The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has released its first-ever report into NBN performance during the COVID-19 lockdown, analysing how well major NBN providers coped with increasing traffic demands during May of 2020.
The ACCC’s Critical Services Report focused on performance during video conferencing and video streaming, two applications which Australians have become increasingly reliant on for work and entertainment. With families and businesses spending more time than ever online thanks to the ongoing pandemic, just how has the near-completed NBN held up during lockdown?
To determine how the network performed, the ACCC looked at data collected from whiteboxes during May 2020 – a similar process to the ACCC’s Measuring Broadband Australia reports. These findings were then compared to data obtained during February, to establish whether factors such as speed and latency had been impacted by increased network traffic across the country.
The ACCC looked at data from eight popular NBN service providers, including Telstra, TPG, iiNet, Optus, Vodafone, Exetel, Aussie Broadband and MyRepublic. Results were also grouped by plan speed and by NBN connection type, giving an all-round insight into how residential NBN plans performed throughout May.
NBN performance strong, with one exception
The good news: According to the ACCC, the NBN maintained a strong and consistent performance throughout May, even when compared to pre-lockdown figures from February. Some services – such as YouTube and Netflix streaming – actually showed improved download speeds compared with February, a result that can likely be attributed to measures put in place by NBN Co and providers to congestion-proof the network during COVID-19.
While most of the providers included showed consistently strong streaming speeds, and even out-performed February baselines, there was one notable exception. Data collected from MyRepublic customers showed a significant drop in performance during May, particularly for YouTube speeds, with peak hour downloads slowing by more than 50% when compared to February figures.
All other included providers showed a consistent performance from February through to May, with Vodafone in particular displaying a 3% to 4% increase in download speeds. However, MyRepublic’s unexpected speed drop shows that this is a provider-specific issue, and doesn’t reflect on the NBN as a whole.
According to the ACCC, MyRepublic routes all YouTube traffic through Google’s central server in Sydney. Unlike other providers – which host YouTube servers in multiple locations on their networks – MyRepublic seems to direct all streaming traffic to a Sydney server, regardless of the customer’s actual location.
This seems to explain the marked difference in speeds between MyRepublic and the seven other providers listed in the ACCC’s report.
“Without the results of MyRepublic, the performance of the other RSPs is as to be expected,” the report stated.
“For Netflix, most RSPs are performing above their February baselines and the effect is most pronounced during busy hours.”
In response, MyRepublic has disputed the findings, telling Gizmodo that the ACCC’s report contains “inaccuracies” in its conclusions. We’re interested to see if MyRepublic addresses the report further, but so far it’s not a good look for the popular NBN provider, especially so soon after launching a new high-speed NBN 250 option for residential customers.
If you’re interested in switching to (or from!) any of the eight included NBN providers, we’ve compiled a table of NBN 50 plans from each below.
The following table shows a selection of published unlimited Standard Plus Evening Speed (NBN 50) plans on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of standard monthly cost, from the lowest to highest, and then by alphabetical order of provider. Use our comparison tool to see plans from a range of other providers. This is a selection of products with links to a referral partner.
NBN Co, providers ‘congestion-proof’ network
Aside from provider-specific data, the ACCC reported that video streaming performance from February to May was largely the same across all fixed NBN technology types, including Fibre to the Premises, Fibre to the Node, Fibre to the Curb and Hybrid Fibre Coaxial. YouTube streams were similar on both NBN 100 and NBN 50 plans, but data collected from NBN 100 services showed a significant increase in their Netflix performance during peak hours (around 4%-5% faster in May than February).
Despite fears the COVID-19 lockdown would push the NBN to its breaking point, it seems that speeds and performance have showed little change from February to May – and in many cases, have actually improved.
This outcome can be attributed to joint efforts from NBN Co, service providers and government bodies to ‘congestion-proof’ the network in preparation for surging traffic. In March, NBN Co announced plans to allow telcos to purchase up to 40% more Connectivity Virtual Circuit (CVC) at no extra cost for three months.
CVC refers to the fee that NBN providers pay to NBN Co to access bandwidth for customers. By eliminating the financial barriers preventing telcos from buying increased bandwidth, NBN Co enabled providers to offer more network capacity during busy hours, meaning less congestion and faster speeds.
The government also stepped in, asking major streaming services such as Netflix and Stan to temporarily lower video quality during the pandemic. YouTube, Instagram and Facebook also confirmed in late March that they would voluntarily lower video quality to cut down on bandwidth.
ACCC Chair Rod Sims said: “NBN Co’s decision at the outset of COVID-19 restrictions in March to offer retail service providers 40 per cent extra network capacity for no extra cost was a major factor in preserving the quality of broadband services for consumers.
“The faster broadband speeds in the report show the NBN could have delivered more streamed content in May 2020, which is good news for consumers as streaming providers move to restore their usual picture quality.”
Although there’s been a clear increase in data downloads – which spiked by around 15% in April compared to February, according to NBN Co – the network has held steady. So if you’ve barely noticed a change in your broadband speed during the current pandemic, you’re not just lucky (unless, of course, you’re a MyRepublic customer).