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Planhacker: Ultimate NBN Guide, November 2012

Living in an area where the National Broadband Network (NBN) has already rolled out? You have a lot of potential providers to choose from. In our most comprehensive Planhacker ever, we’ve rounded up 383 plans on offer from 20 providers in a custom spreadsheet that makes it easy to find the ideal option for you. We’ve identified all the main issues you need to consider before signing up and the pros and cons of each offer, and picked out the best-value plans in a range of categories. Get connected!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

We’ve updated and massively expanded this Planhacker as part of our National Telework Week coverage. High-speed broadband makes working from home much more feasible; the biggest challenge is often choosing the right plan in the first place, and that’s where we can help.

Accessing The NBN

You can’t connect to the NBN unless it has been activated in your area. You can find out when that’s due to happen in your area using NBN Co’s own interactive maps to find out when services will be available. The rollout of the NBN isn’t due to be finished until 2021; I’m genuinely terrified to contemplate how lengthy this table (and this article) will be once that happens. Remember, NBN Co acts as a wholesaler and sells access to retail service providers (RSPs); you can’t buy a service from NBN Co directly.

Because the NBN Co is being rolled out nationally and being made available to any qualifying wholesaler, providers in this list include familiar national brands (Telstra, Optus, iiNet, Internode) as well as smaller local suppliers you’ve almost certainly never heard of. We’ve seen massive consolidation in the existing internet service provider market, but the emergence of the NBN does mean small local providers can, at least in theory, compete with the larger players.

When looking at NBN plans, it’s important to make sure you’re comparing like with like. The most basic plans include nothing but broadband connectivity (and that’s our focus here), but some prices also include landline-like phone services, TV-like services and other options. Many providers quote a cheaper charge for internet access if you also sign up for other services (such as a mobile phone or internet telephony). We’ve quoted standalone prices in this listing.

Check our guide to five common mistakes people make when assessing NBN plans to avoid making inaccurate comparisons. In particular, remember that the NBN doesn’t include line rental; unless you have naked ADSL, you need to factor that in when comparing the cost of these options to existing ADSL2 plans.

The largest national providers (Telstra and Optus) have NBN plans that don’t like good value in terms of how data and speed options, but which can offer better value once you factor in bundling discounts and other included elements. We make no apologies for our emphasis on data here; for a healthy proportion of Lifehacker readers, landline calls are irrelevant and line rental is a cost to be avoided. If you have unlimited calls on your mobile, who cares what your landline delivers?

Remember: the network you connect to will be the same no matter which NBN provider you choose (which is not always the case with ADSL, where providers sometimes have their own exchange equipment and sometimes buy in from Telstra or Optus). As such, the details (such as how your connection is shaped and how effective customer service is) become important.

There’s a lot of divergence in the plans on offer so far, but there are also many plans that are astonishingly similar. Companies offering monthly download totals of 10GB, 50GB, 100GB and 400GB are invariably reselling plans supplied by wholesaler Nextgen Networks. These plans aren’t always identically priced, but they all follow the same basic structure.

Issues To Consider

No matter which RSP you sign up with, you’ll pay a monthly fee for a given level of service. All providers have to quote a cost per MB as part of the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) code, but in practice most people will focus on the monthly cost rather than this. These are the main variables to consider:

Speed: ISPs offering NBN services have to choose from a set of standard speed combinations: 12Mbps download/1Mbps upload, 25Mbps download/5Mbps upload, 50Mbps download/20Mbps upload and 100Mbps download/40Mbps upload. (Extel also offers an unusual 25/10 combination to some customers). Faster plans have a higher cost, but higher speeds have proved more popular amongst NBN customers to date. Note that factors other than the network itself (including your home network and the types of content you access) will influence the actual measured speed you experience, but performance will be much less variable than with ADSL.

Data allowances: The cheapest plans on offer include just 10GB of data a month. The most generous offer 1TB (1000GB) a month (with the option to add data packs if you want even more). 10GB isn’t a very large amount, especially if you download any patches to your system. You arguably would have to be running a design consultancy or downloading an unwatchable volume of content for more than 1TB to really be a requirement right now on a home connection, but if there’s one thing the internet has taught us, it’s that our requirements rarely shrink. Most (but not all) providers let you upgrade to a plan with a higher allowance if you realise you’ve selected a plan that doesn’t offer enough, but the majority limit such switches to once every 30 days.

