If you're switching to broadband for the first time or contemplating changing your Internet Service Provider (ISP), the range of plans on offer can be quite staggering. This guide will break down the key features you need to consider before signing on the dotted line.
How much you'll pay for broadband used to revolve mostly around speed, but these days you've also got to take into consideration factors such as wireless coverage, data allowances, rapid transfer provisions and whether or not you're bundling in other services. Still, there are some common factors that any broadband provider should be able to supply to you for the sake of comparison.
Whether you're connecting via ADSL/ADSL2+ on your phone lines, cable, fibre or even wirelessly, you're constrained by the speed rating of the plan you're offered. It's worth bearing in mind that ISPs typically state the maximum theoretical speed of a plan with lots of "up to" provisos thrown in to keep the lawyers at bay. At the lower speed end this is usually not much of a problem, but don't buy a high speed ADSL2+ plan and expect to get the full 24Mbps speed unless you happen to live in an exchange or ISP's headquarters.
ISPs state the speed of plans in terms of download (data coming to you) and upload (that's data you're sending out) speeds. So a 256/64Kbps plan offers a download speed of 256Kbps and an upload speed of 64Kbps. The lowest speed currently on offer is 256Kbps and is still called "broadband", although frankly it's an embarrassment in world broadband terms. We'd be happier thinking of broadband starting at 1000Kbps and better, and so should you.
All forms of broadband will require additional equipment if you're moving up from dial-up internet. In every case you'll need a new modem — different for each type of broadband technology. If you're signing up with an ISP for a long-term contract, it's worth checking if they'll include a modem (or router) as part of the package. While these aren't terribly expensive for the most part, you may as well get the most value possible.
Understanding the different broadband types
Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) uses your standard phone lines to deliver broadband access. It's generally a resold Telstra service, and so has widespread availability and is offered by nearly every ISP.
|Good availability, works at a longer distance from the exchange than ADSL2+|
|There's not much pricing competition — that fight's currently in ADSL2/Naked DSL spaces.|
Best suited to: those on limited budgets, or who need broadband for its "always on" functionality rather than data speed or high throughput.
ADSL2+ offers higher speeds than ADSL, but at the cost of needing to live closer to the exchange. A number of ISPs also have their own equipment (called DSLAMs) installed into exchanges, meaning the market is quite price competitive. Upload speeds are typically limited to a maximum of 1Mbps, but if your ISP supports something called Annex M, this can go higher to 2Mbps.
|Faster than ADSL, competitive pricing.|
|Need to live closer to the exchange, often simply not available in regional areas.|
Best suited to: speed freaks on a budget.
You may have also heard of Naked DSL — a subset of ADSL2+. Non-Telstra carriers are able to strip out the phone line signal — hence "Naked" — which means you get the speed and price competition of ADSL2+ and you don't have to pay for line rental at all. Unfortunately, these cost savings are often neutered by ISPs requiring you to sign up to a bundle deal with Voice over IP (VoIP), conveniently costing about the same as a plan plus line rental — only now you're paying the ISP instead of Telstra.
|It saves you money on line rental. Bundled VoIP plans can save you a packet on local and international calls.|
|If you don't want VoIP, you're essentially wasting around the same money you would on line rental anyway. You quite literally don't have a working "phone" line either — even if your ISP has supplied you with a VoIP account to "replace" this, if your internet connection goes down, your entire communications set-up goes down with it. Additionally, some phone-based services such as security systems don't play well with VoIP lines.|
Best suited to: those who only use mobiles anyway and want low overall communication costs.
Availability: very low | Speed: high
Uses the cable infrastructure laid down for Pay TV in the early 1990s. Currently very limited areas can get cable.
While Telstra has separate and distinct plans for cable, Optus operates differently — you choose an internet plan first based on usage, your address is then assessed, and the best available broadband solution is chosen for you, preferencing cable if it exists. Good for those who want all the thought taken out of setting up the internet and don't care about the pros and cons, but not so great for those who want control of their destiny.
|High download speeds.|
|Despite claims, upload speeds can often leave a lot to be desired. Limited competition between Telstra and Optus has seen plan values compare unfavourably next to Naked DSL and even most ADSL2+ plans.|
Best suited to: those who can get a decent bundle with other services, or can't get ADSL2+ and want the speed.
Fibre is only laid in very limited areas at the moment, but the government's National Broadband Network (NBN) will see it spread across the nation in the coming years.
|Incredibly fast speeds, approaching Ethernet (only the upload speed holds it back!). In many cases, fibre will be faster than some servers will willingly send you data.|
|Extremely selective availability, usually limited to new housing estates. Still quite a price premium.|
Best suited to: those who want the internet in their backyard.
Availability: extremely High | Speed: medium, although variable based on location
Also called "mobile broadband", it typically uses the same infrastructure as 3G mobile phones, although some limited regional set-ups use alternate technologies such as WiMax.
Apart from Telstra, everyone runs on a 3.6Mbps down, 384Kbps up network, despite the existence of 7.2Mbps devices. Telstra offers more leg room, with the 21Mbps down, 1.92Mbps up with a specific modem as listed above, but even it admits the most you'll likely see is 8Mbps.
|Wireless internet uses the mobile phone network to send data, giving you lots of movement capability, whether it's by using your mobile as a "tethered" modem, or getting a USB modem to plug into your computer.|
|As with your mobile phone, the quality of the signal can vary quite widely, making it generally less than suitable for high-speed internet activities such as gaming. Some wireless data plans also offer very low data caps, and can be horrendously expensive, especially if you go over said data limits.|
Best suited to: those renting accommodation, or those who can afford the higher wireless data rates.
Availability: requires infrastructure installation | Speed: low to medium
Satellite uses either a combination satellite and phone line or two-way satellite for broadband access. Typically, satellite isn't very fast or suitable for high bandwidth applications such as VoIP or gaming, but may be the only option for remote areas. It's also comparatively expensive, but the Australian Broadband Guarantee can provide some relief in that aspect. Satellite typically maxes out at 1Mbps down and 512Kbps up; however, some services can push this to 4Mbps down, depending on your location.
|The last ditch effort if you can't get any other form of broadband.|
|Expensive, requires satellite installation, not particularly impressive speeds.|
Best suited to: those who can't get anything else and must have broadband.