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How coronavirus could break the NBN

Apr 9, 2020 • 13m 30s

The NBN is facing it’s most crucial test yet, and there are serious questions over whether the network will handle the unprecedented demand. Today, Paddy Manning on our virtual lifeline, and how it’s holding up.

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How coronavirus could break the NBN

200 • Apr 9, 2020

How coronavirus could break the NBN

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

The NBN is facing it’s most crucial test yet, and there are serious questions over whether the network will handle the unprecedented load it’s under.

Today, Paddy Manning on our virtual lifeline… and how it’s holding up.

So Paddy, right now millions of Australians are at home and they're relying on the Internet to work and study and to stay connected to their friends and their family and also to entertain themselves. So how is the network coping?

PADDY:

Well, it is coping so far to the extent that it hasn't fallen over. The network isn't crashing, but everyone involved in providing Internet services is straining to meet what's being called the biggest test that the NBN is ever faced.

RUBY:

Paddy Manning wrote about how the NBN is dealing with the strain of a lockdown for The Saturday Paper.

PADDY:

Netflix and YouTube have reduced their streaming quality by 25% to ease network pressures. Telstra has urged its customers to ration their internet use and has fast-tracked a half-billion dollar investment into 5G. You know, everybody is straining and yet the network is not falling over… yet.

RUBY:

So, Paddy, the NBN, I mean, the whole point of it was it was supposed to resolve these kinds of issues around speed and connectivity. So how did we end up in the position we’re in now?

PADDY:

Well, this surge in demand due to the pandemic has really kind of reignited the history wars about the NBN.

Archival tape -- Kevin Rudd:

Today, I'm announcing that the Australian government will move ahead to establish a company in partnership with the private sector that will build and operate a fibre to the Home National Broadband Network...

PADDY:

When Kevin Rudd first announced the NBN in 2009, by providing fibre to the home like 93 per cent of homes or businesses, it was going to be a scalable network capable of gigabit speeds or even greater.

Archival tape -- Kevin Rudd:

This new super-fast national broadband network is the single largest nation-building infrastructure project in Australia’s history.

PADDY:

The problem was that in 2013, when Prime Minister Tony Abbott was elected and his Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, took over the responsibility to the NBN, they wound back the scope of the NBN significantly.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

Why spend 50 billion dollars on a national broadband network just so customers can subsequently spend almost three times their current monthly fee for speeds they might not need?

PADDY:

They said it was going to cost too much and that they could do a quicker and cheaper job by using a mix of technologies, including overhauling the pay TV cables, the old hybrid fibre coaxial cables. And for those metropolitan, largely metropolitan homes that didn't get the fibre or HFC, they would provide a copper based connection called fibre to the node. The copper lines would provide that final connection between the network and the home.

Archival tape -- Unknown:

The reason you keep that last two or three or four or five hundred metres of copper is because you save three quarters or more of the construction cost, and three quarters or more of the time...

PADDY:

The result has been that we have a digital divide in Australia. We have about 20 per cent of Australians with a fibre to the home connection and then the rest of us are making use of an inferior technology.

The fibre to the node connections are already arguably redundant. For example, Telstra announced recently that it would not be providing a 100 megabit download speed over fibre to the node. It's just simply not… the network is not capable of those speeds.

Archival tape -- Malcolm Turnbull:

What we had planned, and began to roll out, was perfectly designed for this nation’s needs; fibre optic to the home, to the premises, to the shop, to the school, to the hospital… you cut that off, and instead, you adopted a policy of landing the fibre optic cable somewhere mysteriously in the neighbourhood - frankly, the changes lie all on your head.

RUBY:

So is the problem that the infrastructure we’ve got isn't good enough to cope with demand?

PADDY:

The infrastructure is a problem. We have effectively installed new fibre to the node connections to half the homes in Australia that will have to be replaced in the short to medium term. And that's not funded. It's not scalable and it's not future-proof. It's going to have to be upgraded.

And some people don't even have the NBN yet you've got to bear in mind, just because they rolled out past you doesn't mean that you've actually connected to the service. So there's millions of Australians who aren't yet connected to the NBN even though the rollout is almost complete.

RUBY:

Has the outbreak of Covid-19 and associated lockdown led to more problems.. and more complaints about the NBN?

PADDY:

Well, we just had the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman release its latest figures. It showed that before the pandemic, actually, complaints had dropped a little in the December quarter of 2019. Which is the first time for a while that we haven't had headlines saying “NBN complaints soar”.

But the ombudsman in its own report said that it was struggling to deal with a rush of pandemic related complaints. So what we might expect is that the next figures that we say out of the ombudsman will again show complaints spiking. So the problems that were there already are now being exposed by Covid-19.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Paddy, we're talking about the pressure being placed on the NBN, exactly how much more pressure is it under because of the lockdown?

