Federal Labor wants NBN retail service providers to be offered temporary additional capacity at low-cost if the network slows as a result of congestion as large numbers of employees work from home in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The call comes as Communications Minister Paul Fletcher on Monday hosted a roundtable of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies to thrash out response strategies to the new demands on the network.
Mr Fletcher said the telco’s were planning for major changes in the data usage and network traffic patterns. Participants at the roundtable included senior executives from the NBN Co, Optus, Telstra, Vodafone, TPG and Vocus.
He said he NBN Co was optimising its network in the expectation of significant daytime traffic increases, based on the experiences already witnessed overseas. Italy reported a 26 per cent increase in fixed-line peak hour network traffic as more people started working from home as the country went into lock-down.
The roundtable agreed a working group led by NBN Co would be set up to share information on emerging engineering, security or operational issues in relation to COVID-19.
It also agreed there is a requirement for protocols to guide interactions that technicians have with customers who are self-isolating, including guidance on personal protective clothing and equipment. The government will engage with the telecommunications sector to provide clarity.
“Our telcos are quickly responding to the evolving challenges of COVID-19 and have in place business continuity plans to continue to deliver vital telecommunications services,” Mr Fletcher said.
Labor’s shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland has asked that consideration be given to providing the retail service providers with temporary capacity charge relief.
At present, these retail providers purchase Connectivity Virtual Circuit (CVC) capacity from the NBN to support peak hour traffic demands, in addition to the access price for the network.
If COVID19 social distancing measures, such as teleworking and school closures, result in increased peak traffic demand over the NBN, it could lead to congested speeds or higher wholesale costs for retail providers.
“Labor considers these unique circumstances do lend themselves towards NBNCo providing retail providers with temporary and targeted capacity relief should these circumstances arise over the COVID19 period,” Ms Rowland said.
While it was too early to say how the situation might play out, she welcomed the steps by the government, NBN Co and the rest of the industry in examining the problem early on.
“Historically, there has been a lot of tension between NBN Co and retail providers on CVC pricing. If the need arises, this presents an opportunity for NBN Co to make a temporary gesture of goodwill in the public interest,” Ms Rowland said.
RMIT University associate professor of network engineering Mark Gregory agreed that it should be anticipated that data usage would increase as a result of more people working or staying at home over coming weeks.
“This is likely to put cost pressure on retail service providers due to NBN Co’s high data usage charges,” Dr Gregory said. “Michelle Rowlands is correct to identify this potential problem and to call for financial relief for retail service providers during this difficult period.”
“NBN Co should also look to provide additional data for regional and remote communities that are isolated during this period,” he said.