NBN $3.5 billion upgrade: Will you get faster Internet?

Posted: 23 September 2020 4:15 pm
NBN Co Cooks Hill FTTN Installation Cnr of Darby and Parry St, Cooks Hill Newcastle. 27th July 2015. 270715

NBN contractor

NBN Co is shaking up its multi-technology mix with the promise that millions more homes will be able to get up to 1Gbps connections, but when will it happen – and what will it cost you?

NBN Co has announced a major fresh investment in upgrades to the national broadband network this week, topped by a $3.5 billion upgrade plan that will see local fibre networks commissioned and built over existing Fibre to the Node (FTTN) areas, turning them into full Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) connections.

That's very similar – not quite identical – to the original model proposed for the NBN that would have seen the vast majority of NBN connections made under a FTTP basis, which was scrapped in favour of the "multi-technology mix" (MTM) connection system that saw customers getting a mix of FTTP, FTTN, Fibre To the Curb (FTTC) and Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) NBN connections rolled out over time.

I'm on a slower connection. When can I get a full fibre connection?

The speed of your connection may not be related to the NBN connection technology in play, because it's entirely possible to sign up to a slow speed connection over a full fibre connection. However, for the majority of NBN connected premises in Australia, the connection tech in play is Fibre to the Node, and that's what going to be upgraded under this new scheme.

The investment plan will see local fibre networks rolled out in FTTN areas over the next 3 years, but there's not a great deal of detail just yet as to which areas will see the rollout first.

What NBN Co has indicated in its revised corporate plan is that while eventually around 2 million additional homes will be able to order faster NBN connections, it only sees the actual rollout pace at around 200,000 premises actually upgraded in each of 2023 and 2024. So it'll be a while, in other words, and not necessarily fast even once upgrades are rolling out.

Critically, the plan works on creating that fibre network in an area as cabling that will run down a given street, but with end-user connections only going live when an order is placed for a higher-speed connection.

Speed is a huge limiting factor for FTTN connections, with many users complaining of low speeds or the inability to order higher speed packages if they want them, but the plan calls for consumers to be upgraded to FTTP if they're planning on taking up a plan of over 100Mbps. If you simply wanted FTTP reliability on your current speed plan, that wouldn't be enough to trigger an automatic upgrade.

It's not clear how (or if) NBN Co would deal with customers requesting an upgrade for a faster plan but then switching down to a slower plan once the installation had taken place. Currently consumers can request an FTTP upgrade under the Technology Choices plan with the cost being borne by the consumer for that upgrade. It's possible, but not confirmed that you may have to contract for a faster plan for a guaranteed period in order to qualify for a FTTP upgrade without paying for it.

There's also the potential for logjams in actually getting the lead-in connected to your home, given it's on a user-requested principle. In theory this could mean a coexistent mix of customers on full FTTP and then those on FTTN who didn't request an upgrade, which could pose challenges in terms of network maintenance for NBN Co in the future.

How fast will the new NBN plans be?

Technically no faster than the current top-tier NBN plans, which top out at 1Gbps down connectivity. The catch there is that only a very small proportion of the overall NBN ecosystem can currently order those plans. If you're on full FTTP now, or in limited cases on HFC, you can order a 1Gbps plan, but they're totally off the menu for FTTN/FTTC customers.

The plan calls for up to 1Gbps plans to be accessible for up to 8 million homes across the nation, or around 75% of the total NBN footprint. Bear in mind that figure almost certainly includes the existing FTTP and smaller proportion of HFC customers who can already access plans at that speed, so it's not a question of 75% of the FTTN footprint being covered.

If NBN Co follows its prior history, we can expect it to provide rollout details and area coverage plans in the coming days and months, but we'll have to wait and see.

What is the experience of higher-speed NBN like?

We've tested out NBN 250/25 – otherwise known as "NBN Home Superfast" – and you can read our impressions of the speeds and capabilities of the network here.

What plan speeds will be available?

Again, this isn't 100% clear at this point in time, and it may change depending on market usage and demands, but if we're going off currently available plans for existing customers who can access these speeds, you should be able to order plans at 1000/50 ("NBN Home Ultrafast") and 250/25 ("NBN Home Superfast") speeds.

How much will the new NBN plans cost?

It's worth remembering that NBN Co does not set final consumer prices. It's a wholesaler to ISPs who then offer plans to you with their own margin placed on top of the fees they have to pay NBN Co. By the time you're actually able to order a faster NBN plan, the prices charged at either step may have changed, but based off currently available plans, you're probably looking in the region of $100-$120 for a 250/25 plan, and around $120-$150 for a 1000/50 plan.

For comparative purposes, here's the currently available range of consumer NBN plans above 100Mbps download and their pricing:

You can find out more about NBN's range of higher speed plans here.

Will I need new hardware for a faster NBN connection?

Yes, you will. Aside from ordering in the new connection and plan, which would kickstart the process of putting the fibre lead-in to your property, there's a fundamental difference between FTTN and FTTP connections, and that's at the point where you connect up your modem-router.

FTTN connections use the existing in-house copper wiring and connections for a VDSL2+ connection, which means that you don't have a network termination device (NTD) installed.

FTTP connections do require a NTD, which means that you'd have to get that installed, although given the user-demand model proposed, that should presumably come as part of the fibre install process. Depending on the specifics of the modem-router your ISP provided or that you purchased, it may also require replacement.

I'm on FTTC or HFC. What happens with my connection?

If you're part of the smaller HFC or FTTC footprint, the current plan does not currently call for any upgrades to full FTTP, but instead for investment to bring more of the HFC and FTTC basis of the NBN up to gigabit capability, although there's not a specific timeframe for when those upgrades will come into play.

Do people really want faster speeds anyway?

Faster speeds aren't necessarily for absolutely everyone, but there's certainly evidence that more and more Australians are seeking out faster NBN connections. Looking at NBN Co's own figures for August 2020, 69% of homes and businesses were on connections of 50Mbps or better, up from 65% a year prior.

If I get a Gigabit plan, will I always be surfing at gigabit speeds?

Almost certainly not. The realities of broadband provision mean that the speed of your plan is an effective "top" speed for the plan, and to date, the smaller cohort of NBN ISPs that offer gigabit plans to consumers have done so on a "best effort" basis, with most advertising typical evening speeds of around 250Mbps or better.

The real point of a gigabit plan for most isn't likely to be a single user on a blazing fast connection, but instead giving your home the capability for multiple shared connections at very high speeds, whether that's for work-from-home use or more entertainment-focused activities.

I'm not on a fixed wired NBN connection – will I ever see FTTP?

We can't 100% rule it out – and bear in mind for the past few years NBN Co was adamant that FTTP itself wasn't needed by a lot of consumers anyway – but it seems unlikely.

Those areas serviced by Fixed Wireless and Satellite NBN are that way largely due to their remote nature. NBN Co has said that it's looking into further investment possibilities for local areas serviced by these technologies through a $300 million co-investment fund, however.

What about business users?

The story is slightly different if you're a business user operating out of a premises where there's plenty of other businesses, as NBN Co has separately announced a new scheme this week with a $700 million investment that will see the creation of 240 "Business Fibre Zones" across Australia, including 85 regional centres.

These business fibre zones will be upgraded to full fibre if it's not already present, as well as seeing a cut in the costs of enterprise-grade ethernet connectivity. Those plans are considerably more expensive than consumer NBN, but come with more in the way of service guarantees and synchronous download and upload rates.

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