18 March 2020



I’ve recently received an abundance of memes questioning whether the NBN might fold, as the impact of COVID-19 leads more Australians to access the internet from home. I enjoy a good meme, and I’ve always been fascinated by their ability to hit the mark – but on this occasion, I feel the need to push back.

We are in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis that has raised legitimate questions about how our social infrastructure and services will cope.

In Europe, aggressive social isolation measures have led to internet traffic increasing by more than 20 per cent in countries such as Italy[1]. More people are working from home. Students are studying at home. Fewer people are going out in the evening and instead taking up entertainment options at home.

In normal times, traffic on the NBN at 9pm is typically double what is seen between 9am and 5pm.[2] So even if daytime traffic grew significantly, it seems unlikely to surpass the evening peak. The more likely scenario is the evening peak will increase as more Australians choose to remain indoors.

This matters because the performance of telecommunications networks during times of crisis, as with websites, is a function of how they manage peak demand.

Peak evening internet traffic in Australia has been growing at around 25 per cent annually over the past decade. History shows fixed line networks are well engineered to cope.

So while the NBN as it stands today has many shortcomings, its ability to withstand more Australians using the internet from home needs some perspective grounded in facts.

In 2009, when Labor announced its plan for a National Broadband Network, a key objective was to expand fibre connectivity as far as economically viable.

At the time, the decision was criticised by many.

Some argued the government shouldn’t be investing public money in a fixed-line network given wireless technology was evolving.

Others argued Australia was too large and expensive to wire up, despite the majority of the population being concentrated in areas that are actually economic for a public entity to serve.

Heading into the 2010 election, the then Liberal Opposition played into this narrative by announcing it would build a metropolitan wireless network if elected, and cancel the planned NBN rollout.[3]

Frankly, had this bizarre proposal proceeded, the resulting network would have buffered so regularly the majority of Australians would not have used it.

This is why Labor successfully insisted on extending the fixed-line network as far as the economics would allow. We understood this was essential towards supporting telehealth, online education and remote working, benefiting families and businesses particularly in the regions and outer suburbs.

In comparison, wireless, which is a great technology for mobile applications, still faces challenges during busy parts of the day in the context of home broadband delivery.

The regional NBN wireless network, which is underpinned by 4G, is an instructive case study.

This network has a take up rate of 46 per cent after 18 months[4], compared to 74 per cent on the fixed NBN network.

Yet despite there being fewer users, the NBN can only guarantee speeds of 6 megabits per second over wireless during the evening peak. This is nearly ten times less than what the network can deliver during quiet periods.

One of the key drivers of this is because wireless capacity on a given tower is shared among many users, ranging from tens to hundreds.

On a fixed network, however, the capacity on the line or cable running into your home is typically not shared with other households.

This means fixed networks are far less likely to be overwhelmed in periods where lots of people need to use the internet at the same time.

While it’s no secret the NBN has been undermined by costly and unnecessary technology compromises, at the very least, it remains a fixed-line network to more than 90 per cent of the population.

For this reason, we should be confident the network will remain available and operational as the impact of COVID-19 tests our resolve in the weeks and months ahead.

Objectively speaking, we have bigger issues to worry about. Whether the NBN will implode should not be one of them right now.
This opinion piece was first published on InnovationAus on Wednesday, 18 March 2020.