Comparison of the week: NBN vs mobile broadband
Wired or wireless? It's time to see which broadband solution is right for you.
We compare virtually everything at Finder and our Comparison of the Week isn't afraid to tackle the big questions. This week we take a look at your two main choices for high-speed Internet: the National Broadband Network and mobile broadband.
The NBN rollout has been rocky to say the least. The original pitch of fibre Internet to every home in Australia was thrown out long ago in favour of a multi-technology-mix approach, reducing costs but also limiting Internet speeds for many Aussies across the country.
At the same time, mobile broadband solutions like 4G have only gotten cheaper and more generous with their data inclusions. We're now at a point where a mobile broadband connection can serve as your primary means of accessing the Internet, both at home and on the go. But can mobile broadband really compete with a fixed-line service like the NBN? We've taken a hard look at the pros and cons of both to help you decide which one is right for you.
Internet speeds in Australia have long paled in comparison to the rest of the world. The National Broadband Network (NBN) aimed to remedy this by supplying the majority of Aussie households with a direct connection to a new high-speed fibre-optic network.
Cost and infrastructure limitations eventually saw the Abbott government switch to the infamous Multi-Technology Mix (MTM) approach. The MTM incorporated the existing copper and cable networks to supply Internet across the country, resulting in slower speeds and less-reliable performance in many cases.
Despite numerous hiccups, the NBN remains a mandatory upgrade for the majority of Australian households. Folks living within the fixed-line rollout of the National Broadband Network have 18 months to make the switch before existing ADSL and cable networks are turned off.
Like the NBN, mobile broadband is a blanket term that encompasses a variety of communication technologies. Generally, though, mobile broadband refers to the 3G, 4G and upcoming 5G mobile networks that provide Internet access to portable devices like smartphones and tablets.
Many telcos offer data-only mobile broadband plans alongside their regular phone plans. In addition to phones and tablets, you can use the SIM cards provided with these plans in a range of Wi-Fi modems that let you share a single Internet connection with multiple laptops, phones and other wireless devices.
While the end goal of getting you online is the same for both the NBN and mobile broadband, each technology comes with its fair share of trade-offs to consider. We've laid these out in the table below:
|Speed||The NBN supports multiple speed tiers, allowing you to choose the one that best meets your needs. A Basic (nbn12) connection is the cheapest option and is comparable to older ADSL services. A Standard (nbn25) connection meets the minimum requirements for streaming video from services like Netflix, while a Standard Plus (nbn50) connection is more appropriate for households with multiple users streaming or downloading at the same time. Premium (nbn100) is the top of the current NBN speed tier and is aimed at large households, small businesses and other heavy Internet users.|
There's also the matter of typical evening speeds. During the busy evening hours of 7pm to 11pm, the increase in people accessing a telco's Internet service often takes a noticeable toll on the speeds you'll receive. For this reason, the ACCC advises NBN providers to clearly display their typical evening speeds when advertising their services. These speeds can differ dramatically from provider to provider, so it's important to factor them in when comparing NBN services.
|Theoretically, 4G can deliver higher download speeds than the four main tiers of NBN service. However, in practice, this is rarely the case. Since mobile broadband transmits data using unshielded radio waves, it's more susceptible to interference from physical obstructions like walls and trees as well as electromagnetic interference from other devices. This interference can significantly impact speed, which is why most mobile networks use broad ranges like 2-100Mbps when describing performance.|
As with the NBN, mobile broadband speeds can drop dramatically when multiple people are on the same connection all at once. This is why browsing the Internet is often painstakingly slow at conventions, sporting events and other public gatherings. And because there are typically more phones and mobile devices connected to a particular network than on an equivalent NBN network, speed tends to take a steeper hit during busy periods.
|Data||You have a wide choice of data caps on the NBN. Light users can find plans with as little as 10GB of data a month, while folks with larger appetites can binge aplenty with numerous unlimited NBN services. In fact, a lot of telcos have shifted to only providing unlimited NBN services recently. This saves you from worrying about running out of data, but lighter users may find themselves paying for data they don't use.||Data is arguably the biggest limitation of mobile broadband. While mobile data caps have come a long way over recent years, there are still very few telcos offering more than 100GB a month. Depending on your needs, that might be perfectly fine, but power users and larger households may find it insufficient.|
In those cases, there are other wireless options worth considering. Home wireless broadband services offer larger data caps on the same 3G and 4G networks as mobile broadband, but speeds are slower and the service is locked to the included modem. Alternatively, both Telstra and Vodafone offer "unlimited" data with select mobile plans, albeit at severely limited 1.5Mbps speeds.
