Dear Lifehacker, My home connection is meant to be ADSL2+, but I have never exceeded 5.0Mb/s for downloads. My ISP tells me that is all the speed I can expect living 3.6 km from exchange. Is that true? Am I right in thinking that going through a VPN my download speed would be much worse? And can I do anything other than wait for that very elusive NBN? Thanks, Slowed Down P'd Off
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Broadband speeds are incredibly variable, but then that's because there's a lot of variables at play. There is, as your ISP has noted, the issue of range when using ADSL2+, and certainly a download speed of 5.0Mb/s isn't outside the ordinary if you are 3.6km from the exchange. Another 1.4km away, and you wouldn't be able to get an ADSL2+ connection at all.
Distance, however, isn't the only variable, because it also depends on the location and connection quality of whatever you're trying to actually download, and whether it's peered locally, or being accessed purely from a connection nearby or overseas. As such, even on the fastest connections, you can still experience remarkably slow speeds. A good example of this would be when Apple rolls out its main full point iOS upgrades. Apple can afford decent local peering, but even so, the strain on its servers means that day one upgrades can be painfully slow.
The use of a VPN involves obscuring the location of your connection by channelling your traffic through a secondary, usually overseas server, so some speed degradation is more or less inevitable, although the degree of speeds loss can vary by provider and server load.
So what can you do? The NBN, even in its new heavily diluted "MTM" mix should improve download matters once it finally starts properly rolling out, but that's a statement that has to be qualified with some heavy caveats, because it will depend on the type of NBN you end up getting. If you're lucky enough to still be in an area that will get FTTP NBN, you should get greatly improved speeds, but the reality in the FTTN/HFC areas is significantly less certain.
There's a lot of debate about the state of the copper used for the last mile delivery of FTTN, and that could hit speeds badly. NBN Co has committed to using DOCSIS 3.1 as an upgrade for HFC users, but it's still a shared spectrum, which means that if your neighbours are all busy heavily streaming or downloading when you want to, bottlenecks are likely. Most troublingly, most of the provisions for "minimum" download speeds that were part of the old NBN model have been scrubbed out of the MTM mix, which could mean that genuinely low speeds still counted as "NBN" connections, because there's no longer any bottom floor.
4G would be your other alternative, because it can peak very high, but again there are catches. It's highly dependent on environmental variables, because it's not fixed line, and again you're looking at shared spectrum, so while it may peak quite high especially for CAT6 style LTE devices, those peaks can also become very tiny troughs. The bigger issue for 4G is that mobile data remains significantly more expensive than fixed line data, so for anything but small scale downloads it's quickly cost prohibitive.
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