Broadband: Which plan is for you?

The broadband business -- plans, peaks, and penalties -- can be confusing to say the least. We line up some of Australia's best.



It's common knowledge that Australia's broadband services lag behind a good proportion of the developed world, but with the current pricing available why would you bother sticking with dial-up?

This month we invited the Internet service providers generally considered to be the top 10 in Australia to submit a plan for this review. Interestingly, both Optus and Telstra declined to submit, as did Exetel.

Telstra's response was that they were simply too busy to participate as this extract from their e-mail shows: "Telstra Business and Government have declined your invitation and the BigPond production team has been flat out and indicated it's not able to assist at this time."

Optus states that it does not have DSL available in the area of the Test Labs, and were clearly not willing to use Telstra's.

Telstra is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to broadband networks in Australia, however it does have a critical mass when it comes to end-users with BigPond, as well as a healthy stranglehold on wholesale broadband technologies. Several other providers such as Internode, Veridas, and iPrimus are building their own networks -- in fact iPrimus recently rolled out its 100th DSLAM with 200 promised by the year's end.

We also invited iiNet which actually submitted a plan for this review and went through the testing rigors. The results it returned were terrible, and after urging iiNet to check its setup -- as Steve Turvey discusses in his commentary -- it discovered a bit of a problem with the modem setup and duplex settings, severely curbing its performance. iiNet did fix the problem and in the limited time remaining it performed well. Unfortunately, with invalid test results we were unable to include them in the review.

Plans
You can find plans in Melbourne and Sydney that start from just AU$13.95 a month, and an ADSL modem can be bought for less than AU$100 -- only slightly more expensive than dial up (ignoring the one-off connection costs). Thankfully these days, once you are connected to an ADSL service provider there is the option to "churn" to another (unless locked into a contract period/plan) for about AU$30.

Admittedly the low-cost plans are tepid with speeds of 256/64Kb/s and download limits of around the 200MB mark. Bear in mind that this is still a good deal faster than a dial-up connection with the added benefit that it's on all the time, network permitting of course. It does not prevent you from making and receiving regular telephone phone calls, however it isn't suitable for business purposes.

Step up to a AU$20-per-month plan and the speed warms up to a brisk 512/128Kb/s, while AU$25 a month will just lift you to a balmy 1500/256Kb/s. Not long ago, unless you had cable, that was about as fast as you could go. But not anymore -- ADSL2 and ADSL2+ are available in selected metro areas and speeds of 8192/1024Kb/s and 12288/1024Kb/s are also up for grabs, and from around AU$30 to AU$40 a month they are good value.

Price vs Performance
Price should not necessarily be the one deciding factor when choosing a provider (as our private broadband testing over the years for various clients has shown). The way some providers cut the monthly costs and remain profitable is by oversubscribing the services and running very high contention ratios. This is akin to a car salesman selling you a vehicle for AU$13,995 with a speedometer that reads up to 400km/h but the car only has an actual physical top speed of 120km/h. The car salesman, of course, is going to say the speedometer goes up to 400 and hopefully the consumer will automatically believe what they see as a possibility, yet when actually tested, the vehicle will show its true colours. In some cases you get what you pay for, regardless of the marketing hype.

Most people assume that because the technology is "always on" they have a dedicated pipe through to the Internet at the speed they are paying for. This is definitely not the case as you will see from the test results. Luckily there are also some better providers -- one of which in this test ran at average 110 percent of their stated upload speed and 96 percent of their download.

Some providers differentiate their services these days with "business grade" and "consumer grade" services. Usually marketers say business grade is a guaranteed monthly or yearly uptime of around 99.99 percent, whereas the consumer grade is slightly lower at only 99.9 percent. Here again, watch out for tricks such as stating the percentage only for unforeseen outages not "planned outages".

What you really need to look out for in a business-grade service is the committed information rate (CIR) which is a guarantee that the service will not ever fall below a certain speed. This is what really sorts the wheat from the chaff, and when you start asking for CIRs above something like 60 percent of the stated speed, the prices start going up, and up, and up.

