How to improve your NBN speeds

NBN Co modem analysis points to three key areas where NBN users can improve their internet speeds.

Nathan Lawrence
May 09, 2023
Icon Time To Read8 min read

A while back, NBN Co examined 780 NBN-connected premises for speed-related issues to diagnose the biggest causes of customer dissatisfaction with their NBN plans.

We sat down for a chat with NBN Co representative Sam Dimarco to discuss the analysis and get more info on the most common in-home NBN speed issues, and your best options for overcoming them.

Before we dig deeper into the issues identified by NBN Co’s analysis, let’s summarise the three core modem misdemeanours:

    • Positioning and placement: The in-home analysis from NBN Co found that a leading issue was due to the positioning and placement of NBN modems, modem-routers and routers in the house.
    • Out-of-date firmware: NBN Co claims that one of the most common problems is out-of-date firmware on provider-supplied modems.
    • Channel interference: NBN Co says that channel interference is a leading factor in speed-related issues, particularly in multi-dwelling complexes like apartment buildings.

Let’s take a closer look at the most straightforward ways to tackle these key issues.

Info Box
What is an NBN modem?
That may read like an obvious question, but the reality is there are multiple devices that fall under the NBN modem umbrella. For starters, an NBN modem may be called an NBN network termination device (NTD) or NBN connection box (or just NBN box). An NBN modem may also be shorthand for a modem-router, as is the case with homes connected to the NBN via Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) and Fibre-to-the-Building (FTTB) technologies. Whether it’s a single device (modem-router) or two devices (modem and router or modem and mesh WiFi system), these pieces of networking equipment are key to getting you online and aiding a reliable connection.

Move your modem to a sensible spot

NBN modem-router (and router) distance and placement is still a leading factor in poor customer experience scenarios, according to Dimarco.

“We found that distance from the modem was really causing havoc for some people. We found that, in many houses, the modem was either located at the other end of the house or stored behind other devices that could cause interference, like televisions, and appliances such as microwaves and fridges.” – Sam Dimarco, NBN Co.

People who either place their NBN-compatible modem-routers or routers in areas with high interference (behind other electronic devices, fridges, etc.) or too far from their connected devices may have issues. For example, if your modem-router or router is in the living room, a significant distance from the home office, you will likely experience issues connecting when trying to work from home.

Bullhorn
More modem and NBN guides

If you’re looking for more internet guides, we’ve got round-ups on the best NBN plans available, a comprehensive guide to NBN speeds and the best pocket WiFi dongles for when you need the internet while you’re out and about.

NBN modem positioning and placement

The theory for addressing positioning and placement problems is rather straightforward. Regardless of the type of NBN modem-router or router you have, placement is critical for a clear WiFi signal. Basically, try to place your modem-router or router in the centre of your home to give WiFi the best chance of reaching everywhere.

If possible, elevate your router or modem-router, ideally, about two metres off the ground. The idea is to get the modem-router or router above potential interfering objects. This means keeping it as clear as possible of thick walls, fish or other water tanks, radio-wave electronic devices, kitchen and laundry appliances and mirrors. That’s not always possible, which is when routers or modem-routers with stronger WiFi signals are worth considering or a mesh WiFi system for whole-home coverage.

Note that for NBN technologies that have an NBN modem/NTD/connection box, the placement of this bit of networking equipment isn’t important compared to the NBN-compatible router that’s connected to it. Below is a list of NBN technologies and which networking equipment they use to get online (note that the NBN modem should be supplied by NBN Co):

It’s also worth flagging that you can bring your own (BYO) router or modem-router with most NBN providers. If you want to buy a device from an NBN provider, the trend is for most to offer modem-routers. Effectively, modem-routers are compatible with all NBN technologies: as modem-routers for FTTB and FTTN connections, or configured to use their routing functionality for all other NBN technologies.

Choose the best NBN modem-router or router

Assuming you don’t have an NBN Co-provided modem in your home, there are hundreds of options for NBN-compatible routers (basically every router from the last decade) and NBN-compatible modem-routers. With newer models coming out every other week from a range of brands, it can quickly become overwhelming.

Unless you’re particularly tech-savvy when it comes to networking equipment, we’d advise starting with whatever is included or sold optionally from your chosen NBN provider. Admittedly, these devices aren’t always cutting-edge, but what they may lack in whiz-bang features, they make up for in proven compatibility and reliability. More importantly, if things go wrong and you need to contact your NBN provider for tech support, it’s easier for them to help you if you’re using their recommended networking equipment.

