Ece Demir - 20 May, 2020

Problems facing NBN rollout

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, staying at home and social distancing is now becoming a way of life, with more Australians relying on the internet for work, education and entertainment. This has placed a greater demand on network infrastructure, which has been reducing data and internet speed, frustrating people. 

Due to traffic spikes increasing by 1125%, the Labor Party has called for free NBN and with this assist, the five biggest companies that sell access to broadband internet will form a “special working group” to keep the internet going during the pandemic. 

Currently, communication minister Paul Fletcher requested the working group to be formed with the Telcos and NBN – Telstra, Optus, Vocus, Vodafone and TPG will make up the group. 

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The sole purpose of this working group is to share information and coordinate strategies to manage congestion and take other measures to attend to the significant demand changes caused by the COVID-19 and the large numbers of people now at home during the day. 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) will oversee the group and NBN Co will be required to inform both the commission and other third-party companies of any changes that might impact them. 

ACCC chairman Rod Sims said it was important the telecommunications networks remained capable of supporting increased traffic as more people work from and stay at home.

“Online services and connections are now more important than ever, as Australians seek to stay productive and engaged, undertake home schooling, telehealth and access other services. The ability to do all this will also assist people to comply with increasingly strict social distancing measures,” Mr Sims said.

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Currently the company in charge of building the National Broadband Network (NBN) is under fire to develop more premises which would need to be connected by the rollout of the network which officially ends at the end of June. 

But NBN Co-chief Executive Officer Stephen Rue is keen to remind everyone with a media press release that the end of the rollout is not really the end and stated “our job does not end there,” on the government-owned company’s half yearly earnings call in February. 

“The task of extending and maintaining this vast information highway continues for NBN. Our job to continually improve this great asset does not end.”

In March 2020, Mr Rue also said, “for many Australians, the NBN and other broadband and mobile networks will become the primary channel for work, study, entertainment, ordering food and maintaining contact with the outside world.”

NBN Co’s Former Chief Executive Officer Bill Morrow, has explained in a document released by NBN that some there would be some challenges in transforming an industry. 

Some of the challenges that NBN is facing during the rollout is first and foremost the costs to build are much higher in Australia. There are three main factors why NBN Co typically has higher build costs: 

  1. The need to pay back Telstra for the use of its infrastructure and tools 
  2. The need to build to every home and business in Australia, regardless of the extreme costs for those in remote areas 
  3. Typically, higher material and labour costs in Australia 

Even so, we are now ten years into the National Broadband Network roll out and the nation has an average internet speed that lags well behind most advanced economic countries. The delays of the roll out have been widely criticised for being slow, expensive and obsolete. 

Mr Marrow also explained that connecting millions of homes and businesses over a short period will be a tough challenge to face. NBN Co is building a national network at an unprecedented pace with construction required in nearly every neighbourhood of the country. 

Due to unforeseen circumstances with the COVID-19 virus, if individuals need to get NBN installed during this period, it imposes a difficult process for the technicians to make a visit.

Telstra has reported that current and prospective NBN customers are cancelling technician appointments or blocking site entry over COVID-19 social distancing concerns. 

Telstra publicly advised on March 21 that it had “decided to temporarily pause the mandatory disconnections of customers from fixed networks under the NBN rollout” to reduce the potential for service disruption during the pandemic crisis.

Such freezes have regulatory repercussions, and those have now been laid out. 

In particular, Telstra is uncertain when it might be able to resume disconnections and has indicated it may be some time before “the scale and timeframes affected” are clear.

Not all homes will actually require a visit from an NBN technician during the switching process, but usually if it is the first time NBN has been connected an appointment for a professional installation. 

This can be done through your NBN provider telco companies such as Telstra, TPG or iiNet, where during the sign-up process they’ll let you know if installation is required. 

Large companies like Telstra and Vodafone have already told staff to work from home and the NBN itself has also told staff with the ability to work from home that they can do so.

Contractors and field technicians continuing the rollout of the NBN, which was due to finish at the end of June, will also have new procedures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus.

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Technicians will now call ahead to verify there’s no suspected risk of transmission and reschedule if an occupant is in isolation.

Contractors are also being given additional hygiene instructions as well as being provided face masks, alcohol wipes, soap, and disposable gloves.

“With more people working, studying and generally spending more time at home streaming content, we are seeing a change in the profile of data traffic on the NBN, with increasing residential usage of the network throughout the day and in the busy hours (7pm-11pm),” the NBN Co Limited said in a statement to the Australian Financial Review.

The company added it is “actively working with retailers to ensure we optimise the network to support Australians in anticipation of unprecedented demand,” but “as always” customers would have to talk to their telco, who purchase wholesale access to the network and sell it on.

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Words by Ece Demir

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