Will the NBN be able to cope with a surge of people working from home. Picture: Shutterstock

Will the NBN be able to cope with a surge of people working from home. Picture: Shutterstock

How Australia's internet is coping with the mass migration to working from home

Coronavirus: NBN prepared for surge in home internet usage as offices shut down

Technology
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Nearly 10 years after the first customers were connected to the high-speed broadband network, it is finally living up to its true purpose.

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Until recently, the largest spikes in traffic Australia's National Broadband Network had to grapple with were when a new Call of Duty game dropped.

But nearly 10 years after the first customers were connected to the high-speed broadband network, it is finally living up to its true purpose as hundreds of thousands of Australians work and learn from home for the first time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"This is what the NBN has been built for," the NBN's Chief Network Engineering Officer John Parkin said.

Workers during the network's roll out. Picture: Supplied

Workers during the network's roll out. Picture: Supplied

When building a case for the high speed network, the Gillard government set a target that 10 per cent of the workforce would be able to work from home half the time. At the time, it was estimated about 6 per cent of people were "teleworking" or "telecommuting".

Now some of the nation's largest employers - not least of which the Australian Public Service - are moving to remote work in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.

At the same time, most of Australia's nearly four million students are transitioning to online learning.

This has been the biggest test of the NBN since its inception.

Traffic has surged more than 70 per cent during weekday business hours.

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The nighttime peak - around 9pm - was up between 10 and 15 per cent but has actually dropped back after Netflix and YouTube reduced the quality of their streams in response to a request from the European commissioner to ease pressure on networks.

But Mr Parkin - whose job it is to "make sure the NBN works" - said it is a test NBN Co is more than ready for.

"The really good news is that we've been engineering this network now for some considerable time and also have been spending time in recent weeks increasing the capacity further on the network, predicting that the nation will start working from home, that kids will be home-schooled, etcetera," Mr Parkin said.

While business hours usage surged to 7.25 terabits per second on March 27, this is less than the traffic of the evening peak a month earlier - before the lockdowns took hold - of 9.44 terabits per second.

For the technologically unsavvy, this means the network still has a lot of "headroom" even in the face of increasing demand, Mr Parkin said.

And while the NBN hit a new network peak of 13.52 terabits per second of traffic on March 27, the company suspects it was linked to the release of the latest Call of Duty patch rather than the nation's shift to remote work.

That's not to say NBN Co was not gearing up for a huge increase in traffic.

Early in the outbreak, the company looked to European telcos to see what kind of spikes in demand they were experiencing to gauge what kind of traffic surge Australia could see if the virus took hold here.

Each day, they swapped notes with Telecom Italia to predict what kind of capacity they needed to build into the Australian network if lockdowns were required.

"We saw an initial spike around 26 per cent of traffic with Telecom Italia and their peak was a 40 per cent growth, and they're now normalised at just under 30 per cent," Mr Parkin said.

"If you think about where Italy is right now, everyone is quarantined in their home, everyone's working from home and so it gives us a really good benchmark in terms of what we could likely expect, in a worst case scenario in Australia.

"We're very confident that we have created sufficient capacity in our network to be able to cope with any spikes in demand that would be similar to that."

While customers are quick to decry the NBN - which has been beset by cost and time blowouts, as well as slower than advertised speeds over the past decade - Mr Parkin said many issues customers are experiencing were not NBN issues at all.

"Keep in mind that most home internet plans are used primarily to download - web browsing, movies, music - and as such have great download speeds but they are lighter on upload speeds," Mr Parkin said.

"When it comes to working from home you may have a greater need for uploading large files or joining Skype calls, so speak with your internet retailer to make sure your plan has the upload speeds you need to work from home."

Mr Parkin also points out this is happening at a time when NBN Co is transitioning it own 5000-strong workforce to working from home as well.

"It's been an incredible test," Mr Parkin said.

Mr Parkin said this quick shift to a large part of the population working and learning from home would have been unimaginable prior to the NBN.

"If we just cast their minds back a few years and and consider what this environment now could be like if we were just still all working on on ADSL-based services, to be able to conceive that we would have the capacity and the capability to move the population to work and live from home for a period of time and still, to a degree, conduct business as normal albeit over a digital environment, it would be inconceivable years ago," Mr Parkin said.

Chief Network Engineering Officer John Parkin's tips for getting the most out of your home internet during the COVID-19 crisis

  • Speak with your internet retailer to make sure your plan has the upload speeds you need to work from home.
  • Keep your modem in a central location in the home, ideally close to where you're working from.
  • Some routers may not deliver the best performance and speeds. If you are concerned about the age or quality of your router or modem, seek advice from your internet retailer on possible upgrade options.
  • And finally, if your internet is down, it could be your Virtual Private Network (VPN) settings that you use to access your corporate intranet and files. Check to see if Google or other websites are working. If they are, then you may need to consult with your organisation's IT help desk for remote networking troubleshooting advice.

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The story How Australia's internet is coping with the mass migration to working from home first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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