While bigger telcos like Optus use the fact that they are a 'Tier 1' provider as a selling point, there's never been a proven advantage to this over retailers that don't own their own networks: until now. For the first time the ACCC has compared speeds between the main NBN retailers and the ones who have to lease backhaul capacity: and shown up a notable discrepancy.
Here's a quick run-down of how the NBN works, just to explain the more jargony specifics. The NBN network has a number of Points of Interconnection (commonly called POIs) where telcos plug their own network (called a 'backhaul' network) into the system.
However only a few of the larger companies are able to afford to build their own backhaul network - namely Telstra, Optus, TPG and Vocus. Others have to lease backhaul capacity from these other providers. The former are known as on-net connections, while the latter are off-net.
Some smaller RSPs offer a mix of both, providing on-net connections in some areas and off-net in others, depending on how large their own networks are.
With that out of the way, here are the stats from the ACCC's most recent report. While on-net services on average reached around 90 per cent of maximum plan speed, off-net services were significantly lower at 83 per cent.
The disparity was roughly the same at peak times: on-net services reached around 89 per cent of max speed, while off-net services were around 81 per cent.
This comes with a big 'but', of course: the ACCC warns that its sample size for off-net connections is currently very small, but even with that in mind the discrepancy is notable.
Note that this isn't necessarily a reason to dump your off-net provider - rather the ACCC is monitoring this situation closely for potential network problems. The point of this monitoring is to figure out "whether there could be disparity in the busy hour provisioning between these groups suggestive of a wholesale market that is not operating efficiently."
If this kind of disparity is held up in future reports, it may simply herald a need for further regulation protecting customers on off-net connections from getting a bad deal.
NBN connections are becoming available in more and more places as the network rolls out, but it's not worth rushing into the switch even if you've been waiting for years. Switching over to the NBN can be complicated, so here's what you need to make sure you do before you take the leap.