There Is No NBN ‘Plan B’

As the copper phone network goes from bad to worse, decent broadband is still years away for many Australians. If your phone line is slowly failing but the NBN is still years from your street, what’s your fallback broadband plan? As I personally discovered, the available options aren’t great…

Regardless of how we built the National Broadband Network, some people were always going to wait longer than others before they could connect. That’s not unreasonable, I think we can all appreciate that you can’t build a nationwide network overnight, but the situation becomes more urgent if you’re watching the DSL connection on your copper phone line get worse every year.

I live a few kilometres from my telephone exchange in suburban Melbourne – when I moved in eight years ago I was getting 8 Mbps via ADSL2+ but it continues to drop and right now I’m struggling to get 2 Mbps. Previous line checks have confirmed that my copper line is flaky and I’ve tried some DSL troubleshooting but I’m told that as long as you have dial-tone Telstra won’t do anything about it.

After the latest speed drop I’m about to go through this process again but I don’t expect to get any joy, no-one wants to spend money maintaining the copper lines when the NBN is set to replace them – which might be a great strategy for shareholders but sucks if you’re the one stuck on the other end of a bad line.

Tantalisingly out of reach

There’s 100 Mbps Telstra HFC cable in my street, my next-door neighbour can connect to it but I can’t because we technically live on a split block. My understanding was that the NBN was coming to my suburb next year and that I’d probably get connected to the Telstra cable when the NBN techs come down my street, but now it’s looking like 2018 before relief arrives – and I still might get shunted onto Fibre to the Node.

To be fair I realise that I’m still one of the lucky ones. Regional Australia has lived with substandard broadband infrastructure for decades and even some city dwellers have never had access to DSL due to issues like pair gain, leaving them trapped on dial-up until the NBN reaches them.

Originally I was happy enough to wait my turn but, like many people, my patience is running out as my connection deteriorates – especially as I work from home and it’s becoming harder and harder to get things done while also catering to the broadband needs of my family. I need a temporary broadband boost, and there are several ways to go about it.

A few third-party broadband networks such as DGTek, Lightning Broadband and MyRepublic have emerged to cherry pick dissatisfied customers, but unfortunately they’re yet to make it to my suburb.

Alternatively I realise I could spend thousands of dollars paying for a business-grade fibre line to my house, or perhaps sign up for an expensive satellite broadband deal, but that seems like overkill when I’ll only need it for two years before some form of NBN reaches my doorstep.

Some people argue that the entire broadband network should be a user pays system but instead Australia has decided to treat internet access as critical infrastructure like roads. A completely user pays road system would mean that many suburbs would still rely on dirt tracks, but we’ve decided that the vast majority of Australians are entitled to bitumen to the driveway and broadband should be considered just as important.

Time to choose

So the way I see it that leaves me with two options to get me through the next two years, I can either piggyback my neighbour’s Telstra cable connection – running a Wi-Fi link over the fence – or I can tap into mobile broadband.

I’m sure I could strike some kind of arrangement with my neighbour and contribute towards his monthly bill, even if we’re probably breaking Telstra’s terms and conditions, but I’m reluctant to drag him into my problems and risk my broadband demands taking a toll on his internet speeds.

If I was tapping into his cable connection I’d still need to keep paying for DSL in order to keep my VoIP business phone line, as I’ve found over the years that VoIP supplied by your Internet Service Provider tends to be more reliable than a third-party service.

I’m thinking that mobile broadband is a more sensible option, whether it be a mobile hotspot or a Home Wireless Broadband modem.

A dedicated Home Wireless Broadband modem can offer better value for money, but they tend to be capped at 12/1 Mbps whereas the mobile networks can potentially go much faster. I live in a valley with mediocre mobile broadband coverage, just to add an extra degree of difficulty. Telstra seems to have the best coverage but its mobile data is much more expensive than its competitors.

Even if you avoid Telstra’s mobile network, mobile data can be expensive – so I might end up running a mobile hotspot alongside my DSL connection which offers unlimited downloads. This way I can easily switch between fast, expensive broadband and slow, cheap broadband depending on what I’m working on.

The set-up is going to fragment my home network, which will be a pain, but it will also make it easy to control which devices access which broadband connection so I’m not accidentally sucking down online movie rentals via expensive mobile broadband. It’s going to be a hassle, but worth the effort if it makes me more productive during the day.

Are you still waiting for the NBN to reach your street? Is your copper line on its last legs? What’s your NBN Plan B?

UPDATE: After talking to my ISP’s tech support and running a few tests we agreed the fault was bad enough to log with Telstra, who sent out a technician on Tuesday by which time the line sync was dropping out every half hour. The technician found and rectified a line fault in the street – so I’m now back on reasonably stable 4 Mbps. I still believe there’s an issue with the copper line somewhere between my home and the exchange, considering that my line sync has deteriorated over time, but the tech seemed to think that 4 Mbps is as good as it’s going to get so I’m still weighing up my wireless options.

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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