NBN Co will permanently unmeter all internet traffic bar “video streaming and VPN” on its Sky Muster Plus service, with the government saying as much as 70 percent of usage will now be covered.
The network builder also significantly boosted data quota for users on its standard Sky Muster satellite plans in response to growing concerns at how the services, and families that rely on them, would cope as schools closed and parents worked from home.
Sky Muster Plus already offers higher speeds and unmetered access to email, basic web browsing and some software updates.
But under changes announced today, and coming into effect April 1, “unmetered activities will be significantly expanded to cover all online content and applications, with only two exclusions - video streaming and VPN traffic - which will continue to be metered,” the government said in a statement.
“Under the new Sky Muster Plus offering, approximately 70 percent of all data use is expected to be unmetered compared to about 30 percent under the current plans, with the product also supporting unmetered usage for education applications and apps such as Skype and FaceTime for the first time,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said.
That number could be conservative, especially in households that do not use a lot of streaming services.
Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) co-founder Kristy Sparrow told iTnews she already saw "nearly 70 percent" of her family's internet usage unmetered, before the changes even come into play.
There are some limits, according to NBN Co, which run through the afternoon and are dependent on NBN Co being able to distinguish between and categorise application traffic.
"Certain unmetered activities may be shaped to wholesale speeds of 256Kbps between the hours of 4pm and 11pm daily, such as peer-to-peer traffic, uploads and downloads to cloud storage platforms, PC and smartphone operating system updates, software and gaming updates, and internet activity related to applications which NBN Co cannot identify," it said in fine print.
However, in light of the extra ‘free’ data, NBN Co plans to launch a new 25GB “entry level” plan on Sky Muster Plus - with 50GB of data split between peak and off-peak - and the ability to “top-up” if needed.
The entry-level plan is available from April 1, and could offer a lower retail price point that is accessible to more households that are dependent on NBN Co's satellite services.
The "top-up' feature will be made available "in coming months”.
“These permanent enhancements to the Sky Muster Plus offering have been in development for several months in line with NBN Co’s commitment to refine its product offering to meet the broadband needs of regional Australians,” the government said.
For regular Sky Muster users, they will be given “temporary access” to an extra 45GB of download data from March 31.
“The additional 45GB will effectively double the average monthly download limits on retail plans offered by Sky Muster retailers to 90GB,” the government said.
“The additional data will initially be available for one month.
“NBN Co will review demand and determine the appropriate level of allocation for an additional two months.”
Most retail service providers (RSPs) had already secured some extra data concessions themselves amounting to an extra 10GB block of data each month.
Fletcher said the changes to Sky Muster would “offer relief to regional and remote communities as their internet needs change over the coming weeks.”
The onus is now on RSPs to pass on the changes to users.
NBN Co's chief development officer for regional and rural Gavin Williams said the company "will continue to closely monitor data usage together with internet retailers, and will seek to implement any additional measures required where available including monitoring of the peak times, to support customers during these uncertain times."
“We want to reassure regional and remote communities across Australia that you are a priority for NBN Co," he said.
Separately, NBN Co said it would also offer RSPs "greater flexibility to customise the data allowances on their [Sky Muster] retail plans in increments of 5GB (starting from 25GB of peak data and 25GB of off-peak data, up to 150GB of peak and 150GB of off-peak data)" from April 1.
Sky Muster users also have access to the extra 40 percent bandwidth boost that NBN Co is temporarily offering to ease any congestion that might arise from more people being at home.
The case to unmeter more
BIRRR's Kristy Sparrow said unmetering traffic on Sky Muster was an idea suggested at an informal coffee meeting between BIRRR, the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association (IPCA), AgForce Queensland and NBN Co "a couple of years ago".
"From that we got unmetering, which was announced in August last year, so we’ve all been trialling Sky Muster Plus [since]," Sparrow told iTnews.
"I’m incredibly happy with it. Nearly 70 percent of my usage is already unmetered.
"We had some people trialling it for tertiary studies, education, telehealth, and we got a feel for what else could be unmetered to meet the needs of regional Australians.
"We’ve been working consistently with NBN Co on what those [additional] platforms are."
Sparrow said the extras that RRR users wanted unmetered were cloud-based services such as Dropbox, OneDrive, Zoom and Google Docs.
"Some of these cloud services that people are using for business and education are what I would class as essential, and we really called for those to be unmetered," Sparrow said.
iTnews understands that video calling apps like Zoom, along with streaming video embedded in social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr and LinkedIn will be unmetered.
It is believed NBN Co is continuing to work with education departments as well to understand what applications they use in order to unmeter access to them, too.