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Australian broadband providers team up to meet network demand

NBN Co and five retail service providers have formed a working group to manage congestion and take steps to address the surge in demand for broadband connectivity amid the Covid-19 outbreak

Australia’s NBN Co and five retail service providers (RSPs) including Telstra, Optus, Vodafone Hutchison, TPG and Vocus have formed a working group to keep the country’s national broadband network humming during the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Members of the working group, which was started on the request of the Australian government, will share information, coordinate strategies to manage congestion and take other steps to address the surge in demand for connectivity by people working remotely.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has granted interim authorisation for members of the group to work together, giving them statutory protection from court action for conduct that might be in breach of Australia’s antitrust and competition laws.

Rod Sims, chair of the ACCC, which will be an observer on the working group, said online services and connectivity are now more important than ever as Australians seek to stay productive and engaged, undertake home schooling, telehealth and access other services.

“The ability to do all this will also assist people to comply with increasingly strict social distancing measures,” he added. “As it has with a number of industries already, the ACCC stands ready to assist telecommunications providers with approval of any coordinated measures that are urgent and necessary during this crisis.”

For a start, the RSPs and NBN Co have sought urgent authorisation to provide support for consumers and small businesses facing financial difficulties as a result of the outbreak, to help them stay connected throughout the pandemic.

Traffic on Australia’s national broadband network grew by more than 5% on 14 March 2020 from the week before. The network usually sees the highest traffic at around 9pm while traffic during business hours is around half of that.

NBN Co is planning to limit non-essential maintenance to minimise planned outages and maintain network availability as much as possible. Its data scientists and network engineers are also studying data consumption patterns in other countries that have been significantly impacted by the pandemic in recent weeks.

On 18 March 2020, NBN Co said it will waive charges for additional capacity of up to 40% to RSPs for at least three months to help them support Australian residential and business customers. This is equivalent to the higher end of increased data bandwidth requirements in countries such as Italy that have mandated work-from-home arrangements.

“NBN Co will play the critical role it was set up to fulfil, ensuring Australia’s wholesale digital infrastructure is robust, resilient and reliable. We are confident that this immediate response will make a significant difference,” said NBN Co CEO Stephen Rue.

“We are also mindful that these are unprecedented times and remain vigilant to any unexpected market and usage changes. We will continue to work closely with retailers to support Australians during this time,” he added.

The latest action by Australia’s broadband providers comes just months after the country’s communications infrastructure was disrupted by power cuts brought about by the devastating bushfires in late 2019.

The affected telcos had responded quickly by reinstating the mains power and deploying mobile generators, though questions have been raised over the resilience of Australia’s communications networks in the face of large-scale emergencies.

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