So, you ask: "How do I know that I am getting what I am paying for?" Unfortunately the answer is that you really don't. Many service providers love to tell their customers to download and install simple FTP client tests which enable the end-user to run performance tests on the network. This is all well and good but all the client is testing in most cases is the speed of their connection to their provider (effectively on the same network), not the speed of their connection to the Internet (upstream of the provider).

Another suggested test is to download a file from the Internet from download.com to see what speeds the Operating System download window reports back, usually measured in kilobytes not kilobits (see sidebar for futher explanation). This method is better than the first, as it is now testing the connection through the Internet, but with the vagrancies of the Internet in general, and the nuances of the operating system's reporting method, it would be difficult to tell where the bottleneck is at any given point in time. This may lead the end-user to incorrectly blame their service provider when the issue may be caused by other factors further upstream and out of their direct control or responsibility.

There are a plethora of downloadable client and online bandwidth and speed-testing tools. The Test Lab over the years has tried many of these and found most of them lacking. Unfortunately, there are a great many issues involved such as compression and shaping, not to mention routing, caching, and firewalls, that can all affect results to such an extent that the data recorded really cannot be relied upon and in some cases is totally inaccurate.

Luckily, as you will see from the "How we tested" section, we took it upon ourselves to create, over time, a reliable, accurate, broadband performance test that we can schedule to test provider's connections at regular, or random, intervals. This takes all these factors into consideration and can give the test engineer some really good feedback on issues that may exist within the network paths and pinpoint areas needed for further examination.

All this can be very confusing for consumers, particularly where broadband is concerned, so let's get back to basics and try to explain how the providers cut costs. Imagine that the Internet is a really big pipe, I mean really big -- some of the backbone now runs at multi-Gb speeds.

Those with lots of cash can access the backbone directly. The majority are telecommunications providers, larger Internet service providers, or bandwidth wholesalers/data centres. These are known at Tier 1 providers -- they generally wholesale slower speed services to their downstream clients. Each step away from the backbone drops a tier. The majority of Internet service providers are at around tier two or three.

An upstream provider may purchase a 10Mb/s service and sell six 2Mb/s services, relying on the fact that each of those six customers wouldn't need all the 2Mb/s simultaneously. One of those six customers may then take their 2Mb/s service and sell ten 256Kb/s services. This or course relies on the fact that each of these customers will not simultaneously be using 256Kb/s, if they do, then each will only reach a maximum of just over 200Kb/s (and that's only if there's a a decent load balancer or packet shaper in place to even out the data). What usually results is that user's connection speeds slow right down to a trickly during busier periods.

One cost-cutting measure is achieved when a provider subscribes to a smaller bandwidth necessary to support the amount of customers they have connected to their service. This is similar to the modem ratio in dial-up Internet services. Naturally one could not expect a 1:1 ratio, particularly when dial-up can now be had for AU$9.90 per month. The ISP still needs to pay line rental, plus all the other associated costs in running a business, so if they run 1:1 they will be losing about AU$60 per month per line/user. To break even they need a ratio of 7:1. This is seven users for each line/modem that they have. Most providers with more than 100 lines can easily run a ratio of 10:1 or slightly more. Once the ratio gets to over about 18:1 the service starts to suffer (not so much in terms of speed as dial-up has a relatively low impact in terms of performance) however, end-users start to experience engaged signals during peak Internet periods. Peaks are between 4 and 11pm and, to a lesser extent, 6am and 9am. So the optimum ratio of users to lines for a dial up provider is about 10:1.

Because most forms of broadband are "always on", end users have no issues with engaged signals but providers still need to balance their upstream connectivity with the user's demands. "Always on" Internet access demands still have the same peak times as with dial-up, therefore, between those hours of the day the provider needs to ensure that they are subscribed to adequate upstream bandwidth to ensure each of their users has an acceptable speed. Providers can purchase cabled bandwidth ranging from 2Mbp/s through to 155Mbp/s, mainly delivered via Ethernet, fibre, or Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) circuits. If they are lucky enough to co-locate their data facility in a centre with direct backbone connectivity then they may have access to 1Gbp/s or greater, although they still need to get this to the exchanges, so most fall back to fibre or ATM. ATM in this context is network terminology, not a machine used to withdraw money.

