What are the different types of internet connections?

When it comes to internet connections, there is a lot of jargon out there that can make it confusing to navigate connection types and what the differences are between them. The number of technologies used to connect Australian homes to the internet can vary widely, and there are several which are commonly used. So what are the different types of broadband connections, and which type should you be looking for?

In Australia, many internet service providers (ISPs) offer internet plans across a range of connection types. While the most common internet type, NBN, can be delivered using different connection technology types, there are also other internet connections available that deliver different services. So, what are the different types of internet connections and what can you get at your home? Let’s take a look.

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What is fibre internet?

Optical fibre is the fastest technology currently available to connect you to the internet. Forming the backbone of the existing cable network, and a huge part of connecting homes to the National Broadband Network (NBN), a pure fibre connection offers data speeds that are an order of magnitude faster than metal or hybrid connections, capable of hundreds of gigabits per second and typically up to 100Mbps. There are also other fibre networks in Australia which are separate to the NBN.

Optical fibres are essentially thin glass cables through which light signals are transmitted, which can be bundled together to form cables. Fibre has huge advantages over copper wiring. It can transmit much higher rates of data (in other words, a greater bandwidth) over longer distances, and is more reliable. As it is made of glass, it is immune to electromagnetic interference and there is less risk of mixed signals.

The downside, of course, is the cost. Optical fibre cables cost a lot to install around the country, which is why the NBN mixes fibre with existing technologies. However, once installed, fibre cables need very little maintenance.

What is cable internet?

The technical term used in the industry for ‘cable’ internet is hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) — a hybrid network of super-fast fibre optic cable and slower coaxial cables. A coaxial cable is just a copper cable with two conductive layers — a core copper wire and a surrounding copper sheath, with the two separated by an insulating layer. These cables are designed and used exclusively to carry radio signals such as internet and cable TV (pay TV), meaning there’s no risk of interference from phone signals.

The whole cable network is distinct from ADSL in that it’s designed and constructed exclusively for data-heavy services such as digital TV (such as Foxtel) and the internet, making it much faster and more reliable to use. Maximum download speeds can be up to 100Mbps, although this is typically around 50 or less due to factors such as congestion and older hardware.

Parts of this technology is also used in conjunction with NBN fibre to connect some homes to the NBN. Cable broadband was rolled out in Australia by both Telstra and Optus, however it is now a less common internet connection type.

What is ADSL internet?

ADSL stands for ‘Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line’. It’s a technology that basically allows faster download and upload speeds over existing copper phone lines and was much faster than dialup internet. It uses a device called a DSL filter, which separates the telephone voice signals from the digital data based on their frequency and allows them both to share the same line with little or no interference.

The main advantage of ADSL is that it’s cheap – telcos like Telstra and Optus had thousands of kilometres of copper phone lines buried in the ground, so all they needed to do is fit a DSL filter to these to allow faster internet access. The downside is that the top speeds of ADSL are considerably slower than cable or fibre broadband, with maximum download speeds of 24Mbps and upload speeds of 3.3Mbps provided by the upgraded ADSL2+.

Thanks to improved technology and the NBN rollout, ADSL will soon be obsolete. Many telcos are no longer offering ADSL plans to new customers, and once your home is connected to the NBN, you have a set period of time before you will need to make the switch and ADSL will no longer be available to you.

What is satellite internet?

Satellite internet is as it sounds, it’s internet delivered to the home via satellite. In order to access satellite internet, your home (or business) will need a satellite dish installed on the building and you’ll also need a compatible device in the home, such as a modem. The satellite transmits data to and from your dish and satellite ground stations to connect you to the internet via an ISP.

In Australia, much of satellite internet is part of the NBN rollout, with SkyMuster satellite used in regional and remote parts of the country. Not all providers will offer SkyMuster NBN, so you will be limited in choices. Satellite internet can also be slow, so you won’t have access to the same speeds that many fixed-line connections do.

Another satellite internet provider has entered the Australian market in the form of Starlink, which is engineered by SpaceX. Starlink is still in beta and can be more expensive than other internet plans, and you’ll also need to install your Starlink kit yourself.

Father helping daughter with homework at laptop

What is wireless internet?

Another alternative to a fixed line connection is fixed wireless internet. It is similar to satellite internet as you’ll need an outdoor antenna connected to your home. In the case of NBN Fixed Wireless connections, you’re connected via radio signals. In addition to an antenna fixed to your home to pick up the signals, you’ll need an NBN connection box installed at the point where the antenna cable enters your home. In order to access fixed wireless internet, you’ll need an authorised installer to set up your home’s connection.

