NBN Co will soon provide financial relief for broadband-challenged households, businesses, and school children as well as upgrading general practitioners’ broadband services to 50/20Mbps for free, broadband minister Paul Fletcher announced as he reported being “very impressed” by the telecommunications industry’s collaborative efforts to keep Australia online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID-19 is a great test for our nation, and for the NBN,” Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts Paul Fletcher said during a speech to the industry’s CommsDay Summit, almost 11 years to the day after the national broadband network (NBN) was first announced.

Daytime traffic levels had increased 70 to 80 per cent since 28 February, he said, driven by surging business-hours usage as millions of Australians transition to working-from-home and turn to bandwidth-hungry videoconferencing services for work meetings, recreation, and social contact.

Although measures like getting streaming-video providers to wind back their bandwidth consumption had reduced streaming-video traffic by 4 per cent, Australia’s previous broadband infrastructure – which was largely based around 2000-era ADSL services – would never have been able to cope with the surge, Fletcher said.

“Australia has been far better placed to respond to this dramatic and unexpected increase in the number of people working and studying from home because the NBN rollout is 96 per cent complete,” Fletcher said of the network rollout that former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull once labelled a “big mistake” and a “calamitous train wreck”.

“If we had been seeking to meet this challenge when relying mainly on earlier generations of broadband technology,” Fletcher said, “things would have been very, very different.... if COVID-19 had happened five years earlier, the NBN could have played at best a very modest role.”

Minister Paul Fletcher. Source: Supplied

Relief where it’s needed

Some 11.1m Australian homes and businesses are ready to connect to the NBN and 6.8m have already done so, Fletcher said, while noting that the last fortnight had seen over 80,000 new activation orders placed.

A further 20,000 NBN customers had requested to upgrade their services to a faster speed, he added – reflecting the trend towards higher-bandwidth services that has seen 80 per cent of new customers choosing 50Mbps or faster services.

That speed tier – double the 25Mbps that an “absolutely confident” Prime Minister Tony Abbott infamously said in 2013 “is going to be more than enough for the average household” – has become the baseline for modern life in an era of coronavirus isolation.

That particularly included general practitioners, who had been struggling to meet social-distancing requirements and testing patients in carparks until new government initiatives allowed them to increasingly use video telehealth consultations.

Despite the government’s move to expand access to telehealth, however, a survey by medical-software producer Medical Director – which, like other clinical-software developers, is moving to provide free telehealth capabilities for its clientele – found around 35 per cent of GPs are stuck doing telehealth by phone because they were struggling with hardware and connectivity issues.

Upgrading them to 50/20Mbps services for free would give them access to a service that “can easily support multiple videoconferencing streams simultaneously”, Fletcher said, although there was no explicit mention of GPs with connections incapable of getting the faster speeds.

The government will also introduce “specific measures for businesses”, Fletcher said, and “a program to help school children have broadband access at home”.

The government is currently consulting with industry about what these measures will constitute.

“The aim is to help Australian families through this difficult period,” he added, “and will include support for those who can’t pay their Internet bills, and those who have lost their jobs.”

Plans for the future

Fletcher also outlined some of the government’s priorities as the NBN rollout moves into its next phase – including upgrades that would be possible once the network achieves positive cash flow from FY2022-23.

NBN Co will reach its target of 11.5m connected premises this year and is “well placed to meet the financial and operational goals of its 2020-23 Corporate Plan,” he said, noting that much-discussed privatisation of the company “is a number of years away”.

“At this point in NBN’s growth, we have other, higher priorities”, including using the project “for social and economic advantage”, Fletcher said.

A direction about the “substantive completion” of the rollout would be “supported by detailed technical analysis”, Fletcher said, adding that the government was working within “the reality that the network footprint will never be definitively complete”.