If the ISP oversubscribes the service and runs a high contention ratio of users to bandwidth during the peak daily periods user's Internet performance will begin to suffer. If a provider had, say, a 2Mbp/s connection, they could run eight users on 256Kbp/s with no contention at all. This means that a user who subscribes to 256Kbps gets 256Kbps. The larger your bandwidth the higher the contention ratio that can theoretically be run because not all of the users will want to access the Internet simultaneously. Some smaller providers (it has been rumoured) run contention ratios upwards of 40:1 which can impact on their slower pipes. However a decent average (between 20:1 and 30:1) should keep most services humming along nicely during peak periods.

Broadband delivery technologies
As mentioned at the beginning of the review xDSL and Cable are just two of the broadband delivery services in Australia. But there are a variety of wireless and ISDN also kicking around. ISDN is limited to 64Kb blocks, needing a dedicated copper line from the exchange, which means you would need a separate phone line to be able to make/receive phone calls. Most ISDN services are delivered in 128Kb services but are also available up to 2Mb, which is 30 lines (and the associated costs).

DSL or not DSL? Cable is the question
DSL technologies are mostly now Asynchronous (ADSL) as opposed to Synchronous (SDSL). Newer services are DSL2 and DSL2-RE. To access a DSL service one needs to subscribe to a provider who has a DSLAM (provider termination equipment in the local exchange) with spare ports. Traditional DSL technologies are limited to a 4km radius of the exchange and the quality of the copper cable the service is running across to reach the customer's premises. Newer DSL2-RE addresses this limit somewhat by offering Reach Extension (RE) of up to 9km in radius from the exchange but at the same speeds of traditional DSL1. xDSL ranges from 64Kb/s through to 12Mb/s.

Cable providers are in limited supply in Australia, most choosing hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) technology to deliver services with great speeds possible (most range between 4Mb/s to 15Mb/s on the network).

Wireless
Wireless is an emerging battlefield, particularly in the commercial data and Internet service provision industries. It has settled down somewhat with the usual 802.11a/b/g and the upcoming WiMAX offerings for most corporate and home networks. The carrier or commercial equipment is still in a state of flux, falling into two categories. Firstly there is the mobile/portable broadband market catered mostly by the incumbent mobile telecommunications carriers and covering varying technological platforms, 3G, GPRS, CDMA, EVDO etc. Secondly there is the newer wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) who are using carrier or commercial service-grade wireless equipment such as Motorola's canopy system or Airspan's BWA family of products, to deliver wireless Internet access to a fixed point (buildings etc) with a range of up to around 30km from their access point (AP). This generally involves mounting an external antenna.

Satellite
Another wireless technology becoming more prevalent these days is two-way satellite services which can deliver Internet data. These services are limited to a maximum of just over 100kb/s and have a relatively high latency due to the distance of the satellite from the Earth as well as the high forms of compression and tricky packet handling that needs to go into making every last bit of data sent via a Satellite pay for itself. The longer the latency the worse it is for "live" streams of data such as VoIP as there is a delay introduced. For most data services just shuttling data from one point to another, latency (unless extreme) is barely noticeable.

What do we do with all this extra bandwidth?
Specific services that can be run across broadband technologies are also driving demand, similar to the way multimedia and more graphically and processor-intense applications were developed increasing the need for faster, more spacious desktop computer systems. More bandwidth-hungry Internet applications are being developed and driving broadband bandwidth needs. These are commonly known as triple-play services or voice, video, and data (VVD). As the name suggests, these involve delivering voice telephony services, video (television, video, and movies on demand etc), and data (Internet, VPN, LAN etc) over the one medium -- in this case a broadband service. And in the case of voice at least, it needs to be a very reliable and relatively high-quality service.

