ACCC broadband monitoring pilot reveals discrepancies

The consumer watchdog has said the results from its pilot broadband monitoring program proves the need for the scheme to be instituted nationwide to prevent gaps between services.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has released the results for its pilot broadband monitoring program, saying the gaps found between technologies and retail service providers (RSPs) proves the need for more transparency and competition in the broadband industry.

ACCC chairman Rod Sims pointed out that the system is becoming more necessary in the face of the National Broadband Network (NBN) being rolled out across the country, as consumers should be able to find clear information about different packages and services.

"The ACCC believes a broadband performance monitoring and reporting program would promote competition and consumer outcomes by providing transparency over the quality of broadband services," Sims said.

"As the NBN rollout progresses, providing transparency over the performance of the monopoly network provider will be particularly important, as retail service providers will be dependent on NBN Co for the underlying network capability."

The ACCC recently concluded its pilot of the program, releasing the results [PDF] on Friday. The pilot involved 90 homes in Melbourne voluntarily installing a probe on their broadband connections in order to monitor download and upload speeds, latency, video streaming, DNS resolution, web-page load times, VoIP emulation, and packet loss.

So as not to impact customers' connection speeds, the probes only ran tests when an internet connection was not in active use, with the tests only requiring between 5GB and 7GB of usage per month. The response from volunteers was positive, according to the ACCC, with the program not affecting internet performance and not recording any browsing history or personal information.

A range of broadband technologies and providers were tested, including ADSL, NBN-delivered fibre to the premises (FttP), non-NBN FttP, and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) across 12 RSPs. Though the ACCC would not reveal the RSPs by name, there was a large discrepancy between the quality of services provided by each.

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(Image: ACCC)

In regards to the different broadband technologies, the pilot program's results saw the outdated ADSL connections providing significantly slower speeds than FttP, HFC, and NBN FttP.

"The results show that NBN FttP services are providing much higher speeds than ADSL, HFC, and non-NBN FttP services," the report points out.

However, there were also large gaps between different NBN FttP services depending on which RSP was delivering the broadband connection.

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(Image: ACCC)

"Comparing the speeds of NBN-based services could provide visibility over any potential underlying access network issues," the paper says. "For example, if all RSPs exhibited poor performance, then it may suggest problems with the wholesale access network if the RSPs shared the same access network provider.

"Knowing the speeds of NBN services would also be particularly useful as the NBN rollout progresses, as consumers could use this information to help verify the performance claims made by RSPs."

The ACCC affirmed that a nationwide broadband monitoring scheme is therefore vital for addressing the "information gap" between RSPs and consumers on broadband speeds and services, both when initially choosing a broadband package and then in verifying that it delivers on its promised speeds.

Providing clear and accessible data on the state of broadband products would then lead to greater competition, as RSPs would upgrade their services upon comparing their own results to their rivals' performance in the scheme.

"There is currently no clear way for consumers to compare the performance and reliability of different broadband offerings prior to making purchasing decisions and entering into a contract. This information gap is potentially detrimental to consumers and competition," the report says.

"Providing consumers with greater visibility of the average performance of broadband services will help address the information asymmetry and assist them in making more informed decisions at the pre-purchase stage, as well as enabling them to verify whether they are getting what they paid for."

As recently as last week, at the annual Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) national conference in Sydney, the ACCC flagged its interests in monitoring broadband in a similar project to those that have been adopted in the United Kingdom, the United States, Singapore, New Zealand, and Canada.

"Since late 2013, the ACCC has consulted on the possible introduction of a fixed broadband performance monitoring and reporting program in Australia," Sims said in a statement.

"A broadband performance and monitoring program would promote competition and consumer outcomes by providing transparency over the quality of broadband services that are on offer to consumers. Consumers need this information to help them select the most appropriate service for their needs, and to confirm they are likely to be getting the service for which they are paying."

The ACCC already polices competition within the sector, having overseen and ultimately approved the Optus-NBN deal and the TPG-iiNet merger over the past few weeks, after determining that both would improve the industry landscape for consumers.

The ACCC has suggested releasing a six-monthly or annual report on its broadband monitoring results, supplemented by monthly summaries and raw data.