Op-Ed: NBN can handle working from home surge being experienced
As we respond to COVID-19, there are suddenly lots more Australians working from home.
Many people are wondering if the network can cope with this surge in demand.
In fact, with the rollout of the National Broadband Network now 95 per cent complete, we are much better positioned than if this had happened a few years ago.
The design of the NBN sees around 92 per cent of premises across Australia connected to a fixed line service, using very high capacity fibre optic cable for most or all of the distance to the customer premises—either fibre to the premises, to the curb, to the node, or hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC).
Ninety per cent of fixed line services will be able to receive a speed of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps), the remainder at least 25 Mbps. For those on fixed wireless and satellite, there is a minimum peak speed of 25 Mbps.
The NBN carries a lot of data. On average, Australians download 293 gigabytes (GB) of data a month over the fixed line network—close to 30 times the typical download amount 10 years ago.
Now it is true that with many people now being at home all day, traffic levels on the network during the day will rise. So far, day time traffic is up about 70 per cent—broadly in line with the day time traffic increases observed in Italy.
But while this may sound like a major challenge for NBN to meet, in fact it is not. Under normal conditions, the peak traffic level occurs at night—at about twice the typical traffic level during the day. Because the network is designed to the peak traffic level, this means there is plenty of available capacity during the day.
During the day, average traffic levels are only about half the busy hour. Put another way, there is enough headroom in the network to cope with traffic during the day going up by 100 per cent.
NBN has also moved quickly to make sure that its wholesale pricing structure does not limit the amount of capacity available to Australian homes.
That capacity is provided through the 'connectivity virtual circuit' (CVC) which is purchased by retail service providers like Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and TPG—and in turn determines how much bandwidth they can provide to their customers.
NBN has increased by 40 per cent the amount of CVC capacity it provides to retail service providers, at no extra cost, for at least three months.
NBN's new policy is being implemented immediately and will apply to all of its technologies across fixed line, fixed wireless and satellite.
This ability to surge extra capacity is one way the NBN helps to deal with this rapid shift to working from home. Another way the NBN helps is that—unlike earlier generations of broadband—its services typically offer high upload speeds as well as download speeds.
If you are watching a movie, all you care about is the size of the pipe bringing the movie to you. But if you are on a video conference with a work colleague or a client, upload capacity is just as important: that is, the size of the pipe taking your images and sounds across the network to the person you are speaking to.
A standard fixed line NBN plan offering a download peak speed of 50 Mbps, for example, automatically comes with a 20 Mbps upload speed; that is why these plans are described as "50/20."
Two thirds of customers on the NBN take a 50 Mbps or higher speed plan and hence automatically have the 20 Mbps upload.
Australia is seeing a rapid, unexpected jump in the number of people working from home.
Of course NBN and the other telcos need to keep carefully monitoring traffic and moving quickly to respond to any bottlenecks which emerge.
And the end to end experience people will get depends not just on NBN's network—it will also depend on factors like international connections, the internal corporate networks that people are connecting to, and the particular video conferencing or other application that people are using.
But in these fast changing circumstances, it is clearly a positive that many millions of Australian homes are now connected to a national network which offers substantially more capacity than the networks we all used just a few years ago.
Paul Fletcher is Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts
Originally published on afr.com on 30 March 2020 and in print in the Australian Financial Review on 31 March 2020