• Australia ranked low for broadband internationally
  • More mobile wireless connections than fixed line
  • Why is the popularity of mobile wireless in Australia problematic?

An international broadband report has found that Australia is ranked low worldwide for broadband connections.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based in Paris, conducted a survey of 34 nations to find out how they compared to one another in terms of subscriptions per people. Australia's results were less than impressive, coming in 21st out of the 34 nations for fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 people.


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Australia has only a 24.6 per cent fixed line broadband penetration, compared to someone like Switzerland, who topped the list with 39.9 per cent penetration. Australia performed much better when it came to mobile wireless broadband, with 74.4 wireless subscriptions per 100 people – some 16.6 million subscriptions in all, and a big increase from the 64 per cent penetration rate of mobile wireless in June 211.

And only 0.42 per cent of Australians are on a fibre connection at this point in time – though that at least we can expect to see increase rapidly as NBN connections (which are built on fibre-optic lines) start to be seen more frequently in the wild.

The Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has said that the new data has "reinforce[d] the need for the National Broadband Network... The OECD's figures continue to demonstrate the importance of rolling out the NBN to all Australians. The NBN's fast, affordable and reliable broadband will help Australia rise up the OECD broadband rankings, even as other OECD countries develop their own super-fast broadband capabilities."

However, the coalition has claimed that Conroy is at fault for Australia's current ranking, despite his self-presentation as a saviour.

Liberal MP Paul Fletcher said: "Stephen Conroy's broadband policy has had nearly five years to work. Yet on the very benchmark he consistently highlighted when in opposition, Australia's broadband performance has got worse not better."

It's an interesting and familiar divide that we're seeing here, and I don't just mean politically. The headline for this news has been about Australia's failure to rank highly within the OECD survey – and yet, Australia did rank highly, for mobile wireless broadband, coming in at 8th place.

So what exactly is making the distinction here? Why is the fact that Australia comes seventh for mobile wireless not a cause of celebration, even compared to Australia's comparably low fixed line broadband rates?

To answer we need to look again at the importance of the NBN, and mobile wireless broadband's inadequacy as a solution.

How does a mobile wireless broadband connection compare to a fixed line connection?

Honestly, the answer is "not particularly well". If we look at the different infrastructure that these connections are built on, we can begin to see why a high density of mobile broadband amongst a population is not at all something to be proud of, but rather something that hints at problems in connectivity under the surface.

The most common type of fixed line connection is ADSL2+ - ADSL1 and cable are also fixed line connections, but they sit at kind of opposite end of the scales: ADSL1 is slower than ADSL2+, and cable is much faster. Both are more expensive. Generally, though, one only gets ADSL1 if one has no other choice, and a cable connection, while popular, is not available in a wide range of areas, restricted to certain suburbs in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane.

For the purpose of this article, we'll mostly be talking about ADSL2+ as a synonym for fixed line broadband, though as shown above that is not entirely accurate. An ADSL2+ connection is carried over a copper line, the same copper line that carries your telephone connection. The copper line goes from your house to your local telephone exchange, and the speed and strength of your connection generally depends mostly upon these two factors: the quality of your copper line, and your distance from the telephone exchange.

Click here for a refresher course on how ADSL works.

There are other factors that feed into this, of course, but those two are the big ones, and they mean that for the most part, you shouldn't be worried about who will give you the best "service" when you sign up for an ADSL2+ plan. All the providers are going to be using exactly the same infrastructure and equipment, so you're likely to experience the same speeds no matter who you're with (there are exceptions to this rule – call us on 1300 106 571 to see if there might be another reason why your internet is so slow). As a result, we recommend that you make your decision about which ISP to go with based on customer service and price.

Mobile wireless broadband is an entirely different thing. You'll recognise mobile wireless as different first of all by the form it comes in: it's usually a modem that is much cheaper than your ADSL2+ modem in the shape of a USB (called a dongle), although you can also get a pocket WiFi mobile broadband device.

Click here for the best mobile wireless broadband plans.

Mobile wireless connects to the internet via mobile phone towers. That means that the signal is being sent out into the blue and then has to return back to your computer in order to connect. Mobile wireless connections are subject to a range of conditions, including but not limited to: your provider's coverage in your area, how many other people are online on the same network, the time of day, what the environment around you is like (are there trees? Are there tall buildings?), even the weather.

Mobile wireless can be unpredictable and unreliable. At times you might have quite a speedy connection; at other times, it will be impossible to navigate. And there's no real way of telling when it's going to be good and when it's going to be bad, which means that your perfectly good connection could suddenly get really bad a month into your contract.

Of course, it's not all doom and gloom. There are a lot of good things about mobile wireless broadband, particularly the fact that they're totally portable, meaning you can take them with you wherever you go in Australia (how good the reception will be in each area is another question, but theoretically if the mobile network is in the area they will work).

Also, it's very likely that a large proportion of those Australian mobile broadband subscribers also have an ADSL2+ connection at home. There's nothing wrong with having a mobile broadband subscription that you use when you're out and about while travelling to complement the fixed line connection you have at home! In fact, that's part of mobile broadband's utility, in its ability to help you while you don't have access to a WiFi ADSL2+ network.

The real problem is when people use mobile wireless broadband as their main home connection. Mobile wireless broadband is simply not good enough to serve as most people's main connection – however, for a lot of people, there's not any real choice in the matter.

Whether it's because a fixed line connection is not available in the person's local area, or whether the only connections available are expensive Telstra ones, there are all too many Australians 'stuck' on mobile wireless with no other option. It's for these people that the real importance of the NBN comes in, as they will soon be able to connect to high speed fibre broadband, where speeds will improve a hundredfold and the rate of drop-outs will decrease dramatically.

It's no real surprise, then, that no one is holding up the success of mobile wireless broadband in Australia as a wider success story for the country. In fact, the success of mobile wireless is due to a failure of fixed line broadband to cater to the majority of Australians. The reasons behind this are understandable – Australia is a huge country, and a lot of people live in remote or regional areas – but it's way past time for solutions to be created and implemented.

We believe the NBN is a solution. MP Fletcher's comments were unnecessarily political, as Stephen Conroy has undoubtedly put into place a system and policy that will see Australia race ahead in the OECD surveys for fixed line broadband. However, there does need to be a great deal of pressure on Stephen Conroy now to ensure that the NBN rolls out in a timely and efficient manner, so that Australia doesn't have to shrink away from OECD reports for much longer.

NBN-based connections are not yet widely available. For those who want to take advantage of great value plans with short or no contracts, we recommend:

TPG’s Unlimited $60 ADSL2+ Bundle (6 month contract) – Call 1300 106 571;

iPrimus can offer Naked DSL connections, with unlimited data, from just $69.95 a month - available on 0, 12 and 24 month contract terms. Call 1300 137 794;

Internode has a 200GB Easy Bundle for $80 with no contract, call on 1300 106 571.

Want to know when the NBN is coming to your area? Give us a call on 1300 106 571 and we can talk about that with you, along with what your options are before the NBN gets there.