Beyond the black stump
Unfortunately, on the other side of the coin, some locations in Australia have no access to any type of broadband services at all. Even some of the newer urban estates are lacking and if you live up bush on the wrong side of the black stump you can pretty much forget any "wired" form of broadband.

These situations are, of course, improving as more and more DSLAM's are installed in exchanges around the country. But as mentioned earlier, unless you live within the DSL or ISDN radius of the nearest exchange, then wireless or satellite are the only broadband options. The federal government, without the fanfare of the recent AU$3 billion announcement, has several initiatives already underway to improve broadband availability.

One of these schemes is the Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme (HiBIS) -- an AU$107.8 million project run by the federal government's Department of Communications Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA), which provides registered ISP's with financial assistance to provide broadband services in regional and remote areas. A further AU$50 million has recently been added to cover the Metropolitan Broadband Blackspot Program (MBBP). The financial assistance is to offset some of the initial setup costs for the ISP so that they can provide the service to the regional customers at price parity with metropolitan services.

The initial threshold specification of 256/64Kb/s may seem a little weak, but the majority of ISPs offer much higher speeds, some up to 3000/768Kb/s for one cable plan.

HiBIS is of course not restricted to just ADSL and copper wire, in many remote regions this would simply be impractical, if not impossible. The scheme has various subsidy levels -- one for wired connections and a higher subsidy for wireless broadband with delivery methods ranging from satellite to radio.

At last count just over 40 ISPs had taken advantage of registering for the HiBIS scheme offering hundreds of plans, with more registering every day.

The MBBP program helps those potential broadband users who live in metropolitan areas whome for some reason, have no access to broadband services. It seeks to apply the same methodology to the program as HiBIS does for the regional and remote areas.

To protect the taxpayers' dollars and to ensure that the registered HiBIS providers live up to the service level agreement, DCITA contracts the Test Lab to perform regular scheduled testing on all the service providers. We also supply a facility for the HiBIS end-users to independently test their Internet connections online. This system works very well and goes to show that the government is proactive in ensuring that it does not just offer cash incentives to all and sundry, and that the service providers maintain an expected level of service and performance for HiBIS clients.

Product ratings -- AAPT, Internode and Netspace

Product AAPT 512/512
Price per month AU$179
Vendor AAPT
Phone 13 38 17
Web www.aapt.com.au
 
Interoperability
The second fastest in terms of overall throughput with the highest up time/reliability of any of the plans tested.
Futureproofing
Up to 32 static IP addresses at no extra charge.
ROI
Great performance and reliability, good range of features, including a managed Internet router and a relatively small cap but expensive excess charge per MB.
Service
Phone and e-mail support is 24x7.
Rating
Product Internode 512/512
Price AU$220
Vendor Internode
Phone 1300 788 233
Web www.internode.on.net
 
Interoperability
Very good performance and only a moderate loss of uptime.
Futureproofing
Up to 10 hours dial-up included free and free anti-spam and antivirus filtering.
ROI
Very good performance, very large cap with low charge for excess.
Service
Priority business support -- between 7:30 and 12am CST.
Rating
Product Business SYM 512 -- Plan C
Price per month AU$149.95
Vendor Netspace
Phone 1300 360 025
Web www.netspace.net.au
 
Interoperability
½
The best overall throughput of all the plans but many more lost pings than AAPT.
Futureproofing
One free static IP but up to 32 for only AU$20 extra, Netspace to Netspace traffic is unmetered.
ROI
½
Very fast, quite reliable, moderate cap (for plan featured), expensive excess charge per MB.
Service
Phone support is 8am to 10pm Mon-Fri with 24-hour e-mail support.
Rating
½

Product ratings -- Pacific, Primus and Westnet

Product Business 512/512
Price per month AU$149
Vendor Pacific Internet
Phone 13 36 39 (business support)
Web www.pacific.net.au
 
