Surging demand for videoconferencing, remote work and streaming video have put unprecedented pressure on Australia’s national broadband network (NBN), but the results of a new speed audit suggest that remediation measures have helped to maintain the network’s overall performance.

Average peak download bandwidth across the entire NBN had surged 25 per cent since the end of February during the evening peak to 13.8 terabits per second (Tbps), NBN Co revealed while launching a new Australian Broadband Data Demand report that will track overall consumption on a weekly basis.

Usage during early evening hours was up 30 per cent over the same time to 12.8Tbps, while bandwidth consumption during business hours was up 21 per cent to 9Tbps.

The figures are NBN Co’s first official accounting of bandwidth usage since expanding social-distancing requirements led millions of workers, in Australia and around the world, to begin working from home as an isolation measure during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

To keep the network from becoming overloaded, streaming media firms like YouTube and Netflix have responded by dialling down the bandwidth their services consume.

NBN Co also offered Australian retail service providers (RSPs) 40 per cent additional wholesale bandwidth at no extra cost, helping them better deal with demand spikes that might normally have compromised overall service quality.

Those measures seemed to have helped manage demand surges in recent weeks, ACCC chair Rod Sims said in a speech to industry at this week’s Comms Day Summit 2020 at which he lauded the “encouraging results” of the latest Measuring Broadband Australia testing program.

Yet those results haven’t been published yet; the latest figures available on the ACCC website, which noted that “Australians are benefitting from faster average download speeds” with an average of 84.3 to 86.6 per cent of maximum plan speeds, were published in February – and relate to data collected in November 2019.

An ACCC spokesperson told Information Age that the latest figures were being monitored internally and would be published as scheduled.

Similar lags in reporting have tainted the value of recent Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) figures suggesting complaints about the NBN were down overall; those figures only covered the December quarter and don’t reflect the impact of surging network demands and mass contact-centre congestion due to staff shortages from overseas lockdowns.

Short-term changes, long-term impact

Even in the wake of encouraging usage figures, there are signs the March demand surges are only a harbinger of things to come as some of Australia’s largest organisations gear up to support thousands of workers from home for the duration of the pandemic.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), for one, recently signed $2.64m in new contracts to support more than 9,000 employees – half its workforce – with monitors, laptops and other equipment to help them work from home.

Telstra moved to full working from home arrangements for its office staff weeks ago, and has been working with large clients to deploy equipment and facilitate remote-meeting and working-from-home transitions.

At a domestic level, these changes will force NBN Co and its RSP partners to keep adding and redistributing capacity to keep up.

Extrapolated globally, the surge in global traffic is forcing many telecommunications providers to rewrite the rules of capacity – particularly with many current remote working transitions likely to persist after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

That could be a shock for global telecommunications levels that were, Cisco’s Visual Networking Index suggests, already bracing for annual IP traffic to pass three zettabytes per year by 2021.

Baseline data loads are changing so quickly that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)’s Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development recently held an online virtual meeting at which its more than 50 worldwide member commissioners laid down a formal Agenda for Action in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Focused on three pillars – ‘Resilient Connectivity, Affordable Access, and Safe Use for Informed and Educated Societies’ – the United Nations advisory body’s Agenda for Action is being developed to “compile and disseminate a repository of tangible actions”.

These include strategies for telecommunications providers to increase bandwidth; manage vital services and strategic connectivity points such as hospitals, pharmacies, and transportation hubs; improve affordability and accessibility of services; ensuring safe use of online services; and promote “media and information literacy to detect disinformation”.

Last week, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) last week issued a series of extraordinary competition waivers, including one that authorises NBN Co to collaborate with Australia’s five largest telcos to ensure continuous supply of broadband throughout the pandemic.