The Government's NBN rollout is very much in its infancy, and as it is with any infant, there are teething issues.
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) reported that complaints about NBN services doubled in 2016, with many of the complaints relating to line faults and slow data speeds.
As you'll see as we move through this complex topic, a number of these issues relate to the network, the technology and the relationship between the Nbn™ and the service providers. Unfortunately this means that there is a limit to what you can do to improve the performance of the NBN at home. Often times this isn't a matter of tweaking settings in your router or on your computer.
Note: To save confusion, we'll be referring to Nbn™ (the company) and NBN (the network) throughout this article.
Some of the key villains
Distance from the node
If you're home is connected to the NBN using Fibre to the Node technology, the distance that your house is from the node can make a huge difference in the speed and performance of your service. Nbn™ estimates that about 90% of homes should be within 700m of the nearest node, but even at this distance the signal over the old copper wires can degrade quite a bit.
This is referred to as attenuation and it was one of the key reasons why many people experienced slow ADSL2+ speeds as well. Basically, a house sitting next to the node will get a great speed, while houses further away will experience this attenuation and slower speeds. See below for an indicative illustration of what attenuation looks like.
To make matter worse, it is difficult to find out exactly which node your home connects to and the distance it is from your front door. This makes it hard to estimate the connection you should expect and the speed tier that would be best for you.
Likewise with Fixed Wireless and Satellite connections. There is no node in these connections, but there are a number of technological obstacles between your home and the greater internet, so you may find that there are hard limits on what sort of performance you can expect from your connection.
This is something you've probably heard about. When people discuss slow NBN speeds they tend to point the finger at their Netflix-loving neighbours, and kids on YouTube after school.
Why is this? Well, the service providers buy access to the NBN in bulk. They assess the number of connections in a certain area then predict how much bandwidth they need. Bandwidth is capacity, sort of like the size of the pipe carrying water to all of the homes in a given area. The bigger the pipe that the providers buy, the more homes they can service, but at a higher cost to them. The smaller the pipe, the more each home needs to share what is available and take a hit to performance.
This relates to what we said earlier about issues relating to relationships between Nbn™ and the providers. The providers need to increase capacity for customers and want Nbn™ to make access cheaper so they can buy more bandwidth and build more competitive plans. Nbn™ has adjusted pricing, but not enough to encourage huge shifts in pricing yet. It's a corporate tug-o-war which will hopefully sort itself out sooner rather than later.
Basic connection issues
Rolling out a nationwide broadband network; no one said this would be easy. Many of the complaints that the TIO is fielding relate to good old fashioned incompetence, delays and faulty equipment. This definitely isn't something related specifically to the NBN, but it is frustrating nonetheless. With millions of homes and businesses to connect, there are bound to be errors. Thousands and thousands of them. As they say, you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Not that you should accept a faulty connection, but with a project of this scale, it is best to exercise a little patience.
But, before you burn you modem, move to cave and swear off the internet forever, here are a few things to try.
Test with a direct connection
Before you make your mind up about your internet connection, you should test the speed with a direct connection to the modem. By this, we mean plugging a laptop into the modem using an Ethernet cable — not testing using WiFi. There are a number of reasons why your WiFi connection might suck, so plugging in is the only way to get a clear reading on what you connection actually looks like.
You should also try testing your connection at different times of the day to try and identify whether congestion is an issue. Is your connection OK in the morning, but unusable in the evening? That might be the key bit of information you need to make your next decision.
A different modem/router
When it comes to an internet connection, you can only really control the elements inside your home, and you might find that the modem you were sent for free by your service provider is the culprit. We've heard several stories from our readers about how a replacement modem made all the difference in connecting the devices in their homes with a decent, solid connection. This is especially true with WiFi. If you've run a direct connection test as suggested above, but struggle with devices connected over WiFi, it could be a good indicator that your modem isn't up to scratch.
We know that buying a new modem and setting it up is a pain in the neck, but it might be the difference between mediocre internet and getting the service you pay for. Just make sure you unpack the modem carefully and keep your receipt: if you find that the modem is not the culprit, you'll want to return the new one.
Consider a switch
If congestion is the problem, you might find that switching to a different service provider is in order. Think about it this way — if one service provider is much cheaper than another could they be penny-pinching on capacity? We'll never know for sure, but given what we do know about NBN pricing so far, a cheaper price may indicate a greater gamble on bandwidth allocation from your provider.
Make sure you start with a no-contract NBN plan to give yourself the freedom to move if you're unhappy with the service you get. You might find that network performance doesn't improve with a new provider, though, which would point to a greater technological limitation in your area.
Start on a slower speed
Nbn™ will hate us for saying this, but you might consider starting on a slower, cheaper plan and step up to faster speeds after you've tested the connection. After all, if you live 700m from the node cabinet, you might only be able to get speeds up to 50Mbps.
Choose a no contract plan to keep your options open and sign up for a 12Mbps or 25Mbps connection. Then, if all is well, move up to 100Mbps and see what you get. If you move up and find you are not getting the speed you should be getting, move back down to a slower speed and save money until the corporates figure out what they're doing.
At this point it is as much about managing our expectations as it is about demanding a better service. NBN service providers should deliver us with the speeds that we're pay for, but we know that this isn't the case for many Australians. The ACCC is on your side and is recommending changing to advertising so that service providers will be compelled to report real-world speed estimations. This will be great when it happens.
In the meantime, we should keep complaining to the TIO and vote with our feet. If limitations in NBN technology mean that you can't get 100Mbps to your home, then don't pay for 100Mbps. If your service provider makes things difficult for you, take your business elsewhere. We have no doubt that things will improve over time, just look at our awesome mobile phone networks, but in the meantime we need to protect ourselves.
Angry hipster image via Shutterstock