What is mobile internet?

As it sounds, mobile internet uses a mobile network, which can be 4G or even 5G mobile internet. Mobile internet can be called a couple of different things and access to it is achieved in a couple of different ways.

Home wireless broadband often refers to a type of internet plan where you receive a modem that is typically fixed and requires a power source to operate. This is meant to be a home internet alternative to a wired connection. It’s also fairly easy to set up, as it requires only a mobile signal to access the internet. You can plug it in, turn the modem on and then you’ll be connected, without needing any installation.

Mobile broadband is another form of mobile internet, and perhaps the most well known type. It is essentially a data-only SIM plan, where you’ll have a certain allowance of data and a SIM card is used to connect you to the network. This can be purchased as a data-only SIM card, which you can then insert into a dongle or device, such as a tablet. Other mobile broadband plans can come with a modem, often a portable modem which you can connect your devices to. Mobile broadband, unlike home wireless, is meant to be used as a source of internet when travelling, or supplementary to your home internet, rather than a replacement for a home internet plan.

Internet connections for the NBN

Many of the internet types mentioned in this guide, such as fixed wireless, satellite and fibre connections, are some of the different technology types used to connect homes to the NBN.

The majority of Aussie households will have some form of fibre connection. The NBN uses a mix of different technologies to connect your home to the internet. Often the difference between the connection types is how, or where, the fibre is connected to your home. For example, Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) connects the fibre right to your home, while Fibre to the Building (FTTB) is usually used for apartment blocks and similar buildings. In this connection type, the fibre runs to a node in the building’s communications room, and then existing technology in the building connects it to each apartment.

Fibre to the Curb (FTTC) and Fibre to the Node (FTTN) are similar connection types in that the fibre connects to a point outside your home, rather than directly to your premises. FTTC connects to a Distribution Point Unit (DPU) usually located in a pit somewhere on the street, and the existing copper network connects your home from this point. FTTN is similar in that it uses existing copper phone and internet work to connect to a nearby node, which is often in the form of a cabinet.

Another fibre NBN connection type is the Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) connection. This is similar to a couple of the other connection types, in that it uses a mix of fibre and existing technologies to deliver internet to your home. HFC however takes advantage of the Pay TV cable network in the home to connect to the nearest fibre node.

As you can see, not all NBN connection types are created equal. As they each use a different way of connecting homes to the internet, some are typically more reliable, or ‘faster’ than others. It is for this reason that homes with a FTTP connection can most likely access all of the fast NBN speeds (NBN 100, NBN 250 and NBN 1000), while some, not all, HFC connections may also be able to access these faster speed plans. Typically the fastest NBN plan speed that FTTB, FTTC and FTTN connections can access is NBN 50. Satellite and Fixed Wireless NBN connections will also only be able to access slower speed plans.

Compare NBN plans

If you’re looking for an NBN plan, to give you an idea of what plans and prices are available, the following table shows a selection of NBN 50 plans on Canstar Blue’s database, listed in order of cost, from lowest to highest, and then by alphabetical order of provider. Use our comparison tool above to see plans from a range of other providers. This is a selection of products with links to referral partners.

How do I choose the best internet plan based on connection type?

Firstly, you’ll need to know what type of internet connection you have to your home. If you’re looking to sign up to an NBN plan, you can check your address on the NBN Co website to see which connection type you have at your home.

Typically, you’ll know if you have access to fibre or cable, as the current type of internet plan you have (or what you have had in the past, such as ADSL) will give you an indication of what connection types are available to your home. If your home has been connected to pay TV, this can also give you a clue as to what type of connections your home might have.

For those living in regional and remote areas, you might have less choice for connection types. It’s possible you might not have access to fixed line connections and therefore might rely on a fixed wireless or satellite connection.

Mobile broadband is a little more complicated. You will need reliable access to the 4G or 5G network (depending on your plan choice and where you live). If you live in an area with unreliable mobile network coverage, it’s unlikely a mobile internet plan will suit your home.

At this point, most homes are now able to switch to the NBN. Internet connections such as ADSL are becoming obsolete, with many providers no longer offering plans to new customers. While it might seem like there isn’t much choice for the type of internet you can access, there are a lot of options when it comes to internet plans and providers, especially for NBN plans. While some NBN connection types, like Satellite, will only be offered by a smaller number of providers, for fixed line connections, you’ll have a lot of choices.

Ultimately, it’s worth looking into what connection technology your home has access to, so you can better understand your options. Once you have a clearer idea of what type of internet plan you can sign up to, it helps to compare plans from a range of providers to find the right internet plan for you.

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