible for a free fibre upgrade is a bitter pill to swallow.
Those following my story will be aware that I’m one such consumer – we’ve paid for NBN’s Technology Choice program to uplift our FTTN connection to FTTP – and while we’re likely to end up with fibre within a couple of months (instead of waiting a few years), there’s a good argument that having it for free would be worth waiting a year or two longer for.
There are some for whom technology choice will remain a viable (or the only viable) option; only FTTN connections will be overbuilt with fibre to the premises, we understand, while those areas serviced by FTTC or HFC will not be re-done with fibre. Instead, those connections will remain but with updated hardware to make them faster. While 1gbps is the most the NBN offers today, by 2023, we might see multi-gigabit services and – just as in 2020 – those faster speeds will only be available over direct fibre connections (at least, to begin with).
So, there’s a lot to digest, but from my perspective, there’s a few key takeaways:
- Some NBN connections are about to get replaced with significantly better ones, and that will improve the overall NBN experience considerably.
- Those well served by HFC and FTTC connections will see faster speeds in the next couple of years, but they won’t get fibre per se (at least, not without paying for it).
- More customers on gigabit plans will drive down the cost of these plans over time, meaning that faster internet will become more affordable for more people, and that’s a great outcome … even if it could’ve been delivered a bit earlier had we avoided some of the pitfalls of the multi-technology mix.
What’s your take on today’s NBN announcements?