News NBN coping with its biggest test. But it needs help, and soon
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NBN coping with its biggest test. But it needs help, and soon

Australians are putting a record level of strain on the NBN.
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Australians forced to study and work from home are putting a record level of strain on the National Broadband Network (NBN), but experts warn the network needs urgent updating to keep up with demand.

The latest figures from the Australian Broadband Data Demand report reveal the NBN is experiencing an unprecedented surge in demand.

For the week of Monday, May 4 to Sunday, May 10, peak downloads during the busy evening period increased by 14 per cent to 12.6 terabits per second (Tbps), compared to the last week of February, which NBN Co measures as its normal pre-COVID-19 baseline.

For the week beginning May 4, peak downloads also increased during daytime business hours, up nine per cent to 8.5Tbps, and during early evening hours, up 15 per cent to 11.3Tbps.

Those rises compare with the pre-COVID-19 baseline figures.

Brad Whitcomb, chief customer officer at NBN Co said: “More than seven million homes and businesses are now connected to the NBN, and we continue to add thousands more every week.

“Despite these challenging times … we are pleased to report that faults across the network are at an all-time low.”

Independent telecommunications analyst Paul Budde said while the NBN has been coping with the unprecedented demand, it is not fit for purpose.

Australians have put unprecedented demand on the NBN. Photo: NBN Co

In general the NBN is holding up. But then at the same time, you get a lot of people who say they get the swirl on their screens. The speeds are significantly lower than what they pay for.

“The network that has been built is second rate.”

He said internet speeds were based on ‘Russian roulette’, with some homes stuck with the wheel of death while others lucked out with superior telecommunications infrastructure.

“Some of the copper is 50 years old. The quality of the copper depends on the quality of the service,” he said.

“You could be lucky and you’re linked to a new bit of copper. But if you are linked to an old bit, it could be 20, 50 years old, then you have less quality.

It’s the quality of the infrastructure that is causing the problems people are experiencing.”

The NBN could buckle under future demands, Mr Budde said.

“It’s likely we’ll have another crisis. We need to make sure the network gets upgraded to fibre to the home to provide the capacity.”

RMIT network engineering Associate Professor Mark Gregory said that just how the surge in demand has affected the industry remains to be seen.

“We’re yet to fully understand how these changes will reflect the increased cost to telcos and consumers,” Associate Professor Gregory said.

While telcos announced data usage charges would not rise during the pandemic, the increase in data usage highlights why those charges are archaic, he said.

“It’s more appropriate today to use a fixed monthly access charge and for networks to be built to meet the ongoing increase in data usage demands,” Associate Professor Gregory said. 

“If we keep doing this, if the demand continues at these levels, and continues to grow after the COVID-19 pandemic period … when the data usage charge freeze is removed, we’re likely to see telcos being hard pressed not to increase plan charges.

“It again reflects the reason why the NBN should have been built with fibre-to-the-premises.

“And the Coalition’s decision to use obsolete technologies has meant for many Australians their broadband connections have been poorly performing during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

How to get the most out of your internet connection

The speed and reliability of your internet connection will differ based on your internet provider and the type of technology used to connect you to the NBN, Flinders University technology expert Paul Gardner-Stephen explained.

Dr Gardner-Stephen outlined the following steps internet users can take to get the best out of their connection:

  • Close all applications you are not using on your device, as many of these consume surprising amounts of your internet bandwidth
  • Make sure your wireless router/NBN modem is near to where you are working, and ideally up high, so that there are fewer obstructions between it and your devices
  • Don’t use the microwave oven when trying to use the internet, unless it is a long way from the devices you are using and your wireless router/modem. Microwaves use the same frequencies as many wireless routers (2.4GHz), which can cause interference
  • If you have a FTTN (copper) connection to the NBN, think about unplugging any phones you are using. If that doesn’t help, try plugging the router or modem into different phone outlets
  • If you are having online meetings, start them at weird times, instead of on the hour or half-hour, when it’s likely everyone else will be starting meetings. For example, arrange a call for 10.23 instead of 10am or 10.30am
  • Download documents to work “off line” rather than trying to edit on line, if your tasks can accommodate this
  • Turn off or unplug internet-connected devices that you’re not using
  • If you have kids at home, try to get them playing games that don’t need internet access, rather than watching funny cat videos in UltraHD video, so you can free up bandwidth
  • Listen to music you have downloaded or have on CDs, rather than streaming music services
  • Reduce the video resolution when watching videos, disable video during online meetings, and mute your microphone when not talking. All these things will help to reduce the bandwidth
  • Some browsers support a “turbo mode” that compresses data before it sends it over the internet to you. Find the control and turn it on, as this can speed up some tasks.