PADDY:

Well, the latest figures that the NBN itself has just put out last week show that traffic is up 71% during business hours compared to where it was before the pandemic. Daytime traffic is typically about half the traffic that the network experiences at the evening peak. The most demand occurs at night time after dinner when people sit down to watch streaming video or jump on social media. The network has not had to deal with such high daytime traffic before.

And realising that there was the surge of traffic, the NBN announced that it would increase the capacity of everybody's connections by 40% for free for three months. Everybody's been given an extra bit of headroom, if you like, free of charge. I think It'll be interesting to say whether the NBN can ever wind that back.

RUBY:

So there’s increased capacity being offered, are there any other steps being taken to help improve the network?

PADDY:

Well, for example, to ease congestion, the government last week pulled together a special working group of the NBN and the top five telcos to, quote, “share information, coordinate strategies to manage congestion and take other steps to address significant demand changes caused by the pandemic.” Now, they had to get the ACCC to sign off on that special working group because obviously they’re rivals commercially. And it's just a sign that this is an emergency effectively. And it's an extraordinary measure that the government has ticked off on this working group.

RUBY:

So will these measures - extra bandwidth and this working group - be enough to keep people connected?

PADDY:

Well, we can only cross fingers and hope so. The ACCC commissioner Rod Simms came out and gave a speech this week saying that so far the NBN seemed to be holding up well. The NBN is certainly working hard to make sure that there is a minimum of disruption.

For example, the government announced on Monday that GPs and health professionals would all be upgraded to a minimum of 50 megabit download speed internet plan for free, because they recognised that there was gonna be extra demand from telehealth provisions.

RUBY:

Mm, so the government has announced a big expansion of telehealth, to help take the strain off hospitals and clinics, and to make it easier for people to access health services during the lockdown. How is that going?

PADDY:

I spoke to one doctor in inner-western Sydney who was doing remote consultations up in the Northern Territory with Aboriginal health clinics, and his experience was so far that the system was working. The system is holding up.

But it's going to be a huge effort if this demand proves to be not just a temporary surge in telehealth and teleworking, but what is probably more likely, which is that we're not going to go back exactly to the same work, study, and health practices that we had before. It is likely to be permanent. And the question is whether the NBN will be able to service that increasing demand on a permanent basis.

RUBY:

And Paddy, what has the situation highlighted to you about the state of our telecommunications infrastructure?

PADDY:

Clearly, it's a moving target for the government. They have to make sure that Australians can continue to work from home, study at home. But to me, it just shows the wisdom of the original conception of the NBN, which was to have scalable technology that isn't affected by congestion. It doesn't matter how many people are trying to use the network at once when you've all got your own fibre connection. And so the problem with NBN as it's now built is that it's going to have to be upgraded.

So even after spending $51 billion, we have another cost of 10 to 20 billion dollars to upgrade those homes and businesses that are only connected by fibre to the node and that's unfunded. So we have no idea when that’s going to happen. And this pandemic has just shown exactly why a future-proof NBN was a good idea in the first place.

RUBY:

Paddy, thanks so much for talking to me today.

PADDY:

Thanks, Ruby.

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--

RUBY:

And the latest in the response to Covid-19:

The federal government’s JobKeeper legislation passed both houses of parliament yesterday.

The wage subsidy scheme allows businesses that have experienced a significant loss of income to access government funding of $1,500 a fortnight per worker.

Full-time and part-time staff, sole traders and long-term casual workers are eligible for payment.

However the scheme excludes nearly 2 million workers employed as casuals and those on temporary visas.

Parliament is not scheduled to sit again for another four months.

--

Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced that the government will be distributing 11 million masks to healthcare workers, pharmacies and aged care facilities.

He also says more Covid-19 testing will be rolled out for healthcare workers across the country.

So far more than 300,000 Covid-19 tests have been administered in Australia and less than two per cent of those tests have returned positive.


State and territory leaders are pleading with residents not to travel for the long weekend.

Police have warned that travelling for a holiday is not considered an “essential activity” and people driving to holiday destinations risk being fined.


And China has ended its lockdown of the city of Wuhan, the original epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Wuhan reopened its borders after 11 weeks yesterday, allowing residents to travel in and out of the city.

But some restrictions will remain in place as officials warn that the threat of further infections is far from over.


The episode you just listened to was our 200th. If you’re a long-time listener, thanks for being part of the journey.

If you’re new to 7am… we hope you’re enjoying it, and make sure to subscribe!

Over the long weekend we’ll be releasing some of our favourite episodes as highlights, so make sure you check your podcast feeds.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

The NBN is facing it’s most crucial test yet, and there are serious questions over whether the network will handle the unprecedented load it’s under. Today, Paddy Manning on our virtual lifeline, and how it’s holding up.

Guest: Contributing editor at The Monthly, Paddy Manning.

Background reading:

NBN under pressure in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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200: How coronavirus could break the NBN