Interoperability
Very good performance but with more lost pings than average.
Futureproofing
½
Includes free serviced firewall for 1 year, static IP addresses, unlimited dial-up connection, e-mail virus and spam filtering, 10 e-mail addresses, 10MB Web space.
ROI
½
Very good performance, less than average reliability, large cap, moderate cost for excess.
Service
4 Phone and e-mail technical support is 24/7 with a 24 hour turn around on e-mail support.
Rating
Product Business 512/512
Price per month N/A
Vendor Primus Telecom
Phone 1300 850 000
Web www.iprimus.com.au
 
Interoperability
&frac12
The third highest performer and only one lost ping. Also had one of the shortest average ping times of the plans tested.
Futureproofing
½
Optional DSL firewall service.
ROI  
Cannot rate as vendor declined to provide indicative pricing.
Service
Phone and e-mail support is 24x7.
Rating
½
Product Premium ADSL 512/512
10GB+10GB
Price per month AU$79.95
Vendor Westnet
Phone 13 19 60
Web www.westnet.com.au
 
Interoperability
The slowest of the 512/512 plans, only three lost pings, a very low ping time but was very reliable.
Futureproofing
Free static IP, six e-mail addresses and 20MB personal Web space.
ROI
Very reliable, lowest throughput of the 512Kbps plans, good-sized cap, and low excess charge.
Service
Phone and e-mail support is 5 to 1am WST.
Rating
How we tested
The test methodology uses one centrally located Main FTP server, located in Melbourne in a multi Tier 1 data centre. At this level of backbone there is no hard path routing and all routes are dynamically assigned depending on the conditions. From a practical perception point pings to sites on the same backbone are sub 5ms. Full redundancy for power and data is also provided.

A PC is provided by each ISP which is connected to their service just like a typical subscriber.

The main server invokes an FTP connection to the ISP PC and uploaded and downloaded a 1MB compressed file. The time taken to upload and download is recorded into a Log file and from these results the actual speeds in kbits/sec are calculated.

All testing started on the 12 September at midnight and concluded on 26 September midnight covering a total of 14 days.

Each upload and download test ran on the hour and a ping test was executed every five minutes from the main server to the ISP's PC to ensure reliable connectivity.

Execution steps

  1. File upload from main server to ISP server.
  2. File download from ISP server to main server (file automatically deleted from ISP server after transfer completed).
  3. Results analysed by main server.

Test results
When the actual download and upload speeds of the various plans were compared, as a percentage, to the claimed speeds there were certainly some surprises. All of the 512/512 plans were at least acceptable in terms of their download speeds ranging from a very impressive 98 percent of its rated speed for AAPT down to 87 percent for Primus. Uploads under the same plans varied more dramatically with Netspace consistently sitting at 110 percent. Uploads were in fact significantly higher than downloads for this ISP -- and a low of 83 percent for Westnet.

AAPT had the most reliable service with only one ping failure in the entire two weeks of testing, Primus and Westnet were not far behind, with only one ping dropped, although there were some relatively long ping times when compared to AAPT. Westnet only dropped three pings and along with Primus had the shortest average latency of the plans tested. Most of the other ISPs experienced many more lost pings -- Netspace had its test PC crash for several hours resulting in a swag of failed pings and, of course, failed performance tests as well. Even so, Netspace still experienced many more dropped pings than any of the other ISPs.

What to look out for

  • Download charges: Some providers only include minimum data of around 200MB with their plans, charging excess data charges for data over this limit downloaded per month.
  • Upload charges: Similar to download charges some providers charge for uploads as well as downloads -- Bigpond and Dodo are two of these.
  • Beware of offers: Some seem to too good to be true -- they generally are.
  • Speed: If you have a broadband service try to ascertain what speed you are really getting. Don't just accept what the ISP puts on their invoice every month.
Specifications

