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How to avoid slow Internet during the coronavirus lockdown

We'll help you get a better connection while you're socially isolating, and break down NBN alternatives and government support.


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The significant lockdown of facilities and strong recommendation that Australians stay at home to manage the curve of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has and will put even more strain on the not-quite-complete National Broadband Network (NBN). That's not just an issue for folks trying to work from home on the NBN but also the general population that uses the NBN for simple communication and entertainment purposes.

If you're looking for a faster NBN plan, we compare below.

3 ways to get better Internet when you're stuck at home

The business of building and running the NBN is up to NBN Co, but there's a fair amount you can look into if you're not happy with your current connection or it's interfering with your plans to binge watch all of the Fast & Furious movies.

The first step is to look at your existing plan and needs, then work out if there are easy and cheap ways to make the most of what you've already got.

#1: Dial down the Netflix quality

Note: Netflix and other streaming services have already begun to automatically reduce the default streaming quality in most markets to ease the load on the network.

Sure, you spent a lot on that nice 4K TV and a 4K-compatible streaming service to go with it. However, the data needs of 4K are substantially higher than that of full HD or even SD content. If you're struggling to connect with an episode of Stranger Things and Netflix's own adaptive streaming isn't already forcing you down this path, consider setting the data usage on your Netflix plan to a lower quality. This does vary by device – not every Netflix-supporting device will let you change this – and you may find you're suddenly able to binge watch in a more consistent manner. If you're finding it bearable, it may be worth switching down from the top-tier 4K-capable plan to the cheaper tiers, especially if you don't have that many users needing simultaneous streams.

#2: Download rather than stream

Netflix and many other streaming services support offline playback of titles that you've already downloaded onto tablets and mobile devices. If you're being hammered by the everyday needs of your connection, having the actual files local to you can skip streaming problems entirely. While they're built for on-the-go usage, there's nothing that explicitly says you can't use them at home. You could even take it further by switching on airplane mode on your tablet or phone so that you're not disturbed while you're binge watching. That would also free up what bandwidth you've got for other family members or housemates.

If that's not getting you what you need, it's time to consider your connection and speed options.

#3: Get a faster NBN connection

The vast majority of Australians will get the NBN via a fixed line connection and a range of available speeds. That's much less the case for fixed wireless or satellite NBN customers, unfortunately.

NBN speed tiers are sold as Basic I, Basic II, Standard or Fast, with higher speeds and higher costs available if you've got the cash. If you're on a lower-tier fixed line NBN plan – the Basic I 12/1 or Basic II 25/5 plans – it might be wise to jump up to a 50/20, 100/40 or 100/20 plan instead, especially if you're suddenly sharing one connection among everyone in your house.

That's especially true if you're looking to pass the time with a lot of video streaming, because those services can use a lot of bandwidth and data.

It's a generally smart idea to shop around if you want to switch Internet providers. You can compare NBN plans using our main page or selection below, but if you don't want to deal with a new provider, it should also be possible to step your plan up to a higher tier from your existing NBN provider. Many providers operate with month-to-month contracts, so stepping up or down the speed scales shouldn't incur additional charges as long as you're not on a 12- or 24-month plan.

What is NBN Co doing to deal with the extra traffic?

In simplest terms, NBN Co is opening up the data pipes, allowing its ISP partners – those are the telcos you get your NBN connection from, so we're talking the likes of Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, Aussie Broadband and so on – to access more bandwidth to share among their user base. 40% more to be specific, although it's pretty important to understand what that 40% really means.

It doesn't mean that you'll see a 40% boost in your NBN speeds automatically; instead it means that there's more capacity for ISPs to share out to everyone.

Think of it like rush-hour traffic. During the day, typically big highways in any of Australia's major capital cities are busy but flowing, with plenty of space between each car and good speeds for all. During rush hour, though, the number of cars goes up massively and everyone is slower as a result.

What NBN Co is doing, essentially, is adding 40% more "lanes" for those cars – or in our example, NBN users – to drive their data up and down. You're not going to break any speed limits, but it's far easier to get an acceptable speed even under heavier usage. That should allow ISPs to keep their speed promises which are usually framed as typical evening speeds, but these days may well be more reflective of usage across the entire day.

NBN Co also says that it's working on more complex load balancing behind the scenes to keep the network up and humming. That you won't see in your day-to-day network usage, but – presuming it's doing the job properly – it should lead to less congestion and possibly fewer network outages.

Should I switch to a 4G or 5G broadband plan?

The other option that's open to you is using Australia's mobile networks as your data source instead of the NBN.

It's vital to understand that there are two different types of approach to using mobile network data, depending on whether you're using what's usually called a "fixed wireless" connection – and NBN Co offers this in some areas itself – or a truly mobile broadband data solution.

Can I get a 5G broadband plan?

You certainly can! Optus is the heaviest player in that particular market with an unlimited data home broadband plan in selected areas.

"Selected areas" is the key phrase there, because if you're in an Optus 5G zone, you have to apply to Optus for it to assess the quality you're likely to see with its 5G home broadband. Its guarantee looks for 50Mbps downstream at least. If you can't meet that (or you're not in an area with Optus 5G coverage yet) you won't be able to sign up.

You could also opt for 5G with a device like the Telstra-exclusive HTC 5G Hub or any of the already available 5G phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra in a hotspot configuration. Those plans all tend to work on a fixed quantity of data at maximum speeds after which you're shaped down to a much lower speed with endless data quota for the rest of your month, so unless you're only watching a small quantity of streaming video in SD only, you could burn through your quota halfway through your show season.

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