We haven’t yet seen any unlimited NBN plans. TPG is planning to introduce one on the lowest-speed 12/1 option for $69.99 on a 12-month contract, but it isn’t on sale at this writing.

Peak/off-peak: A handful of providers (iiNet and iPrimus) divide their data allocations into peak and off-peak components. The hours vary (we’ve listed them with each provider), but cover late night activity (the earliest one kicks in at midnight). Generally, we’d recommend careful consideration before signing up for a peak/off-peak plan, as it does fundamentally restrict the way you can use the service and means you’ll be paying for a data allowance you never use. Analyse when you actually go online carefully if you’re considering this route. An automated setup for downloading torrents is the most obvious use for an off-peak connection.

Shaping and data packs: There are a variety of approaches taken by providers once you use up your monthly limit. Most apply shaping, restricting your connection speed until the next month begins. The most common speed is 256/256 (well below what ADSL offers), but this often varies depending on the cost of the plan. Shaping ensures you never pay any extra, but can be frustrating if you regularly go through your allowance every month. (If that happens, consider upgrading to a higher-capacity plan).

Shaping speeds have improved during the life of the NBN (both Internode and Exetel have increased their speeds since our last roundup), but can still be a problem. Some providers allow you to purchase additional data packs, either as a one-off option to avoid monthly shaping or as an ongoing deal to upgrade an existing plan. Again, we’ve detailed the costs of each of these in the company commentary below.

Upload counting: The majority of providers include both downloads and uploads when calculating your data usage. The only exceptions we’re aware of are Engin, DeVoteD NBN, Exetel and MyFibre, all of whom count downloads only. If you regularly share large files, this could make a significant difference (but I wouldn’t choose provider on that basis alone).

Contract length: The majority of providers ask you to sign up for a 24-month contract. A handful offer 12-month or month-to-month deals. Shorter contracts usually mean higher setup fees. If you exit a contract early, you’ll have to pay out the remaining value even if you’re not using the service. We’re not fans of long contracts, especially for internet services, but most providers are keen to lock you down as long as possible.

The NBN Planhacker Spreadsheet

In the table below, we’ve listed the options available from every ISP we know of that has released general market pricing for consumers on the main (fibre-based) NBN. We haven’t included business-oriented plans or options purely for tsatellite and wireless (these will be the subject of separate analysis in the future). We’ve also left out providers who advertise NBN availability but don’t list plan pricing on their sites; that’s a minimal requirement to be taken seriously as a supplier in this highly competitive market.

The table lists monthly fees (we don’t include any bundling discounts in that figure); speeds; downloads limits (peak, off-peak and total); setup fees; contract lengths; minimum cost over the length of the contract; the cost per MB; what speed your connection gets shaped to if you exceed those monthly limits, and whether those limits include uploads as well as downloads.

Note that the setup fee generally doesn’t include an NBN-ready router. You’ll have a range of these to choose from, depending on your provider. Some will provide the router for free if you sign up for a longer contract. In theory you could plug a single computer directly into the NBN connection, but it’s far more helpful to connect a router so you can shared the connection via Wi-Fi or ethernet cabling.

We’ve listed all the plan details in an embedded spreadsheet so you can narrow down the options that appeal to you. You can sort and filter the table by clicking on the column headers, so that you can (for instance) only see plans running at 100/40, or sort in order of total download limits or monthly prices. We recommend clicking on the full screen button in the bottom right corner of the spreadsheet so you can see all the columns at once. Individual notes on each provider (in alphabetical order) and links to their sites follow the main table.

Provider Notes

These aren’t exhaustive summaries of what each provider offers, just highlights of issues that might not be immediately apparent in the plan listing.

Ace Internet Services

Stuff to watch out for: Ace Internet Services appears to be using the Nextgen pricing structure, but isn’t one of the cheaper offerings. Its site doesn’t offer much detail on the plans.

Activ8me

What we like: Activ8Me offers one of the best-value no contract deals. That said, if you sign up for a contract for 12 months, your data allowances are doubled. (We haven’t noted this in the table as it’s not clear how long that deal will run for.)

