Is The NBN Coronavirus-Ready?

Is The NBN Coronavirus-Ready?

Doubts have been raised by some that Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) will cope with the rapid increase in the number of Australians working from home and self-isolating due to the COVID-19 crisis.

NBN and the coronavirus COVID-19SARS-CoV-2— the virus that causes COVID-19 Image: NIAID, CC BY 2.0

As we mentioned last week, telework is ramping up here and overseas in order to put some distance between workers and the coronavirus. It really wasn’t all that long ago telecommuting wouldn’t have been possible; so it raises the question of what would have happened in the 1990’s if COVID-19 had hit. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest the Internet has saved lives – not just through teleworking, but also information (granted, there’s been a bunch of misinformation too).

But as more Australians spend more time at home; concerns have been raised that if some aspects of the NBN were providing a less than stellar service before, what will it be like in the weeks and possibly months ahead?

COVID-19 And The NBN

Early this week, the Morrison Government convened a roundtable with representatives from Australia’s major telecommunications companies concerning COVID-19 preparations. In keeping with the social distancing message, this roundtable was held via video link.

“NBN Co and other industry participants are expecting a change in traffic patterns, with higher traffic levels during the day and increased activity in the suburbs as compared to business districts,” said Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher MP. “All of these factors are being taken into consideration with retail service providers in provisioning the network.”

While the Minister appears pleased with the steps taken, including NBN Co currently optimising its network; one of the potential pain points is Fibre-To-The-Node (FTTN) technology connecting many Australian households. Some are opining that where it was delivering poor service before, it may become worse in the time ahead. Hybrid Fibre-Coaxial (HFC) connections are also a concern, as is residential fixed wireless via the NBN.

Even just generally, service could potentially degrade. Telstra CEO Andy Penn recently warned customers might have to “ration their internet“. Service providers work on the premise that X number of users will be connected to the internet at any time. This is known as “contention ratio”. When the number and their activity exceeds what is allowed for, speeds and generally quality can degrade.

Businesses Need To Plan – For Themselves And Workers

Regardless of the NBN technology used, another challenge is the nature of access plans generally under the NBN – they aren’t symmetrical. Symmetrical broadband plans are those where the upload speed is the same as download. The asymmetrical nature of many NBN-based plans could pose a challenge for some workers trying to operate from home when they are attempting to transfer large files or participating in two-way bandwidth-intensive applications such as video conferencing.

Businesses also need good commercial grade connections with guaranteed upload speeds and high reliability now more than ever, so staff working from home can access resources still located at their offices.

But the NBN isn’t the only game in town. A number of non-NBN providers have popped up in recent years that approach managing their networks differently. Among these providers is Lightning Broadband, which offers symmetrical plans, low contention ratios and in the case of its commercial services, Service Level Agreements offering guarantees on reliability.

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