Australia's NBN under spotlight amid COVID-19 usage spikes

The National Broadband Network (NBN) said it is coping with rising demand for broadband services as more Australians are being forced to work and study from home because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Stephen Rue, CEO of NBN, told the online audience of the annual CommsDay summit that the traffic increases "remain well within the capacity headroom" built into the network. Last week, peak data traffic during busy evening hours increased by 18% from the pre-pandemic benchmark to 13.1 Tbit/s, while the peak recorded in the early evening hours increased 21% to 11.8 Tbit/s. The peak measured during business hours increased 24% to 9.6 Tbit/s.

Rue said congestion and outages have remained at low levels, "with no material increase compared to previous months." He also urged the telecoms industry to work closely together to support Australians through the crisis.

The Australian government recently asked content companies to find ways to throttle their traffic to prevent the NBN from being overwhelmed by a surge in work-from-home demand.

Some believe NBN could do more to help the industry during the crisis by cutting the fees it charges for wholesale access to its network. Australian telcos have previously complained that NBN pricing is unsustainably expensive. At a time when all telcos are coming under pressure, it's suggested that slower Internet speeds and higher wholesale costs could limit the amount of extra data telcos such as Telstra and Optus can purchase.

Meanwhile, Rue said more than 95% of the NBN rollout is complete, connecting almost 7 million homes and businesses. Although average download speeds have more than doubled from 16 Mbit/s in 2014 to more than 40 Mbit/s today, speeds are still low compared to the global average. Australia ranks 62nd in the latest Speedtest Global Index for fixed-line services, sitting between Montenegro and Kosovo with an average download speed of 43.4 Mbit/s.

Also worth noting here is that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission put on pause its inquiries examining both NBN entry-level access pricing and wholesale service standards, to allow the communications sector to focus on its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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— Anne Morris, Contributing Editor, Light Reading

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