Stuff to watch out for: If you bundle phone services, you’ll get $10 a month off the quoted prices. The shaping speeds (128/128) are lower than virtually everyone else in this listing.

AusBBS

Stuff to watch out for: AusBBS launched with an interesting idea: offering a pay-as-you-go service, so you don’t pay for a large chunk of data that you never actually use, but have the freedom to use more data in busier periods. As we noted when analysing that launch, however, that doesn’t work out to be particularly good value. The plans relaunched this week with a more realistic 10GB allowance for basic use, but it’s still a specialised niche.

Club Telco

What we like: Club Telco is one of the few providers offering a no-contract option.

Stuff to watch out for: While the Club Telco claims no setup fees, you do have to pay an annual $50 membership fee, which we’ve included in the setup cost calculations.

DeVoteD NBN

Stuff to watch out for: DeVoteD (a DVD reseller which has moved into telecommunications) claims that it doesn’t count uploads, but its terms and conditions make clear that if your volume of uploads exceeds the monthly download limit, you’ll get shaped. You can choose between 12-month and 24-month contracts.

Engin

What we like: Engin doesn’t count uploads.

Stuff to watch out for: Only three plans on offer, they’re all overpriced, the shaping speeds are slower than anyone else in this listing, and you’re stuck on a 24-month contract. Avoid.

Exetel

What we like: Exetel has a lot to recommend it. It has the cheapest plans on offer in the market, offers the unusual 25/10 combination in some locations, has the fastest shaping speed of any provider in our table (1024/384), doesn’t count uploads and includes a free VOIP number connection as part of the deal. Right now, it’s the provider to beat in terms of overall value for customers who don’t have huge download requirements.

Stuff to watch out for: The largest data allowance Exetel offers is 300GB. People who want more than that will have to look elsewhere (or put up with regular shaping). That said, with uploads not counted, some torrent types might still find 300GB sufficient.

A more important consideration is that Exetel offers cheaper pricing by taking a fairly minimalist approach to service. If you have regular issues and have to contact support a lot, it’s entirely likely you’ll find your contract cancelled and your service cut off. That’s not likely to be a problem for the typical Lifehacker reader, but it might make you think twice before signing up less tech-literate relatives.


iiNet

Stuff to watch out for: iiNet divides its data allocations into peak (8am-2am) and off-peak (2am-8am) periods. If you want extra data without being shaped, you can purchase extra data packs ($10 for 5GB; $15 for 10GB; $30 for 25GB; $50 for 50GB; $80 for 100GB). Only 24-month contracts are offered. Note: iiNet subsidiaries TransACT and Westnet sell identical plans.

Internode

What we like: Although Internode is now owned by iiNet, it has maintained distinct NBN plans, and offers a no-contract option and no peak/off-peak distinction, unlike its parent. Shaping speed is now a reasonable 256/256, rather than the slower version it previously offered.

Stuff to watch out for: For equivalent amounts of data, Internode is generally pricier than iiNet. You can purchase extra data packs if you want to up your allocation. These follow the same pricing as iiNet ($10 for 5GB; $15 for 10GB; $30 for 25GB; $50 for 50GB; $80 for 100GB).

iPrimus

What we like: The enforced contract period is only 12 months.

Stuff to watch out for: iPrimus has peak (10am-2am) and off-peak (2am-10am) periods. The peak/off-peak distinction doesn’t apply to its 1TB plan. Its rates are lowered if you bundle other services.

MyFibre

What we like: MyFibre doesn’t count uploads.

Stuff to watch out for: If you sign up for a phone plan from MyFibre, your data allowance is doubled. While uploads aren’t officially counted, if your volume of uploads is more than 2.5 times the volume of your downloads, you’ll be asked to switch up to a costlier plan.

Mynetfone

What we like: MyNetFone has the best value 1TB plan we’ve spotted.

Stuff to watch out for: MyNetFone promotes ‘data boosts’ to increase your allowance, which means you don’t get a shaping option. The boost pricing is rather more generous than similar deals from iiNet and Internode: 100GB for $15, 250GB for $20, 500GB for $25 and 1TB for $40. Adding 1TB to the existing 1TB plan creates a $140 2TB plan which doesn’t have any obvious competitors right now. Contracts run for 24-months.

