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NBN speeds: everything you need to know to choose the best Australian NBN plan

NBN speeds explained
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Australia’s national broadband network (NBN) has been rolling out countrywide steadily, not without its fair share of hiccups. Its promise is faster, more reliable broadband connections for homes and businesses, but it  has never offered a one-size-fits-all model. 

Not only are there different technologies in use across the network there are also several speed tiers. And while you don't have a choice of the type of NBN connection that will reach you (be that FTTP, FTTN, FTTC, HFC or something else), you've got a choice when it comes to the maximum speed offered by your subscription plan.

In fact, the cost of the plan will largely depend on the speed tier you choose, alongside the amount of monthly data you need for your household. That decision, though, isn't an easy one to make.

What began as four speed options has now expanded to seven, leaving many consumers scratching their heads when trying to decide which broadband speed best suits their needs. So we've broken it all down for you to help you make an educated decision when you sign up for a new NBN broadband plan.

NBN speed tiers explained

Currently, NBN Co offers seven broadband speed tiers, known as NBN 12, NBN 25, NBN 50, two NBN 100s (we'll explain that shortly), NBN 250 and NBN 1000. 

However, it’s up to individual internet service providers (ISPs) what speed tiers they offer their customers. Most of the bigger players offer only NBN 25, NBN 50 and NBN 100 (NBN Co is a wholesaler, so you won’t be able to sign up directly with the company).

The numbers in the names of each speed tier roughly represent the maximum download speed you should get, starting with 12Mbps at the bottom, through to a top speed of 1,000Mbps – and the cost of each one gets progressively higher as you go up the ladder.

NBN 12
The lowest speed tier comes with the cheapest plans – with prices starting at around AU$30 a month – but the speeds won’t be any better than an ADSL 2+ connection on a copper wire. In fact, real-world NBN 12 speeds could well be slower. That said, NBN Co does make it very clear that this isn’t exactly a ‘superfast’ connection. Customers on this plan can hope to get a maximum download speed of 12Mbps and a maximum upload speed of 1Mbps – although those numbers tend to fluctuate throughout the day. It’s suitable for households needing just basic day-to-day phone and internet usage. While a 12Mbps connection is still generally enough to stream Netflix, Stan or Foxtel Now in Full HD (aka 1080p) – or use any other streaming service, for that matter – you’ll find that doing more than a couple of streams simultaneously could pose problems. As such, if you’ve got more than a couple of online video fans in your household, you might want to consider the faster options described below.

NBN 25
If you’ve got a family with kids, where the internet will be used more intensively during certain times of the day, you should consider this next speed tier. NBN 25 plans provide a maximum download speed of 25Mbps and a maximum upload speed of 5Mbps – but, again, speeds vary due to several factors including peak-time congestion. However this jump in speed does come at a slightly higher cost than the NBN 12 plans, with monthly plans starting at around AU$49 – potentially adding over AU$220 more per year, something that might be worth factoring in if you’re particularly budget conscious. NBN 25 is what you want for 4K Netflix and Stan streaming and should easily support a couple of streaming devices being used simultaneously, although you could still be fighting over bandwidth, depending on how populous your household is.

NBN 50
With a maximum download speed of 50Mbps and an upload speed of 20Mbps, this tier is more than enough to meet most households’ entertainment, gaming and regular surfing needs. It will keep the family constantly connected with plenty of bandwidth to ensure everyone can do their own thing without impinging on any other family member. It's also the speed we'd recommend if you've got several smart home devices working on a single Wi-Fi network. Of course, this luxury comes at a higher cost than the previous two tiers; plans start at about AU$60 a month.

NBN 100
This is the speed tier that NBN Co calls its ‘superfast internet’ option, with a maximum download speed of a whopping 100Mbps. There are two NBN 100 plans available – one that has a maximum upload speed of 20Mbps, and another that offers a better upload speed of 40Mbps. But no matter which 'sub' option you choose, your download speeds will be capped at 100Mbps – more than enough for all your gaming, 4K streaming, working from home, multiple connected smart devices and everything else you'd like to throw at it. There'll be plenty of bandwidth to keep everyone happy, and then some. Plans for the NBN 100 speed tier are also, obviously, very expensive, but you could get one that's only just a dollar more than an NBN 50 plan if you don't need unlimited data. On average, however, NBN 100 plans start at around the AU$75 a month mark.

NBN 250 and NBN 1000
Why stop at 100Mbps when you can get even faster broadband? There are the options to take your maximum download speeds to 250Mbps or even a mega 1,000Mbps. However, these two supremely fast tiers are only offered by select RSPs (internet providers) and, of course, are the most expensive. The average household doesn't really need these kinds of broadband speeds but if you think you do, then an NBN 250 plan will set you back about AU$110 at the very least, while you'll be shelling out upwards of AU$135 for the topmost NBN 1000 tier.

Factors that affect NBN speeds

The NBN speed tiers look impressive on paper, but end users can’t always expect to get the advertised speeds. Note that these tiers represent the theoretical maximum speeds that you can achieve, not the speeds you will actually get at home.

It’s also worth noting that all speed tiers may not be available at a particular address, so you might want to check with your plan provider of choice before making a decision.

A number of factors will determine what speeds you can expect once you sign up for an NBN connection – inside your home, those can include the quality of your modem or router, Wi-Fi interference from, say, your landline if it’s too close to the router, and the number of people surfing the web at the same time.

If you’ve got, or will be getting, a fibre to the node (FTTN) connection, the speed you get at home will also depend on how far you are from the node. If you’re less than about 400m from the node, you should (theoretically) get the maximum speed you’re paying for (up to that maximum of 100Mbps for most users). But, like with ADSL, customers living further away from the node will generally experience speed degradation.

If you experience slow speeds during certain times of the day, you can blame network congestion for that, perhaps because your entire neighbourhood needs to use the internet when you do. 

Network congestion, particularly during the NBN's early years, had become a problem with the NBN because resellers – ie. your ISP – often found it too expensive to supply sufficient bandwidth to support all the extra speed  that NBN customers required, mostly during peak times (evenings usually). This issue has significantly improved over the last couple of years but it's still a lingering problem some users face.