|Monthly cost||NBN plan pricing can vary considerably from provider to provider, but it's typically driven by two factors: speed and data. There's no hard rule dictating the relationship between speed, data and price, but the following figures are a decent guide for plans with unlimited data:|
Basic NBN (nbn12)
Standard NBN (nbn25)
Standard Plus NBN (nbn50)
Premium NBN (nbn100)
|Since mobile broadband plans don't have speed tiers, data caps and network coverage tend to dictate monthly pricing. Plans on the Telstra 3G and 4G networks are typically more expensive than those on the Optus or Vodafone networks due to greater coverage and potentially faster speeds. On the data front, average pricing is as follows:|
250GB (Home wireless broadband only)
|Upfront costs||While some NBN plans boast no set-up or activation costs, others require you to pay an upfront fee if you want the freedom of a no-lock-in contract. This fee can range from around $50 up to $200 or more.|
To access the NBN, you also need a compatible modem. Most telcos will let you use your existing modem provided it's NBN-ready, but some require you to purchase their specific model as part of your contract. Prepare to spend anywhere between $99 and $250.
|Mobile broadband plans rarely come with any upfront costs. You'll only need to pony up if you want a Wi-Fi modem or USB dongle with your plan. These are typically available bundled with a fixed-term contract for no more than $10 extra a month.|
On a home wireless broadband plan, the modem cost is mandatory. This can range from around $200 on a no-lock-in contract to $0 upfront across a 24-month contract.
|Excess charges||Sign up to an unlimited NBN plan, and you won't have to worry about any excess usage charges. The same goes for most capped plans, as the majority of telcos simply slow your Internet speed down if you deplete your monthly data.||Most telcos charge a standard rate of $10 per 1GB for any extra data you use over your monthly cap. It's worth noting that some telcos will charge you automatically as soon as you exceed your cap, while others will prevent accidental overspending by cutting off your Internet access and requiring you to purchase extra data manually.|
|Coverage||As of February 2019, NBN Co claimed that the NBN is available to roughly 75% of Australian homes and businesses. It is expected to achieve total coverage some time in 2020.|
The caveat here is that coverage isn't equal across the board. Due to the Multi-Technology Mix approach, the service you receive differs depending on where you live. Here's how that coverage roughly shakes out (source: NBN Co):
Fibre to the Premises (FTTP)
Fibre to the Kerb (FTTC)
Hybrid-fibre coaxial (HFC)
Sky Muster satellite
|Mobile broadband coverage mirrors that of regular mobile services. Plans operate on either the Vodafone, Optus or Telstra network. Each network advertises its reach in terms of population coverage rather than geographic availability, which is worth keeping in mind if you live or travel in the regional or rural areas of the country.|
Here are the latest coverage claims for each network:
|Reliability||In its March 2019 report, NBN Co claims the National Broadband Network was functioning and available for 99.94% of the month. Similar uptime figures were reported for each quarter of 2018.|
Aussies connected via fixed wireless or satellite NBN will typically face more connectivity issues than those on fixed-line connections. Environmental factors like bad weather and physical obstructions can lead to instability that fixed-line customers won't experience.
|Like fixed wireless and satellite NBN, mobile broadband services are susceptible to interference from a host of external factors. Thick walls, electronic devices and your distance from the nearest mobile tower can all impact the speed and stability of your connection.|
That said, the distributed nature of mobile networks adds a level of redundancy absent in the NBN. Should a particular mobile tower go offline, other towers will pick up the slack. This reduces the likelihood of losing all connectivity.
|Ease of set-up||While NBN Co technicians should handle most of the installation process for you, getting connected to the NBN isn't always easy. In March 2019, only 85% of homes and businesses were connected within their expected time frames, and just 89% of installations were completed without the need for a follow-up visit.||Setting up a mobile broadband connection is as simple as inserting the provided SIM card into a compatible device.|
There's no clear winner when comparing the NBN to mobile broadband. Each has its fair share of strengths and weaknesses, with the NBN better suited to large households and avid binge-watchers while mobile broadband is more appropriate for folks with tighter budgets who spend a lot of time on the go.
That said, with telcos like OVO rolling out mobile broadband plans with massive data caps at relatively affordable prices, we're fast approaching a future where going completely wireless is a viable solution, even for the biggest Netflix fans out there.
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