Provider name AAPT Internode Netspace Pacific Internet Primus Telecom Westnet
Phone 13 38 17 1300 788 233 1300 360 025 13 36 39 1300 850 000 13 19 60
Web aapt.com.au www.internode.on.net www.netspace.net.au www.pacific.net.au iprimus.com.au westnet.com.au
Phone support hours 24x7 7:30 - 12am CST 8am - 10pm Mon-Fri,
10am - 6pm Sat-Sun
24x7 24x7 5 to 1am WST
E-mail support hours 24x7 7 - 12am Mon-Fri,
9 - 12am Sat-Sun
24 hours 24x7 24x7 5 to 1am WST
Features            
Service plan tested Premium SHDSL 512/512 512/512 Business SYM 512 - Plan C Business 512/512 Primus Business 512/512 Premium ADSL 512/512 10GB + 10GB
Setup cost $375 $129 N/A Free N/A $178 (incl. connection and modem)
Monthly cost $179 $220 $149.95 $149 N/A $79.95
Included GB 5GB -- Can be aggregated across other AAPT Internet access services 40GB per month 10GB 16GB Range of plan options from 500MB to 50GB 10GB peak plus 10GB off-peak
Excess charge per MB $0.12 $0.05, capped at $999 $0.09 $0.06 N/A $10.00
Speed reduced after exceeding monthly limit No No No No No Yes -- Customers can choose between paying excess or having speed reduced.
Address of tested FTP server (state and postcode) VIC, 3121 SA, 5000 VIC, 3123 NSW, 2000 VIC, 3000 VIC, 3175
Telstra wholesaler (yes/no, if no then specify) Yes, but have their own DSLAMs at various locations. (The test system was connected to AAPT's own DSLAM.) Yes, also use owned DLAMS on Agile network Yes, for this service Yes Yes, Primus offers access through its own DSLAMs as well as via Telstra DSLAMs. Test was via Primus DSLAM. Yes
Cost of 1, 4, 8, 16, 32 static IPs Free $20 per month for 5 IPs $20 for a block of up to 32 Free multiple static IPs (subject to approval) N/A 1 free
Scenario
This medium-sized company is dissatisfied with its current Internet Service Provider and wants to change its carrier.

The company is increasingly dependent on the Internet and is seeking a reliable carrier with good throughput.

Concerns: Affordability, throughput, uptime, and suitable plans.

 

Editor's Choice: AAPT

T&B Editor's choice
If this were a plan for mum, dad, and the kids at home then reliability and uptime would not be such an issue, but it is for a business, so uptime is critical. We were unable to assess Primus for the Editor's Choice as they repeatedly declined to provide the Lab with any indicative pricing.

Two of the vendors scored more highly overall than the rest of the field but for very different reasons. Pacific Internet were good in the performance stakes and include quite a range of freebies in its AU$149 plan for example you get a serviced firewall for a year, e-mail, virus, and spam filtering, and an unlimited dial-up account, the latter is great if some of your staff are out and about and need connectivity.

AAPT on the other hand is a little leaner in terms of features but it does include up to 32 static IP addresses in its AU$179 plan. Where AAPT stands out compared to Pacific Internet however, is in terms of performance and reliability. It was the second fastest overall and only had one dropped ping in the entire two weeks of testing.

AAPT is a little more expensive than Pacific Internet, its cap is one of the smallest at just 5GB and the excess charges are the highest of the group but reliability, in particular, and performance are significantly better than Pacific Internet so the Editor's Choice award goes to AAPT.

Bits and bytes
Data, or Internet Protocol (IP) network transmissions are measured in bits, whereas hard drive and system memory capacities are measured in bytes. These are defined by using upper and lower case notation. One gigabit is written as 1Gb, whereas one gigabyte is 1GB, same with kilobits (Kb) and kilobytes (KB).

There are eight bits in a Byte, (technically there is a bit more but I don't want to start with the semantics of nine or 10 bits to the byte and parity checks, words, etc).

This bit/byte confusion is one of the reasons some people don't understand why you cannot transfer a 4GB DVD movie in four seconds across a 1Gb network.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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Performance graphs

Download and upload speeds

Ping time

(Speed shown in milliseconds)

Average speeds

(Speed shown in kbits per second)

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