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Getting broadband internet

Figuring out the best internet plan has never been simple. There are different speeds, technologies, data limits, and prices. And this is before weighing up deals for having your landline, mobile or a TV package with the same company. It’s confusing, but we’re here to help.

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We’ve broken down each type of broadband, from basic ADSL to ultra-fast fibre. We explain what you can expect from each one as well as its potential limitations.

Speeds vary considerably depending on several factors, but we’ve given what you can expect under “normal” circumstances. We also looked at what you can expect from a typical plan. Some plans come with data caps, though most broadband plans are unlimited. Fibre and cable connections let you buy different speed packages. However, the higher the speed the more it will cost.

We also clear up the myths surrounding the loss of copper networks when upgrading to fibre.

Network technologies

Broadband is at a tipping point. On one side you have ADSL and VDSL, which are dependent on the old copper network; on the other are wireless and fibre, the future. Fibre uses light to send data, offering much faster speeds without the worry of line congestion. 4G wireless technology, using the mobile network, is getting faster but isn’t close to fibre speeds. However, it can reach parts of the country that copper lines and fibre optic cables can’t.

Cabinet position

You may have heard your internet service provider (ISP) talking about “the exchange” or “the cabinet”. The exchange is where your connection joins the network; the cabinet is a junction on the way to the exchange. Cabinets have a finite number of connections, so if your area requires a lot of connections, there may not be room for a new connection without adding a new cabinet. If you’re on a copper technology, the “last mile” (the distance between your home and the exchange) is a bottleneck for speeds. Fibre removes nearly all these issues as fibre optic cables have no signal degradation.

Speed limit

Data speeds are measured in Mbps (Megabits per second) and are often called bit-rates.

To transfer a gigabyte (8000Mb) at 10Mbps takes about 13 minutes. If you’re using a streaming video site, then internet speed affects how the content looks. Slow speeds mean a grainy image.

If you’re curious about the speed you might get while streaming, there are websites that give a good estimate. Fast.com (owned by Netflix) and SpeedTest.net are popular choices. For more information, see Streaming video services.

Broadband types

ADSL

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ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) uses copper lines. It’s the oldest and most common form of broadband.

Generally, you need to be within 4km of an exchange to get ADSL.

ADSL costs the same as VDSL. It’s harder to get ADSL in rural areas and often has slower speeds, due to longer distances from the exchange. Speeds can suffer at peak times due to congestion from multiple users. Download speeds are much faster than upload speeds, which can be an issue when uploading.

Typical plans

  • $95/month
  • Unlimited data
  • Landline extra $10/month

VDSL

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VDSL (which stands for the terribly named very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) also works on a copper network but delivers much faster speeds than ADSL.

VDSL costs the same as ADSL, which makes it a better option. However, VDSL is more dependent on distance to the exchange than ADSL, so you need to be much closer (preferably within a kilometre). Speeds are affected by the same factors as ADSL, such as slowing down during peak times.

Typical plans

  • $95/month
  • Unlimited data
  • Landline extra $10/month

Cable

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This is delivered via coaxial cable. It’s capable of much quicker speeds than ADSL and VDSL, as it doesn’t use copper over the “last mile”.

Vodafone owns the only cable networks. They are in Christchurch and Wellington, and only certain areas in these cities can access the network. If your home can access the network but doesn’t have a terminal, you’ll have to pay to install one.

In 2016, these networks were upgraded and plans have been rebranded as FibreX. Don’t be confused: FibreX is not the same as fibre (see below).

In optimal conditions, cable speeds are comparable to fibre. However, it suffers badly from congestion, so the more people in your area with cable the more likely your speeds will suffer, especially at peak times. Many users on the FibreX service have complained that speeds drop to sub-ADSL levels.

Cable plans can be cheaper than ADSL and VDSL. But higher maximum speeds cost more. As cable can also deliver a TV signal, you can add Sky TV to your plan.

Typical plans

  • $80/month
  • Unlimited data
  • Landline extra $10/month
  • 200Mbps (higher-speed plans available)

Fibre

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Fibre is the generic name for Ultra-Fast Broadband or UFB. The fibre refers to fibre optic cable. By using light to send data, it can travel faster and there’s less loss in the lines.

