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ACCC proposes broadband monitoring to promote competition

As Australians start connecting to the NBN and retail providers make promises about their service, the competition watchdog has proposed a broadband monitoring scheme to give consumers the full picture.


As the construction of the country's national broadband network marches on, Australia's competition watchdog has proposed a new broadband monitoring scheme to promote competition and to help consumers get the complete picture when it comes to their internet service.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission piloted a broadband performance monitoring and reporting program from March through until May this year, saying that a broader scheme could easily be adopted.

As Australians gradually get switched on to the national broadband network, they will have a choice between various retail service providers and plans for their internet use, but these different options will utilise the same infrastructure currently being rolled out by NBN. But the ACCC warns that there is an "asymmetry of information" between retailers and customers about service performance, and even between retailers themselves, who can't compare the service they're offering with what their competitors are selling.

The ACCC has issued a report on its trial monitoring program [PDF], documenting metrics such as downstream and upstream speeds, webpage load times and video streaming performance across 90 premises in Melbourne. Commission Chairman Rod Sims says this kind of monitoring should be established more broadly.

"The ACCC believes a broadband performance monitoring and reporting program would promote competition and consumer outcomes by providing transparency over the quality of broadband services," said Sims.

"As the NBN rollout progresses, providing transparency over the performance of the monopoly network provider will be particularly important as retail service providers (RSPs) will be dependent on NBN Co for the underlying network capability."

"Visibility over any network-based performance issues would help identify whether any bottleneck issues in the network are attributable to RSPs or the network provider."

Sims said it was important to ensure end users had as much information as possible so they could make an informed decision about quality of service, speeds and general performance, rather than choosing a plan and a provider based on price alone. According to the ACCC, such programs have already successfully been established in the UK, USA, Singapore and Canada.

The pilot saw volunteers install a hardware probe on their home fixed-line broadband connection in order to run network tests and measure the performance of their service. Amongst metrics on speeds, latency, packet loss and DNS resolution one trend was clear: performance deteriorated during peak periods, particularly when it came to download speeds.

However, in the case of video streaming, the pilot also found that "faster access speeds beyond the minimum required for video streaming do not necessarily result in faster or better quality video services for consumers."

With most retail providers tended to get hit hard in peak periods, the ACCC said variations in performance between providers is "likely to be the result of differences in...congestion management, which ultimately has an impact on the actual video streaming quality experienced by end-users."

While video streaming might be front of mind for the Netflix lovers across Australia, the ACCC report also pointed out that different metrics will matter to different consumers and a monitoring program could get this kind of verified information to all Australians -- particularly as retail sellers start to make claims about what they have on offer.