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Should you switch to mobile broadband or stay on the NBN?

With everyone working from home, the NBN is under a lot of pressure. With the 5G rollout continuing, it might be worth switching to mobile Internet.

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As our nation's broadband networks hit peak demand due to coronavirus forcing people to work from home, we've assessed the pros and cons of sticking to fixed line Internet or jumping onto a mobile network.

These days, Internet access is as much of a utility as power or water, and for many people working, learning or simply stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic, it's an essential lifeline to everything from government services to episodes of Tiger King.

Which is all fine and dandy if it's working as it should, but the increasing strain on the NBN may well have you pondering if it's your best option. Your mobile phone already relies on the existing – and generally world-leading – 4G and 5G networks we have here in Australia. Is it worth your while switching to a mobile network if your NBN connection isn't giving you what you need?

What's good and bad about the NBN?

Pros

Cons

What's good and bad about mobile broadband connections?

Pros

Cons

Should I get 5G as a replacement for the NBN?

5G may be worth considering if you're on an NBN connection at the end of a long copper line (FTTN) or if you're still waiting for an actual NBN connection and struggling by on what's left of Australia's ADSL infrastructure.

For ADSL, you won't ever see anything near 50Mbps download speeds, and while that's a technology with a limited shelf life, NBN Co is obliged to hit up your premises eventually even if you have been classed as a difficult build and passed over until now. If you're already on the NBN and consistently seeing sub-standard speeds, there's some scope here for better performance over time. That's especially true if your ISP has advised that your line conditions can't support speeds above 50Mbps, which is a reasonable percentage of all FTTN users.

Telcos have been mostly reluctant to talk up their 5G networks as NBN competitors so far, mostly because they all also offer NBN products to consumers. It's also difficult to guarantee speeds when it comes to using mobile networks.

What about an unlimited plan on a mobile network?

Unlimited usage plans are a cornerstone of most NBN plans, and right now even the plans that do have data limits have either waived them or bumped up the quotas by an amount that for most users may as well be "unlimited".

On the mobile broadband side of the fence, it's mostly a story of data limits and then excess-usage charges, but there are plans that allow for unlimited usage, with just a few catches.

Optus's heavily advertised 5G home broadband is sold as a direct competitor to NBN plans for $70 per month on either month-to-month or 24-month contract terms. Optus guarantees a minimum download speed of 50Mbps on that plan. That's broadly comparable to the pricing you can pay for a 50/20 NBN plan at the upper end of the market, too.

The catch with Optus's 5G offerings is that they're only available where Optus has already rolled out 5G, and even then there's a qualifying process so that Optus can ensure it meets its 50Mbps download guarantee.

The other primary "unlimited" option for mobile broadband in Australia comes from Telstra, which sells a range of SIM-only month-to-month data-only plans. You can incorporate a new device into these plans, but by themselves, they start at just $15 per month with no excess data charges.

The catch here is that while these plans have no excess data charges, they do have full-speed data limits. Take that entry-level $15 per month plan, for example. You get 5GB of data as fast as your device can feed it to you. That could be even up to 5G speeds at no extra cost until 30 June 2020 if you are in a Telstra 5G area.

However, once you go over that 5GB limit – and that's only worth a few streamed shows – your speeds are capped at just 1.5Mbps downstream for the remainder of your billing month. If you've been riding high on speeds of 100Mbps or more, dropping down to just 1.5% or less of those speeds will be noticeable. It's technically sufficient for standard definition Netflix streaming, but only just, and only really if you can get all of that 1.5Mbps downstream all the time. Expect more than a few buffering messages and blocky visuals when this happens.

If you're on a current Telstra postpaid mobile phone plan, you already get the same offering, so you could use your existing phone as a mobile hotspot and use your data the same way.

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