For the residents of one of Sydney’s tallest buildings, the arrival of the national broadband network has spelt the end of fast and affordable high-speed internet. Six years ago, the residents of Elan tower in Kings Cross paid Telstra to weave “state of the art” hybrid fibre coaxial (HFC) cables through the 40 floors, and since then have been enjoying download speeds of 100Mbps.
But last year, NBN ordered Telstra to scrap the HFC system and move customers onto its fibre-to-the-building (FTTB) technology, which it had installed using the building’s 20-year-old copper phone lines.
One angry resident is well-known property developer Rick Graf. He is refusing to switch, aghast at the poor experiences of his neighbours.
“With the HFC backbone, I’m getting 120Mbps internet – over Wi-Fi,” he said. “A neighbour of mine has switched to NBN and on a high-paying plan, and he can’t get more than 50Mbps.”
A quarter of Elan’s 276 households are estimated to be using the HFC internet service.
Late last year, Telstra began telling Elan residents, via information sessions and letters, to move to the NBN and experience “fast downloads, better productivity, a brighter future”, before it turned off the HFC system in February 2018. (NBN has the legal power to compel telcos such as Telstra to decommission their HFC and ADSL networks in return for compensation.)
Mr Graf said NBN had effectively “downgraded” the building’s infrastructure by choosing to connect the fibres to old copper lines instead of the HFC backbone.
“I’m not moving. Once we hear back from NBN about their reasons, we’ll be taking this to the Ombudsman,” said Mr Graf.
“It’s counter-intuitive for NBN to downgrade the technology and give everyone half the speed.”
Blame game continues
The Elan building has become another flashpoint in the ongoing blame game between NBN and telcos over the escalating complaints about and general dissatisfaction with the $49 billion project.
NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow last week sought to downplay growing complaints by admitting to a 15 per cent dissatisfaction rate among customers connecting to the NBN. This could add up to more than 2 million users.
Mr Morrow said complaints from that cohort were becoming more audible now that the network was being made available to about 100,000 new premises every week.
An NBN spokesman said FTTB was the “best fit” and the “easier” option from an engineering point of view.
He said FTTB was capable of delivering speeds of 100Mbps, but retailers had to buy sufficient capacity or bandwidth.
He claimed retailers, including Telstra, were automatically placing customers on 12Mbps or 25Mbps plans unless they specifically asked for faster speeds, causing speed and congestion problems.
A Telstra spokesperson said customers shouldn’t see much of a difference if they remained on the same speed tier.
“We actively monitor and manage our capacity on the NBN network to ensure we have the right level of bandwidth to support customer speeds,” she said.
“Speeds on the NBN vary due to quite a large number of factors … some are managed by retailers, others are designed and controlled by NBN.”
Pay more, get less
Another resident, electrical engineer John Flanagan, who is refusing to switch, said his neighbour’s internet connection had dropped from 110 to 30Mbps.
He is paying $29 per month for 25GB of data, which is a relatively small amount, delivered at an enviable 100Mbps.
Based on flyers left in his mailbox, he would have to pay iiNet or TPG $100 per month to remain in the same speed tier. IPrimus’ best offer was unlimited data at 25Mbps for $80 a month.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Mr Flanagan. “I’m not going to pay more for an inferior service.”
He said NBN should use the HFC cables to provide internet services or upgrade the cables.
This is because elsewhere in Australia, NBN is upgrading HFC technology to “DOCSIS 3.1”, which can deliver lightning download speeds of 1Gbps.
“NBN says that HFC is the way of the future, so why can’t they upgrade our existing system so that we can get speeds of 1GB [1000Mbps] and 100Mbps upload speeds and beyond?” he asked.
Residents who have tried to switch back to the HFC network have been blocked by Telstra.
What’s the solution?
Emeritus Professor Rod Tucker, an electronic engineering expert at University of Melbourne, suggested NBN could take a more flexible stance and allow Elan to keep the HFC network.
“This is an isolated case and it is not going to cause NBN any significant financial disadvantage,” he said.
“If NBN can provide a high-quality service on their network, they might be able, over time, to attract some of the residents using HFC onto the NBN.”
He said under Labor’s NBN plan, any shortfall in the bandwidth provided to customers would be the retailer’s fault, and the tensions now emerging could have been avoided.
“The best possible outcome for the residents of this complex would be to upgrade their network to DOCSIS 3.1, and retain it for access to the NBN,” he said.
NBN spokesperson Tony Brown said the logistics around new connections were more complicated than they used to be, when there was a good chance that a single company – Telstra – owned the relationship with the customer from the retail face to the copper and exchanges underlying it.
“Now you’ve got NBN Co, then 43 retail service providers buying directly from the NBN, and another 141 sub-resellers buying capacity from Optus or wherever it might be, so it’s not as simple as it used to be,” Mr Brown said.
Resident Pam Cassidy’s plan is to “jump up and down” until NBN changes its decision.
One afternoon, she popped into her neighbour’s flat to compare internet speeds. Her neighbour’s NBN-delivered internet was “extremely slow”.
“Call me old-fashioned but if you’ve got a service that’s good, why change it?” she asked.
“Why change it to something that is not good?”