HFC cable delivers Pay TV to many Australians, but it can also deliver high speed Internet services. Here is what you should consider before signing up for an HFC cable plan.
How does HFC Cable work?
HFC (more formally, Hybrid Fibre Coaxial) cable uses the infrastructure laid down by Telstra and Optus in the 1990s for Subscription television -- specifically Foxtel -- delivery to also deliver broadband, largely to homes on frequencies in the cable not set aside for Pay TV delivery purposes.
The cable connection then goes through to a connection point in your home, similar to the one used for Pay TV delivery and then to a modem provided by Telstra or Optus, although the long term Multi-Technology Mix NBN plan will see the same infrastructure used to deliver NBN broadband to many Australians in the future.
How fast is HFC Cable?
HFC Cable is capable of delivering relatively fast broadband speeds, at least in a downstream direction, with both Optus and Telstra offering what are in essence two speed tiers for current cable products. The base line of any current HFC Cable plan will provide download speeds of up to 30Mbps down, with the option to pay extra for a speed boost of up to 100Mbps downstream.
HFC Cable is nowhere near as capable at the current time of matching or even coming near those speeds for uploads, however, with typical quoted speeds of only up to 2Mbps.
There is a very important caveat to the HFC speed story, however. HFC is a shared spectrum product, and what that means is that the speed available to you is not only dependent on the service you’re accessing (as it is with any Internet product or service) but also the activities of other users on the same connection point as you are. It’s very common for cable users to experience a dip in speed during peak usage times due to this, which is why all plans are sold with an "up to" qualifier.
Where is HFC Cable available?
Telstra and Optus both concentrated their cable rollout plans in metropolitan areas only when they were first laid out, and since they’ve long since stopped rolling cable, those are the areas where it is available.
How can I compare HFC Cable plans?
Both Telstra and Optus only sell two essential "tiers" of HFC Cable products, with the lower up to 30Mbps plans being markedly cheaper. One factor to consider here is that either will generally be quite happy to bump your plan up a speed tier (for a price) while in contract.
As with any broadband plan, you can pay a little for a small usage plan if that suits your needs or quite a bit more for additional data and services. It’s worth noting that the relative lack of competition in the HFC Cable space means that there’s really no such thing as a "budget" HFC plan, however.
Optus and Telstra also differ markedly in their current HFC Cable plan approaches, with all but the entry-level Optus plan coming with unlimited data bundles, while Telstra still uses fixed data quotas on all of its cable plans.
Will I need a new modem for HFC Cable?
Both Optus and Telstra use specific modems -- at the time of writing, both utilise Netgear modems, although Optus’ variant includes a phone port for the provision of phone services as well -- that only work with their respective cable services.
Both providers supply a modem as a matter of course with their contract cable plans. For what it’s worth, Optus does supply a list of modems that may be compatible with its cable network here. http://www.optus.com.au/shop/broadband/extras/Approved-Equipment-List, but Telstra has no such public facing model list.
If you find that the wireless part of the supplied cable modem is lacking, you can always connect a regular router of any type to the supplied cable modem and place it in Bridge Mode to enable the router to take over Internet provisioning. This should work, although neither Optus nor Telstra will specifically provide support for you doing so.
What other extras should I look for?
- Bundled TV extras: Optus frequently bundles its Fetch TV set top box with its HFC Cable plans, offering a variety of additional channels, some of which are free on the higher tier plans.
- Discounts for other bundling: Because HFC Cable is currently only offered by the two big telcos, it’s worth checking if you can score a discount on your plan price by bundling other services you may already be buying from them at the time of signing your contract. Depending on the current deal you might not get anything, but it’s definitely worth trying to save money over a two year contract especially.