North Queensland Telecom

What we like: You get 100 free VOIP calls per month with the service.

NuSkope

Stuff to watch out for: An unremarkable but competitive provider, selling standardly-priced deals originating from wholesaler Nextgen. You can choose between 12-month and 24-month contracts.

Optus

What we like: Optus’ initial range of plans covered a diverse range of price points and didn’t require a contract, but also imposed peak/off-peak conditions. Its current plans have ditched peak/off-peak, but the cheap options have disappeared. We’ve only listed its standalone NBN plans here.

ORCA Network

What we like: No setup fees, which is unusual for a provider offering these Nextgen plans. Contracts run for 24-months.

Southern Phone

What we like: Southern Phone is one of the few providers to offer a 1TB plan, though it’s not the cheapest one out there.

Telstra

Stuff to watch out for: Telstra’s plans fall into two quite distinct categories. Firstly, there are Internet-only options which are very expensive compared to everyone else, still lock you into a 24-month contract and which have high installation fees. (All these options have prices which end in .95). These plans can be safely ignored.

More interesting but harder to directly compare are its plans with prices ending in a 0, which also include various phone options. The $80 and $90 plan gives you free local calls; the $100 plan lets you call Telstra mobiles; the $130 plan lets you make STD calls, and the $150 plan makes calls to all Australian numbers, mobile or landline, free. Add in bundling discounts if you purchase extra services and it’s very hard to make a direct comparison (which is, no doubt, partly the intention). That said, when you can pay $40 a month for an unlimited mobile service, I can’t imagine too many people getting excited by these offers. Weirdly, Telstra is only offering two speeds: 25/5 and 100/40.

TPG

As we noted earlier in the article, TPG doesn’t yet have an NBN offering, but has said it intends to introduce an TPG is unlimited plan.

TransACT

TransACT’s plans are identical to its parent iiNet, so we haven’t broken them out separately in the table. See the iiNet analysis for a full discussion.

Westnet

Westnet’s plans are identical to its parent iiNet, so we haven’t broken them out separately in the table. See the iiNet analysis for a full discussion. (Didn’t I just say that?)

Yourhub

Stuff to watch out for: The shaping options for Yourhub are less generous than other similarly-priced plans.

ZettaNet

Stuff to watch out for: Yet another provider who appears to be buying its services from wholesaler Nextgen, but not the cheapest option in that context.

Our Pick Of The Plans

There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all NBN plan. A dedicated media addict will want higher speeds and bigger download limits; other people will shop to a fixed price point. If you’ve had a bad experience with a provider in the past, you’re likely to dismiss them no matter what the price. Individual needs vary, and it’s good to have a wide range of choices out there.

The only plans we would definitively not recommend for anyone are the Engin options and Telstra’s data-only plans, both of which are badly overpriced. On a more positive note, here are some obvious standouts that match with common usage scenarios.

Cheapest bargain plan: Exetel’s $35 12/1 plan offer 50GB of data — five times as much as the similarly-priced deal from Club Telco. For $5 a month more, you can shift to a 25/5 Exetel plan with the same amount of data.

Cheapest 100/40 plan: Exetel wins here again, with a 100/40 plan with 50GB for $45.

Cheapest no-contract option: The no-contract providers in the table are Activ8Me, AusBBS, Club Telco and Internode. Activ8Me has the cheapest plans.

Cheapest 1TB plan: We’re assuming 100/40 is a speed requirement here. Six companies offer a 1TB option at that speed: Club Telco, iiNet, Internode, iPrimus, MyNetFone and Southern Phone. iiNet and MyNetFone are the cheapest ($99.95), but MyNetFone gets extra points for not having a peak/off-peak distinction. You can also add an extra 1TB data boost to the MyNetFone deal for $40, meaning you can get 2TB for $140 — a great deal for the data-hungry.

Know of other NBN options that are available? Spotted a mistake in the table? (We’ve worked hard to make it accurate, but with that amount of data, errors will still creep through). Tell us in the comments.

Lifehacker’s weekly Planhacker column rounds up the best communication deals.