Know your modem
Info Box
Modem vs router vs modem-router
An NBN modem is used to connect your home to the NBN for internet. A router connects to an NBN modem to share its internet connection around the home, either wirelessly (WiFi) and/or wired (Ethernet). Finally, a modem-router combines the roles of a modem and router into a single device. On one hand, that’s convenient and means one less device to troubleshoot, but in homes with lots of users and devices, modem-routers can lead to performance slowdowns because of the multitasking device. There are also mesh WiFi systems, which are effectively the next generation of routers built to organically link with WiFi extenders (called “access points”, “satellites” or “nodes”).

Pick a modem-router or router with automatic firmware updates

NBN Co says that one of the leading factors driving speed-related issues is the out-of-date firmware on most branded, provider-supplied modems. Regular firmware updates are never a bad idea, and if you’re experiencing issues, updating your modem-router or router’s firmware is a sensible first step (also true of any technology). That’s where automatic firmware updates for networking equipment make life so much easier.

NBN Co estimated that 16% of all NBN-connected broadband customers have experienced dissatisfaction with their download speeds. This estimate was extrapolated from the results of the company’s in-home analysis, which showed that 20% of the 780 premises analysed experienced speed-related issues.

Of the issues identified in NBN Co’s sample study, 53% were on the premises, 11% between the premises and the node, 9% of issues were due to a planning error on NBN Co’s behalf, 8% were lead-in issues, and 6% were due to a bad joint.

It’s the on-premises issues where NBN Co decided to point its focus. To an extent, the issues found were out of its control.

“We found a stability issue. There was a particular stretch of modems that stood out as particularly volatile.” – Sam Dimarco, NBN Co.

NBN Co took its findings to the providers with the most dropouts on their branded modems and asked them to work with the modem original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to resolve the issues. In most cases, the fix was a simple firmware upgrade on the offending modem. The complaints about service experience for those customers impacted dramatically decreased.

If you have an NBN modem that came from your provider and you’re experiencing issues, get in touch with them about updating the firmware on your NBN-compatible modem-router or router. Alternatively, check if your BYO networking equipment supports automatic firmware updates. If it doesn’t, check the device documentation for how to update the firmware.

Thankfully, there are a handful of NBN-compatible modem-router and router manufacturers that understand this problem. To help bridge the knowledge gap, they offer automatic firmware updates on their modem-routers or routers. So long as the networking equipment connects to the internet, it will automatically update and install the latest firmware patches, so you never have to think about it.

Telstra, Optus and TPG modem-routers all sport automatic firmware updates, controlled by the respective providers. These updates tend to roll out in the wee hours of the morning, so it’s best to leave your networking equipment on overnight. For other NBN modem-routers and routers, check with the supplier to see if the device has automatic firmware updates or a companion app that makes firmware updates incredibly straightforward.

Info Box
What is beamforming?

Beamforming is a technique used by certain modems that directs the WiFi signal in your home directly to the devices you’re connected with, rather than a general area of coverage. This allows for a faster and more reliable connection on your wirelessly connected devices. It’s not a new technology, but over recent years it has played a huge part in improving wireless technologies and has become a significant part of the 5G rollout.

Solving WiFi channel interference

NBN Co looked at FTTB connections and noticed a difference in behaviour in what it calls “multi-dwelling” complexes, which includes places like offices and large apartment buildings.

NBN Co focused its analysis on multi-dwelling residences and found the channel congestion was particularly bad in buildings where there was a high concentration of customers signed up to a single provider.

“We found that congestion in multi-dwellings was a major issue.” – Sam Dimarco, NBN Co.

The problem, Dimarco says, is that most provider-issued modems use a single channel by default. Some use two but when there’s a speed issue related to congestion, users will contact customer support who instruct them to reboot their modem. In the case where there are two available channels, a reboot will flick the user over to the second channel, providing a temporary fix. However, when there’s a conflict on that second channel, the modem will kick the user back to the congested default channel and they will continue to experience speed problems.

“Providers offer entry-level modems that are low-cost to them. That’s not going to change; they’re not going to offer bells and whistles.” – Sam Dimarco, NBN Co.