It’s the fastest service and also has the fastest uptake of broadband plans, with 258,000 users being connected by March 2017. The government pushed out its deadline for free installation of non-standard installs until the end of 2019. This is part of its effort to get as many people on to fibre as possible.

We recommend you switch to fibre if you can.

Once fibre has been laid in your street it needs to be connected to your home. This installation is free for most homes. We’ve heard from many members who have been waiting for this part of the installation, so don’t expect it to happen overnight.

The basic plans are in the same price range as A/VDSL, but you get much faster speeds. Unlike other technologies that use a physical connection, fibre doesn’t suffer if there are simultaneous connections. Also, it’s easier to get symmetrical plans where upload and download speeds are the same (often listed as 100/100).

The highest possible speeds come from gigabit plans, where you can expect 900Mbps.

Because the system doesn’t use copper lines, if you want a regular phone line you’ll need to either keep your copper connection or get a phone that works on fibre. Both options cost extra.

Typical plans

  • $95/month
  • Unlimited data
  • Landline extra $10/month
  • 200Mbps (higher speed plans available)

Wireless/4G

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The further you are from an urban area the harder it is to get broadband internet through a physical connection. The 4G mobile network is capable of speeds comparable to ADSL.

However, wireless broadband can suffer the same coverage and connection issues as your mobile phone. If you get poor phone reception where you are, there’s a good chance the wireless broadband coverage will be the same.

The set-up for wireless broadband is simpler than installing a fibre broadband connection. In most cases, your ISP will install a directional aerial on your roof and run cabling from the aerial to the supplied modem. Like UFB installs, if you require, or want, more than is “standard” (for example if the aerial is on a second-storey roof), you may end up paying more.

The speeds are in the ADSL range in ideal conditions. Wireless can also suffer from user congestion if a lot of users are connected to the same transmission tower (which is the equivalent of a cabinet).

It’s the most expensive form of broadband because all plans come with data caps. You may not be streaming movies as often on these plans.

There are other broadband technologies that are also called “wireless”, such as satellite. For more information on rural options, see Rural broadband.

Typical plans

  • $90/month
  • 120GB data (extra data charged at rate of roughly $10/10 gigabytes)
  • Landline extra $10/month
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Copper myths and Spark’s network upgrade

We clear up the myths surrounding the loss of copper networks and explain how it will affect you.

Learn more

Creating a WiFi network

Once you’ve got the broadband connection sorted, you need to create a home WiFi network.

For this, you’ll need a wireless router. Sometimes a modem and router will be integrated but if not, it’s simple to get a router by itself.

The position of your router in your home is important. The more walls a WiFi signal has to pass through, the weaker it gets. If the router has multiple antennas, you can move these to get better signal coverage. You can also consider a WiFi range extender, they repeat the signal throughout parts of your home, meaning you can increase signal coverage.

Industry standards have been set so devices can talk to one another over WiFi. You may have heard of the 802.11 b, g, and n standards. Of these, n was the latest and fastest iteration. The new standard is ac, which works on the 5GHz band and can deliver estimated speeds from 500Mbps to 1Gbps. 802.11 ac should be used by most new devices.

2.4GHz and 5GHz are the two main bands used by routers. The 5GHz band is able to transfer more data and is considered a more stable signal. The ability to broadcast both bands simultaneously means you can keep devices on separate networks if needed. For example, if you set up a guest network.

Remember to name your network (called an SSID) to differentiate it from your neighbours; you’ll need to know this when connecting your devices. You’ll need to secure the network too. A wireless router broadcasts your information over the air, and an unencrypted signal could be picked up by anyone with WiFi equipment and within range.

All routers come with software tools to enable encryption and protect your network from unauthorised access. You do this by setting up a security system like WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). This is part of setting up of your router and is basically setting a password for the network. We recommend using a strong but memorable password. Remember, you’ll need this password to connect any new device to your network.


By Hadyn Green
Technology Writer




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