NBN Congestion Is Forcing ISPs To Build Their Own Private Networks

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The NBN is a complicated piece of technology — the largest infrastructure project in Australian history. From its inception in 2007 as a mostly-fibre network to the multi-technology mix of 2017, it's evolved into a Byzantine mess both for customers to understand and for internet service providers to manage. The main pain point is congestion — a lack of virtual capacity on the network that slows some connections to a crawl. It's bad enough that some smaller ISPs are provisioning their own networks rather than relying on existing backhaul from NBN and their own competitors.

NBN's own website shifts the blame onto service providers — "think of the nbn™ network as a highway, and your service provider as the gateway to the internet" — in saying that at peak times, ISPs' virtual capacity is the limitation for end-user speeds. NBNCo shrugs off the responsibility; its website even tells customers to "speak to [their] service provider" if they're not happy.

With the current NBN network design, retail service providers' recourse for congestion is to buy more connectivity virtual circuit, or CVC, for each serving area they cover. CVC is controversial — it's been called "the fee that is breaking the NBN". Essentially it's a fee for each megabit of bandwidth per second, scaling up as customers choose faster connections of 25Mbps, 50Mbps or 100Mbps download rather than the 12Mbps standard expected of an NBN connection.

In June, NBN's wholesale CVC pricing will be tweaked to become cheaper as retailers buy more capacity in bulk. It's still being touted as unfair, giving Australia's largest telcos like Telstra and TPG a size and price advantage over small and medium operators, who'll be paying more for CVC and will not be able to compete on price.

NBN has 121 points of interconnect, or POIs, around the country — they're the backbone of the National Broadband Network, linking the internet itself to the fibre and copper and hybrid fibre-coaxial suburb-scale networks that customers actually connect to, with a tangle of privately-operated middleman networks in the middle called backhaul. Bigger companies like Telstra, Optus and TPG have their own backhaul fibre networks installed and operating around the country, but smaller ISPs don't — and these smaller service providers have to turn to their larger competitors to lease capacity on backhaul.

Leasing capacity on backhaul leaves smaller companies at the mercy of the big four — Telstra, Optus, TPG and Vocus, all of which have significant backhaul infrastructure, sometimes also known as dark fibre, laid around the country. And those big providers have the ability to choose how they allocate capacity on that backhaul, as well as the RSPs they choose to do business with. Regulation by ACCC only occurs when more than two backhaul providers service a POI and pricing is not always competitive; the Regional Backbone Blackspots Program dropped wholesale prices by 90 per cent in some areas. Optus, for example, runs its own retail customers and wholesale lessees on the same backhaul bandwidth.

So, Aussie Broadband is rolling its own. Detailed in a Whirlpool post, AB's managing director Phil Britt says its initial network plan, connecting directly to 12 NBN POIs and using Optus backhaul for the rest, did not work: "It started out okay but over time, congestion within the Optus network damaged our brand and the experience our customers were receiving." So, Aussie Broadband is changing its tactics and, at considerable expense, will connect directly to all 121 POIs. It's buying dedicated network capacity on Telstra's backhaul network rather than Optus, where it will be guaranteed dedicated wavelengths — bandwidth not shared with any other provider, allowing AB to control bandwidth, regulate its own costs and hopefully solve congestion for its customers completely.

Aussie Broadband is being — for a service provider — uncharacteristically open about the process of provisioning its own private network slice. It's five months behind schedule, Britt says, and working with both Telstra and NBN has "had its moments". It's building for capacity and growth, though — each of its peering and transit links is 10 gigabits "as a minimum", and can also be scaled up under its Telstra agreement to add more capacity when and if its customer base grows. Aussie Broadband will be buying its own CVC rather than relying on — and trusting — its wholesale partner to hold up their end of the bargain.

It's also burning bridges to light the way. Responding to Whirlpool commenters — potential customers and Aussie internet industry nerds alike — Britt says its relationship with Optus had issues. "We had 2.5Gbits into the network, but could never get above 2Gbits utilisation... we started to dig further and found that over 80 of their POIs had congestion issues". Optus, he thinks, "added too many customers too quickly before the network team could keep up." With Optus thrown under the bus and a new relationship built with Telstra, and a smarter network design, and hardware to scale, it's switching on POIs daily — up to 35 and counting.

Aussie Broadband is giving Whirlpool users their own bespoke plan — a free month-long trial, and then double data for the first six months. It's clearly confident its new network will keep up both with the increasing scale of customers and with the initial rush of services. It's also being open about how long it might take to hook up: for fibre to the premises, node or basement it could be as little as 15 minutes. For fixed wireless some manual NBN work means it could be two days. For the problem-plagued HFC network, Aussie Broadband will do all the processing paperwork by hand — and it could take a month.

Britt is obviously keen to show off his new toy. "Our new network’s almost ready... just add customers."

Giz Explains: Every NBN Technology, Compared

Feeling a little bit confused by the stupidly complicated and ever-changing rollout of the National Broadband Network around the country? Us too, to be honest with you. Here's our quick guide to the different types of NBN that might be installed at your home or business.

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