Welcome to Which-50’s COVID-19 Disruption Series which examines how Australia’s digital infrastructure is coping with the society-wide disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Catch up on the rest of the series here.
Government, regulators and some of the tech industry’s biggest players report Australia’s National Broadband Network is coping well with an unprecedented surge in internet traffic resulting from coronavirus social distancing measures.
Temporary compromises, most notably video quality downgrades from streaming giants, means the network has so far, according to the NBN Co., seen no “material increase” in congestion, network faults or outages compared to previous months, despite network traffic increasing by around 25 per cent at peak evening times and around 70 per cent during the day.
But experts argue the increased traffic is adding strain to a network not yet finished but already out of date by global standards. And while the network may still function, the current health crisis has laid bare the decrepit state of Australia’s broadband infrastructure.
The pinch is being disproportionately felt by those on the wrong side of the NBN’s “digital divide” – users reliant on the lesser of Australia’s Multi-Technology Mix – and accentuated by a broken data model.
Australia goes online
The speed of change in internet traffic in Australia is unprecedented, according to Mathew Lynn, the regional sales director for internet giant Akamai.
“We’ve seen a tremendous sudden increase in traffic since Australia implemented its social distancing measures. We’ve seen a 30 per cent increase in internet traffic across the board in the last eight weeks.”
Ecommerce, banking and government services have led to a surge in online traffic as retail locations shut down. But it is an explosion in video, software downloads, gaming and social networking driving the traffic as people look to replicate their social lives in the virtual world.
And while daytime traffic has surged 70 per cent it still has not surpassed peak evening levels which have also jumped under social distancing.
Lynn says typical internet traffic patterns peak on Friday and Saturday nights when video streaming is in full swing. Otherwise, it is a one off event like a global game release, election or sporting event driving peaks.
“But what we are witnessing now is a sustained spike in traffic which we expect to last months, not hours.”
When social distancing measures do ease, it is unlikely people will fully revert to their pre-coronavirus habits, according to Lynn.
“After you’ve been doing all your shopping online for six months, do you suddenly revert back to 85 per cent in store and 15 per cent online? Most students are now learning remotely and universities have made significant investments to deliver that at scale and are getting it to work effectively. Do you then go back to only face-to-face tutorials?”
Akamai, which serves a significant amount of the world’s online content, is bracing for a “step change” in the adoption of online platforms.
“We’re now planning for a situation where we will need to support a 100 per cent traffic increase on the Akamai platform before the end of 2020, up from 74 per cent last year.”
The problem for Australia is its National Broadband Network, what RMIT Associate Professor Mark Gregory describes as a “lemon”.
“Because of the second rate technologies, the obsolete technologies that have been forced on the NBN by the Coalition there’s large anecdotal evidence across social media and Twitter … that the reliability in terms of what people are getting is really bad,” says Gregory.
“Dropouts, congestion, poor quality is rife across the network.”
Gregory tells Which-50 that it is the customers forced to use fibre to the node and fixed wireless who are typically experiencing these problems as traffic surges during the COVID-19 crisis.
Hard data on speeds and dropouts during the current crisis won’t be publicly available until after May, when the ACCC releases its next quarterly broadband performance report. For now, Gregory says, given the toxic history of Australia’s broadband network history, he is wary of proclamations from Government ministers and NBN Co.
“The government, on the one hand, is putting out press releases saying everything’s wonderful and hunky dory. The NBN Co is putting out press releases saying everything’s wonderful and hunky dory. And we’ve got numerous global rankings of different varieties looking at different things, and we plummeting down them.
“So let’s guess who’s telling the truth on how good the NBN is.”
Australia is dead last in the OECD for affordable broadband and currently hovers around 60th in popular global speed test rankings. NBN Co., unhappy with the negative press, last year commissioned its own research which it claimed was a more representative comparison. Australia ranked 17th in the NBN Co. commissioned analysis, much higher but still trailing regional neighbours Singapore, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand, all of which have much higher rates of fibre to the premise.
New Zealand, in particular, stands as a stark reminder of what could have been for digital infrastructure, Gregory says. Retailers there pay a fixed cost to Chorus, the NBN Co equivalent, which says it will have delivered fibre to the premises to nearly 87 per cent of homes by 2022. For comparable monthly fees, New Zealanders now get ultrafast broadband – around three times the average speeds of Australia – and retailers depend on over the top services to win customers.
But in Australia retailers must pay NBN Co an access fee and pay per megabit of data, creating an environment where there’s less incentive for retailers to purchase the bandwidth they need to avoid congestion at peak times, according to Gregory.
The inherent faults of that business model and the Coalition government’s “Mixed Technology Mix” (MTM) have been highlighted in the current crisis where millions of Australians are now forced to work and learn remotely, Gregory says.
“If you’re working from home and you’re wanting to upload large files, or you’re wanting to talk with people over high quality links, or you want to do development into this new economy, like video games and virtual reality, Australia is not the place you want to be.”
