How the Australian internet has kept running during the pandemic

Quick adjustments by broadband providers and streaming services helped, but the underlying network remains a mishmash of technologies that create longer-term risk.

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Data demand during business hours have increased in Australia since March, according to a weekly traffic report from NBN Co, almost certainly due to the coronavirus-caused stay-at-home orders that have so many people working at home. Compared to the last week of February (24 Feb-1 Mar), the pre-COVID-19 period, peak business-hour traffic has increased 18 percent to 9.2 terabits per second in the week of 20 to 25 April.

Despite initial worries that Australian broadband would get overwhelmed by the increased demand, it has handled that increased load. The same is true globally: The internet has held up worldwide.

How Australian telcos prepared the internet for the pandemic

But Australia faced extra challenges that put its broadband infrastructure at greater risk. Australia had barely recovered from an extreme bushfire season, which affected telecommunication towers, when the coronavirus reached its shores.

Before the stay-at-home rules came in place, several telecommunications providers, including some of the biggest ones, started to do health checks of their networks and ensure they were resilient so they could cope with a work-from-home reality.

NBN Co had flagged its engineering teams had been planning and strengthening the network in preparation to meet residential data demand that was likely to surge at different times of the day and night. 

NBN Co also announced the increase in download data limits that apply to retail services providers (RSPs) for the standard Sky Muster service, providing an additional 45GB for each standard service at no additional cost to those RSPs. This data-download increase is effective through June 2020.

Another action that helped keep Australian networks work smoothly was that major streaming services agreed to lower their streaming resolution. That was key, Gartner senior principal analyst Bjarne Munch told Computerworld Australia, because the amount of internet traffic created by workig and studyig at home is negligible compared to video streaming, gaming, and social media content. “Video streaming alone constitutes more than 60 percent of all content. Even a home worker using video conferencing will only use 2Mbps to 3Mbps, and many home workers will not use more than 0.5Mbps.”

In April, Paul Fletcher, Australia’s minister for communications, cyber safety and the arts, wrote to streaming providers asking them to reduce their bit rates. Netflix, Google, Stan, Amazon, Foxtel and Disney all agreed to do so. “Typically, streaming video services account for around 44 percent of the total network traffic. Once the major streaming platforms implemented reductions to their content bit rate, this resulted in an overall reduction of network traffic by 4 percent,” Fletcher said at the CommsDay Summit in early April.

Still, even if the network can handle the load, some users may suffer reduced capacity. Affordability is a key point when consumers chose their NBN plans, with many being reluctant or simply financially unable to buy the more expensive packages, said telecommunications industry analyst Paul Budde. “If these people are using the NBN a lot, they will run into capacity problems, especially if more people at the same time in that household are using the internet,” he told Computerworld Australia.

Anticipating that affordability barrier, NBN Co was quick to provide up to 40 percent additional capacity to RSPs at no extra cost for three months on 18 March, and NBN Co have recently extended that extra capacity through June. This free, expanded capacity covers all fixed-line, fixed-wireless and satellite NBN technologies.

The internet capacity issues that still remain in Australia

Not everyone is on the NBN, so there are still “pockets with poor services,” Budde said. “The ADSL service they are using might create problems with increased household use. Also people on fixed-wireless and satellite networks come across capacity problems, as they are simply not available in the current configuration of these networks. Furthermore there are still a number of FttN [fibre-to-the-node] connections that, for a myriad of reasons, are not providing a reliable service.”

Gartner’s Munch said that the major telecommunications providers are well equipped to keep their networks running well during the stay-at-home period, but he told Computerworld Australia that smaller internet service providers (ISP) may need to purchase extra uplink capacity.

“The providers and ISP’s need to prepare them for a more permanent increase in home workers, and while kids will go back to school and uni at some stage with a reduction in video streaming as a result, this may be a good time for the ISPs to deploy better content distribution in their network to more permanently ease the pressure of video streaming,” he said.

One of the main changes to people’s lives has been the increased use of video conferencing. Australian telecom entrepreneur Bevan Slattery told Computerworld Australia that one of the real challenges about video conferencing it’s going to be on the local networks, particularly the hybrid-fiber coaxial (HFC) networks broadly deployed across the country.

“The difficulty is that there’s quite a number of parties that are video conferencing where you’re sending out as much as you’re receiving, and on asymmetrical networks like most home internet connections, as soon as you get congestion of the upstream path, it significantly impacts your downstream,” Slattery explained.

“Getting that extra headroom [provided by streaming services through their bit-rate reductions] has been good. [But] I think we’ll start seeing some challenges in the asymmetrical parts of the NBN, particularly around HFC, and also quite possibly on mobile networks: 4G, 5G—sometimes they can suffer the same challenges.”

Australia’s ‘second-rate network’

For the longer term, Budde fears that NBN Co is building a “second-rate network” that includes the copper cable networks built 50 years ago, whch can reduce the network quality. Issues arising from this can sometimes only be discovered when the FttN is connected, Budde said. “Over the last few years as much as a quarter of the network has faced quality problems, some have been resolved and some are lingering on. With the increased use of the NBN, people with these problems have seen a further deterioration of their service,” he said.

In 2013, NBN Co looked at two options to build Australia’s NBN. It estimated that building a fibre-to-the-premises (FttP) network would cost between $74 billion and $84 billion, with a complition date of 2026 to 2028. Using a mix of technologies, including some existing copper networks, would cost $41 billion, which was later revised to be between $46 billion and 56 billion, with compilation expected for 2020. NBN Co took the latter approach.

“The government also decided to use much more fixed wireless and satellite based infrastructure. These technologies don’t have the same capacity as FttH [fibre to the home, which is anothetr name for FttP] or not even as FttN. Also the overall infrastructure quality of these networks is not as robust as fixed-based networks.”

Budde believes NBN Co underestimated the use of these networks, specially in regional and rural areas, and so had had build more wireless towers. The satellite issue is more difficult to address as launching a new satellite takes much more time. As a result, it is more difficult for NBN Co to deliver a strong broadband service.

Budde is interested in what will it all look like after the crisis has passed. “The NBN improvements, as we have them now, should be made permanent and, in one way or another, the government will have to financially facilitate the NBN Co to make that happen.”

As Rod Sims, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman said, this “horrible crisis is, therefore, also an opportunity.”

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