If you’re in a multi-dwelling building or congested area, the default NBN provider-bundled modem-router or router might not be your best option. Most provider-supplied modems only cycle through two different channels (at most) when they reboot due to an issue. Some don’t switch channels at all. If congestion is the issue, a power cycle might not even provide a temporary fix.

Just like firmware updates, we’d wager most Australians don’t know how channel congestion works or how to manually switch channels if there’s a bottleneck in your building. Chat with your provider or networking equipment supplier about how to switch WiFi channels.

By default, a lot of wireless devices tend to operate on the same channel, which can cause interference. For the 2.4GHz band, the recommended channels are 1, 6 and 11. For the 5GHz band, the best channels to consider are 36, 40, 44 and 48.

Dual-band routers and modem-routers are standard these days, offering the choice of a farther-reaching but slower 2.4GHz band or a faster but shorter-reaching 5GHz band. Tri-band modems are more advanced and tend to cost more, but if you’re really struggling with congestion, they could be your best option.

Other reasons your NBN connection might be underperforming

If you’ve ever glanced at speed disclaimers from providers or NBN Co, you may have noticed that there are a lot of factors that have the potential to impact your internet, either in terms of speed or reliability. We’ve got an article dedicated to troubleshooting NBN issues. But let’s look at some basics and how to approach them.

First, determine whether the internet woes are with a specific device or the entire network. If it’s one device, focus on that: restart and update for starters. If it’s every device in your home, go look at your modem, router or modem-router to see if there are any red or orange lights to indicate problems, which applies whether you’re with Telstra or any other NBN provider. Taking note of these lights will help with troubleshooting problems when you speak to your provider.

Cabling can also be an issue, whether it’s in-home wiring that’s trickier to fix (especially if you’re renting), or loose/damaged cabling. For instance, a loose telephone cable for FTTC, FTTB and FTTN connections may lead to slow or no internet. Similarly, an older or damaged Ethernet cable may restrict speeds to a wired device. You’d be surprised at how many issues can be fixed by securing or upgrading cables, or simply by power cycling networking equipment.

When power cycling, start from the outside of your network and work inwards: modem or modem-router first, then any other equipment, including a router or networking switch. Power off all networking devices, then leave them off for at least 30 seconds, before powering them back on in the same order: modem or modem-router, then everything else. You can also perform an NBN isolation test, which is effectively a more involved NBN speed test.

One of the biggest culprits of speed problems in the home is when multiple devices are competing for finite bandwidth, which can greatly impact the overall download and upload speed. Use the speed test above to determine your download speed (you can also use ‘Show More Info’ to see latency and upload speeds). If it’s not up to snuff, you should absolutely consider upgrading your NBN plan.

NBN 100 is the fastest NBN speed tier available to most homes in Australia, which has download speeds of up to 100Mbps and 40Mbps upload speeds. Note that cheaper NBN 100 plans are sold with max 20Mbps upload. Check out the daily updating list of popular NBN 100 plans below for inspiration.

NBN speeds frequently asked questions

What is a good NBN speed?

Start comparisons with NBN 50 plans, which offer up to 50Mbps download and 20Mbps upload speeds. For faster NBN speeds, most homes can sign up to an NBN 100 plan, which offers up to 100Mbps download and either 20Mbps or 40Mbps upload speeds. The fastest NBN speeds are available to FTTP and HFC homes: NBN 250 (250/25Mbps), NBN 500 (500/50Mbps) and NBN 1000 (1000/50Mbps).

Is NBN 50 fast enough?
Yes, NBN 50 is fast enough for the average home in Australia, meaning it’s great for browsing, emailing, social media, gaming, streaming, video calls and every other online task. The big difference between NBN 50 and faster NBN plans is how long you’ll have to wait for larger files to download or upload.
How many Mbps do I need for two people?
NBN Co recommends an NBN 25 plan as the starting point for a home with one or two people. NBN 50 is for homes with three or four people, while all faster NBN plans are recommended for homes with five or more people.
Nathan Lawrence
Written by
Nathan Lawrence
Nathan Lawrence has been banging out passionate tech and gaming words for more than 11 years. These days, you can find his work on outlets like IGN, STACK, Fandom, Red Bull and AusGamers. Nathan adores PC gaming and the proof of his first-person-shooter prowess is at the top of a Battlefield V scoreboard.

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