Broadband monitoring raises NBN concerns

ACCAN has said broadband monitoring could be used to oversee the NBN satellite service, while CommsAlliance has objected to the methodology and costs involved.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) push to begin monitoring broadband performance has drawn both criticism and applause, with one industry group questioning its methodology and the costs that such a scheme would impose, and another lauding it for the possibilities for regulating the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Earlier on Friday, the ACCC released the results of its pilot program, saying the gaps found between technologies and retail service providers (RSPs) proves the need for more transparency and competition in the broadband industry.

The pilot monitored the download and upload speeds, latency, video streaming, DNS resolution, web-page load times, VoIP emulation, and packet loss of 90 premises in Melbourne. 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.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) on Friday afternoon welcomed the ACCC's pilot, agreeing that the program would be an important step towards achieving more transparency in the industry.

"The pilot showed variations in services from different providers that will be important to consumers," said ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin.

"For example, some offer better peak hour performance. Publication of such information would guide consumer choice and mean people will be in a better position to pick the product which suits them best."

ACCAN pointed towards the fact that RSPs can offer the same speeds and data on their NBN plans at different prices, but it can be difficult for consumers to understand the differences. For instance, Telstra's 12/1Mbps 50GB NBN plan is AU$69 a month, while Dodo offers the same speeds but four times the download allowance at around AU$10 cheaper. However, these two plans could vary greatly in regards to the quality of the service offered -- information that the consumer could not readily access without an independent report.

ACCAN also said that the ACCC's broadband monitoring could be used to ensure that users of the NBN's satellite service in remote and regional Australia are receiving the quality of broadband promised.

While the first of the Coalition government's two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites will be launched on October 1, commercial services won't be available until the first six months of 2016, and the second satellite won't launch until next year.

Until then, the 3 percent of the population living outside the footprint of the fixed-line, fibre, and HFC network are stuck on the interim satellite service put in place by the former Labor government -- which has seen so many sign-ups that broadband speeds for satellite customers have slowed to a crawl.

The ACCC's broadband monitoring reports could therefore be used to ensure that satellite users are getting the services they pay for until the long-term solution is fully deployed, and be able to choose the RSPs offering the highest quality of services on the satellite connection, ACCAN suggested.

The Communications Alliance, however, has pointed out that without a larger sample size than the 90 users involved in the pilot, the effectiveness and reliability of the study is questionable.

The telco industry group also argued that the costs imposed by an ongoing nationwide monitoring program could be excessive -- especially since the NBN will be making use of a number of different broadband technologies, which would all have to examined separately, increasing the costs involved.

"The growing diversity of access technologies within the NBN multi-technology mix, the need to divide the results by region, and the fact that there are more than 400 broadband service providers in Australia may add up to a very expensive solution -- the cost of which will ultimately fall on taxpayers or internet consumers," CommsAlliance CEO John Stanton said.

"Industry welcomes the opportunity to consult further with the ACCC, but that discussion should encompass the full range of options available to meet the aim of greater transparency around broadband performance."

Stanton stated it would therefore be necessary for such a scheme to undergo a cost-benefit analysis before it could be properly considered.

"We need to ensure that if a monitoring program is introduced, it is cost-effective, produces reliable data, and takes account of the fact that there are factors beyond the control of service providers that can influence the results," he said.

CommsAlliance said it would consider other methods to fill any gaps in broadband reporting, and that it would consult customers on what additional service information they require.

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