Australian fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband services are slower and less reliable than those in New Zealand, according to a new comparative analysis that blames pricing and technical decisions made during the design of National Broadband Network (NBN) services.

Prepared as a joint project between the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and New Zealand Commerce Commission (NZCC), the new Measuring Broadband Trans-Tasman report compared the results of the two countries’ broadband monitoring programs and found NZ’s Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) fibre services are consistently faster and more reliable than the NBN.

Outside of the evening peak period of 7pm to 11pm, 100/20Mbps NBN’s Ultrafast broadband plans – which run across fibre to the premises (FTTP) connections – downloaded data as quickly as those in NZ, with an average 102.1Mbps compared with 101.2Mbps.

Yet as network usage increased, particularly during night-time peak hours, the Australian broadband services slowed down 4.5Mbps compared with 2.3Mbps on NZ services.

Australia’s absolute fastest Ultrafast NBN 1000 FTTP plans were slower than those in NZ – 745.6Mbps download speeds compared with 808.1Mbps in NZ – and failed nearly twice as frequently, with 0.9 outages per week compared with 0.5 outages per week in NZ.

The differences in upload speed were even more pronounced: although Australian 100/20Mbps plans delivered an average 18.2Mbps compared with 22.3Mbps in NZ, the fastest FTTP plans uploaded data at just 45.7Mbps – less than one-tenth the 507.2Mbps average speeds over NZ’s UFB.

ACCC commissioner Anna Brakey was sanguine about the results, ignoring the pronounced differences in the superfast plan speeds to argue that the NBN “generally compares well to equivalent connection types in New Zealand.”

The differences in upload speeds, she said in announcing the results, are “due to differences in how they are configured” – specifically, that New Zealand’s UFB overprovisions both its upload and download services, whereas the NBN only overprovisions its download speeds.

Under-overprovisioning to blame

Overprovisioning refers to the amount of extra bandwidth that retail service providers (RSPs) allocate to support peak surges in usage, providing headroom that is quickly filled during peak hours when large numbers of consumers finish dinner and fire up their streaming video and chat services.

Because the NBN’s long-criticised access pricing model links their wholesale costs to the amount of bandwidth they provision, Australia’s cost-conscious RSPs are forced to balance end-user speeds against their own profitability.

While “there are no technical impediments to the NBN matching New Zealand’s busy hour and upload performance”, Brakey said, “NBN’s access charging model and approach to provisioning upload traffic on fixed-line connections appear to be causing some busy hour and upload metrics to fall below New Zealand’s.”

Last month, industry figures slammed an NBN Co proposal to vary its pricing through 2024, with telecommunications expert Paul Budde warning that the changes “will make the NBN less affordable”, blaming “botched government policies” and calling for the new Labor government to intervene to resolve longstanding issues around NBN accessibility and performance.

Shout it, shout it, shout it upload

Australia’s Measuring Broadband Australia program – which, like the NZ program, uses SamKnows devices to measure the performance of NBN services in consumers’ homes – has a long history of revealing problems with the network’s configuration.

An 2019 review found that 13 per cent of all NBN services were “underperforming”, for example, while another review later that year found that little had changed.

Two years later, a December 2021 analysis found that NBN consumers were only getting 97.2 per cent of expected download speeds and 84.9 per cent of expected upload speeds.

At that point, Brakey said, “given the growing importance of upload speeds to how consumers use their broadband services, the ACCC is keeping a close eye on how clear retailers are with their customers about upload speeds.”

After the new analysis found NZ fibre services to be technically superior to the NBN, however, Brakey suggested the demonstrated speed differences don’t matter because “most consumers, even with multiple family members online at the same time, do not require the fastest plans currently available in Australia, and have a good broadband experience on plans with lower download speeds.”

NBN Co recently committed to upgrading 600,000 premises to FTTP services by year’s end, promising access to faster speeds and reducing the load on fixed-wireless broadband services.

Wireless broadband services are the only type of broadband access that runs faster in Australia than NZ, with an average 36.4Mbps delivered over fixed wireless services compared with 29.2Mbps in NZ – although the NZ services nonetheless upload data more than four times faster, at an average 17.0Mbps compared with 4.0Mbps.

New Zealand’s fixed-wireless services are significantly less reliable, however, with 4.2 outages on average per week compared to just 1.3 outages per week in Australia.

NBN Co has repeatedly considered throttling fixed-wireless services to maintain performance, potentially blocking 4K streaming and preventing “extreme users” from consuming too much bandwidth.