Will the NBN cope with everyone working from home?

Posted: 20 March 2020 3:33 pm

With many working from home due to the COVID-19 coronavirus, NBN Co has given 40% more capacity to providers to help out.

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed the way many Australians work. Many of us have shifted to a work-from-home capacity, using broadband to connect through to officefs for meetings, document sharing and collaborative work generally. This will involve using the National Broadband Network to make the most of our work from home time.

Now, if you have ever worked from home during a time of peak demand – the classic scenario here is during school holidays when thousands of kids and teenagers flock online for gaming, video streaming and the like – the NBN has typically had the speed profile of an elderly lethargic snail.

NBN Co says that it's putting measures in place to give that broadband snail a real jolt of energy. Here's what's happening with NBN connections, and how it may affect you.

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So what is NBN Co doing to ensure that I can work from home?

What NBN Co is doing is effectively saying to your service provider that they can access up to 40% more capacity for the next little while. More capacity to share around should mean less of a slowdown for end users.

Or in other words, your Zoom video conference shouldn't break up quite as badly.

In more technical terms, the big platform piece for NBN Co under the current pandemic is the announcement that it's waiving capacity charges for an additional 40% of expected Connectivity Virtual Circuit (CVC). Specifically, according to NBN Co:

"From Monday 23 March, NBN Co will immediately offer retailers access to pricing relief for up to 40 per cent more Connectivity Virtual Circuit (CVC) capacity as required to help meet demand over time at no additional cost."

Source: nbnco

Slow down with the jargon there. What does that even mean in the real world?

CVC is the charge applied to ISPs – your likes of Telstra, Optus, TPG and so on – by NBN Co for the quantity of bandwidth that they use on the network. Finder's Editor in Chief Angus Kidman has a great Smarties analogy that breaks it down and I'm going to borrow the relevant paragraphs here:

"Assume that an ISP has 100 customers connected to the NBN, all on 12/1 plans. ISPs don't have a separate allocation for each one of those connections. Instead, they buy connectivity in bulk. Then they divide that amongst all their customers.

Let's imagine that each MB of connection speed offered on an NBN plan is a Smartie. In order to offer 12 Smarties to each of its 100 consumers, the ISP will need 1,200 Smarties. But our ISP knows that we don't all want to eat a Smartie every second of the day, and we don't all want to eat them at the same time.

So rather than buying 1,200 Smarties just in case we all decide to pig out, the ISP will buy as few as it can get away with, in order to make sure that it can run profitably. That number is effectively the amount of CVC the provider purchases, and represents the total amount of bandwidth it can offer."

Are ISPs obliged to pass on the CVC benefits? Won't this just lead to more profits for them?

Good question! The model as proposed by NBN Co is for additional CVC however "as required to meet demand". It's to do with additional usage on existing accounts, in other words, so hiding extra customers within the additional CVC umbrella would be hard if not downright impossible.

Does this mean that my NBN connection will get 40% faster?

Not exactly, although it's feasible that there are some scenarios where individual consumers may see a slightly improved service. Again, getting back to the Smarties analogy, NBN Co is providing an all-new-super-family-sized pack to its RSP partners (RSP = Retail Service Providers – basically telco companies like Telstra, Optus and the like), and they can then dole them out to us, the children, in the same way that they always did.

If you were on a 100/20 or 100/40 fixed line plan, and that represented one smartie of speed, you're still looking at just one smartie. However, the odds of you getting most of that smartie are better, because there's more around generally to share. ISPs are obliged to publish typical evening speeds for their plans, and for that speed tier they're typically somewhere between 80-90Mbps, or in other words, about 80% to 90% of your smartie.

NBN Co's CVC waiver is essentially there to ensure you still see those kinds of speeds, but this can vary by usage and connection type. You might see a small speed boost if your RSP suddenly has more smarties to throw around, but it shouldn't be in the range of 40% better. Frankly, if it is you need to have a long hard chat to your ISP about why they've had you on the wrong speed tier all this time.

Is NBN Co doing anything else to make sure my broadband will do what I need it to?

NBN Co says that it's closely monitoring the overall usage on the network to meet demand. Typically, the peak of that demand is in the evening, because we're all addicted to Netflix, but with more folks at home either working or indeed binge watching, that's changing.

NBN Co's blog has this to say:

"NBN Co's team of data scientists and network engineers have been studying data consumption patterns in other countries that have been significantly impacted by the pandemic in recent weeks. At the same time, the company's engineering teams have been planning for, and strengthening the network to help meet residential data demand that will likely surge, based on overseas examples, at different times of the day and night."

Which is, let's face it, fairly bland corporate-speak. What it does say that's worth paying attention to is that NBN Co is at least actively looking to provisioning beyond the usual peak periods, which again should improve matters in what previously wouldn't have been peak periods.

My NBN connection is already awful. Will this help in any way?

It… might.

If your ISP is struggling under the new demand as much as everyone else then being able to access additional CVC could make a big change for you.

Really, it depends on the reasons why your existing NBN connection isn't up to scratch. If it's a case of an ISP under-investing in CVC in the first place, a switch to a new provider could be all you need to get better speeds.

But the NBN speed story is also one that revolves heavily around the quality and technology in your connection specifically. There's much less physical reason for a Fibre To The Premises connection to have infrastructure problems than for any of the fixed line methods that rely on copper, including HFC, FTTB, FTTC and FTTN. The more copper (or distance) there is, and the worse the condition of that copper, the less speed you'll ever be able to access on your connection. Adding CVC freebies to RSPs isn't going to change that.

What about repairs or upgrades to the NBN?

This is a tricky one, because in some cases – and especially if you're waiting on an NBN connection right now – it may become harder to actually schedule installations or repairs. If you're not sure about your property's rollout status, you can check it on our NBN tracker. A wait is even more pronounced for upgrades, with NBN Co stating:

" The company is also planning to limit non-essential maintenance to minimise scheduled, planned outages in the weeks ahead to maintain network availability as much as possible."

On one hand that's great. Less downtime when we're stuck at home working is a big plus, and I can speak from experience when I say that my own NBN RSP has already advised me of scheduled maintenance that isn't now going to happen in my own area. This has already started, in other words.

However, on the other hand, this means that maintenance that may have boosted speeds won't take place, and it may well be slower even for what NBN Co deems "non-essential" maintenance, especially if it's not able to secure the services of workers to repair lines or visit premises to inspect issues.

Is there anything I should do with my NBN plan to get ready?

The single biggest question you should pose yourself is the actual speeds you need from your NBN connection. Again you're limited by the technology available to you, with top-tier 100MBps down speeds typically only available to FTTP and HFC customers.

If you've been saving a few bucks on the lower tier 12/1 or 25/5Mbps plans, switching up to a higher speed, especially if you're also juggling kids at home or other people in the house could be wise. If you need to do a lot of video conferencing, switching up to a plan with a higher upload rate can have a massive difference in the quality of what you can send and see, which can significantly impact your productivity.

Many NBN ISPs, including the big players, now operate on month to month contracts, so it should be fairly painless to switch providers, or even just bump up a speed tier for a month or two.

You could even consider getting a mobile broadband plan if you're not happy with your speeds on the NBN. If it's going to keep you productive, or in some cases simply in work or able to run your business, it could be a very wise investment indeed.

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Other quick ways to save money

Are you worried about your finances during this time? Don't forget to review your bills - spending a little time on admin, could save you over the weeks and months to come.

Here are some guides on how to save some money on your daily expenses. There are plenty of things you could do, from checking your energy rates, switching to a low-interest credit card, or simply dropping parts of your insurance that you don't need.

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