Things to consider when making the switch to the NBN and what to expect

NBN HFC setup. Author

With all of the negative press about Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), consumers who have the option to switch to the NBN from a working broadband connection might be forgiven for being cautious. After the NBN is made available in an area, residents have up to 18 months to switch from their current plans to one provided on the NBN. Once it is available in an area however, residents are usually deluged with offers from various internet service providers (ISPs) about switching, making it hard to ignore.

Moving to NBN on HFC

In my area in Western Australia, I have had HFC from Telstra for many years and so changing to the NBN does not involve a change in the underlying technology. Although some researchers have classified HFC as being an inferior technology to Fibre to the Node, it is actually capable of delivering speeds of 100 Mbps down and 40 Mbps up. Within the next one to two years HFC will be capable of 1 Gbps speeds with the roll out of DOCSIS 3.1.

HFC connections may still suffer if ISPs do not adequately provision adequate CVC capacity on the NBN but HFC does not have the same limitations as Fibre to the Node with regard to the distance from the node. There is also a possibility that the NBN will see more homes connected to a node than was the case when Telstra ran the network. This may also impact performance.

In my case, I was consistently getting speeds of 100 Mbps for downloads but only 2 Mbps for uploads. Prior to the NBN, these speeds have been a luxury for those Australian’s who lived in areas that were services by Telstra and Optus with HFC.

Making the switch to the NBN was relatively simple but uncovered some decisions that it is worth spending time considering. If doing a conversion, some of the options aren’t made obvious by the sales team and so need to be explicitly requested.

The question of speed

Once you have decided on an ISP, there is the question of what speed of connection is available at any given residence. HFC doesn’t suffer from a slowdown based on the distance from the “node” and so speeds up to 100 Mbps are available. ISPs like Telstra however, sell plans based on download limits and at the default of 25 Mpbs. Choosing up to 100 Mbps costs another AUD 30 a month.

It seems that for most Australians who have connected to the NBN, the default of 25 Mbps has been the most popular choice, with 53% of fixed connections being at 25 Mbps and a further 29% at the lowest tier of 12 Mbps. For the average family just watching streaming video and using social media and browsing, this is likely to be fine. It has resulted however in the overall average speed of internet connections in Australia remaining low at 10.1 Mbps.

Choice of wireless router

Another choice that doesn’t seem important at the time is the choice of wireless router that ISPs offer. Here again, the default for Telstra is a basic Sagemcom F@ST 5535. And it is basic. It doesn’t support the fastest wireless protocols used by recent smartphones and laptops, 802.11ac. The fixed cable connections from the router are also not the fastest kind. Not having the fastest wireless can make a significant difference to the overall speed of the internet connection of devices and so it is always worth upgrading.

Some of the routers also have the ability to fail over to using 4G if the NBN connection is not available for any reason. This may be important because on the NBN, the landline phone is switched over to using the main internet connection using Voice over IP (VoIP) and not the physical connection over the old copper network. However, if the power goes out, the phone will also be unavailable even by this route.

Other than for the phone connection, any wireless router can be connected to the NBN modem. The Telstra router can then be simply used for the phone connection and its WiFi switched off.

Making the switch

For me, and I stress the personal nature of this, the switch was fast, efficient and painless. From contacting Telstra, the wireless router was shipped within 4 days and the appointment with the NBN technician booked for a week after the order was placed. Any interaction with the Telstra NBN connection staff involved little wait times and the only negatives were some confusing emails and an order status that said the order was delayed when it wasn’t.

The NBN technician arrived and didn’t need to switch the physical box attached to the wall outside the house. It was just a question of plugging in the modem, making sure it worked, and telling NBN and Telstra to switch it all on. The technician gave me advice of avoiding being disconnected when making the switch over from the old system to the new and then left, although I had been barraging him with questions about how the rollout was going.

Getting connected was just a question of connecting the wireless router to the NBN modem, switching it on and connecting to the wireless network. As I mentioned above, I use Apple wireless routers and so altered the configuration after things were connected.

And the results?

The download speed dropped from the Telstra non-NBN connection. During the morning, I got about 94 Mbps download. The massive difference was in the upload speed which is now about 38 Mbps. This is a huge bonus over the existing connection which gave 2 Mbps. Upload speeds are never really thought about as a problem until you realise that synchronising with services like iCloud, Google Drive and DropBox all become significantly faster with the NBN connection.

However, in the evening, the speed dropped to between 50 - 70 Mbps download and 23 - 35 Mbps upload. This was something that didn’t happen on the Telstra non-NBN connection which was consistent even in the evenings.

It is still early days and as more people connect in my immediate area, bandwidth may be further affected. Telstra may also ramp up the capacity so that there are not these changes in speed based on the time of day.

Update from NBN Co

In response to the article, a spokesperson from NBN Co clarified the following points:

[1] With regard to the number of HFC connections per node:

“At present Telstra runs around 1000 premises on an HFC node sharing 1Gbps of capacity. On the nbn we will have only 650 premises per Node and once we reach full DOCSIS 3.1 we will have 10Gbps of capacity available”

[2] Regarding the speed drop I had experienced in the evenings:

“Your speed drop in the evening is almost certainly CVC related”