In March the government and the NBN Co established a special working group including major telcos in response to COVID-19 and announced it was allocating more data to retailers at no cost for three months. The move allowed retailers to temporarily access more data, helping with congestion and allowing them to increase customers’ data allowances.
In mid-April NBN Co also unveiled another $150 million temporary relief fund for residential and SMB customers suffering financial hardship. The fund also provides free temporary internet for unconnected, low-income families with school-aged children.
According to Laurie Patton, former CEO of Internet Australia and current vice president of Telsoc, an Australian telecommunications association, the data increases will mean little for those on the wrong side of the NBN’s “digital divide”.
“Where [the NBN] falls down is somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of the people who are on the network on NBN have got fibre to the node. And no amount of extra data will make fibre to the node go faster,” Patton tells Which-50.
FTTN customers rely on Telstra’s copper wiring which Patton says can be 60 years old. The copper wiring is severely limited in the speeds it can produce compared to the fibre technology which the Labor government had planned to deliver to 90 per cent of Australian homes. Under Labor’s plan some homes did receive full fibre to the premises before the coalition government took over and opted for its MTM.
“So basically there’s a digital divide,” Patton says. “There are the lucky Australians who’ve got 21st century broadband. And then there’s the other half who stuck with an inferior service that either is slow or is unreliable and is plagued by dropouts.
“And that’s the bit that [communications minister] Paul Fletcher and NBN Co are basically skipping over.”
In late March Fletcher penned an opinion piece for the business press, insisting the NBN will cope with the increased demand and 90 per cent of fixed line services will be able to “receive” a speed of 50Mbps.
According to data from user speed tests, Australian fixed broadband customers had download speeds of just over 43 Mbps in March, good for a global ranking of 62nd. The same tests show Australia’s internet performance has only dropped five per cent from pre-COVID-19 levels.
Patton argues the government and NBN Co are relying on these types of figures and temporary compromises from online content providers to show stability but are neglecting to address more fundamental problems and inequalities of the network.
“They’re saying everything is working like it did before. Well, it didn’t work before for half the population. And so for people who are working from home or who are studying online, if they were fine a year ago, they’re fine now. If they would have struggled a year ago, they’ll be struggling now.”
Communications minister Paul Fletcher’s office didn’t directly answer Which-50s question about how the crisis could impact policy in the future, instead pointing to the current temporary measures to increase capacity.
“The NBN rollout is now more than 97 per cent complete, which means Australia is well placed to stay connected and productive from home during this challenging time,” a spokesperson for Minister Fletcher said.
“The Government also welcomes the initiatives put in place by the telecommunications providers in response to the coronavirus, which include data boosts for customers and free services for healthcare workers.”
Akamai’s Lynn says the ‘last mile’ of internet delivery is not necessarily the problem for the NBN Co. While Australia’s fixed line connections are increasingly out of step with other developed nations they are still capable of handling popular consumer tasks like movie streaming.
“The last mile – the connection to the home – can support it,” Lynn says.
“But the problem is at the core, deeper in the network where it gets aggregated in the data centres and you don’t have the same capacity growth there. These are the long haul connections. If we stay in lockdown, the strain on the infrastructure gets progressively worse.
“Typically, traffic and capacity grow at a similar pace overtime. But in lockdown, it’s likely you’ll get more traffic growth and it’s harder to add capacity during lockdown. This could cause congestion and slow down the internet in certain areas.”
Next Broadband Network
Patton says when coronavirus restrictions do ease many organisations will be keen to continue remote work arrangements and more people inclined to leave capital cities. It is important, Patton says, that Australians have access to at least a baseline of digital infrastructure.
“In the end with a lot more people wanting to use broadband and finding that if they’re on the wrong side of the digital divide then they’re [being] left behind.”
Those left behind will be there for some time. The coalition government maintains the NBN is “fit for purpose” and Labor, ahead of last year’s election, said there would be “no quick fix to six years of vandalism by this government”.
But Patton argues the post-pandemic period would be an ideal time to upgrade Australia’s broadband network.
“I’ve asked the COVID-19 Coordination Commission to recommend that the government take the opportunity to fix the NBN by employing retrenched workers – and they’d be plenty of them with the sort of skills they need.
“It would create employment, it would be an economic stimulus and it would solve a problem that’s eventually going to have to be solved.”
RMIT’s Gregory agrees there is little point in waiting for the official completion of the NBN before upgrading it.
“Way back in 2013, within 30 minutes of the coalition launching their plan, I said on national TV ‘this is a lemon, this will need to be fixed as soon as possible’.
“And all the evidence we’re seeing now confirms it. But the mountain of excuses is Trumpian … We’re into the Trumpian world of just simple nonsense.”
Put simply, RMIT’s Gregory says, Australia has been let down by the coalition government.
“Having very very poor telecommunications infrastructure is one of the biggest negative impacts that you can have on your economy in the 21st century … It is hindering our economy at a time when we don’t want it to be. And it is also discouraging people from looking for new and innovative applications and ways of doing business on this infrastructure at a time when the economy needs it.”
Read the rest of Which-50’s COVID-19 Disruption Series here.