Ms Rowland said retail providers’ capacity on NBN connections appeared to be adequate at the moment but a further surge could force telcos to absorb greater costs or suffer speed congestion.
“Labor considers these unique circumstances do lend themselves towards NBN Co providing retail providers with temporary and targeted capacity relief should these circumstances arise over the COVID-19 period,” she said.
Internet providers Optus and Vocus backed the idea of CVC relief, emphasising the importance of protecting online connectivity for the economy.
“As we manage deepening challenges from COVID-19, our industry is critical in helping families, friends and colleagues stay connected and business maintaining continuity,” said Andrew Sheridan, Optus’ vice-president of regulatory and public affairs.
“We need to work collaboratively as an industry and look at all options to identify ways to maintain connectivity and improve customer experience during this crisis.”
A spokeswoman for Vocus said resilient telecommunications infrastructure was essential.
“Vocus would welcome capacity relief to help the millions of Australians who will be impacted and juggling working and schooling from home. This is a fluid situation and we and the industry will need to adapt how we operate as it evolves,” the spokeswoman said.
CVC pricing has been a consistent source of tension between NBN Co and telcos. Internet providers have viewed the CVC charge as too expensive and a barrier to them buying adequate bandwidth for their products.
NBN Co said it was expecting a surge in residential demand and engineers were working to strengthen the network.
“These are unprecedented times and we are already seeing a steady increase in demand on the NBN, and this is set to continue,” NBN Co chief executive Stephen Rue said in a statement. “In terms of the expected requests for additional CVC capacity, we will work with the industry to find the best solution. Clearly we all need to play our part.”
Mr Rue said the company was working with retailers and had the complete support of the government to do “everything possible” to confront the challenge.
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher hosted a teleconference with telecommunications industry representatives on Monday. Internet and phone network operators, equipment manufacturers and NBN Co all participated.
Data-hungry streaming services and video-conferencing are expected to drive internet traffic. Monday’s second-most-searched coronavirus-related term on Google was Zoom internet conferencing services.
Ampalavanapillai Nirmalathas, from the University of Melbourne’s department of electrical and electronic engineering, said internet service providers generally assumed their customers would be online at different times of day. That means that for every 100 customers, for example, they might have only enough capacity for 20 homes.
“But once a few people are staying home, they might want to listen to music because there’s nobody else about to bother … or they might from time to time go and access in their breaks streaming content. That’s when it changes in a big way,” Professor Nirmalathas said.
NBN Co’s chief customer officer, Brad Whitcomb, said most home internet plans had sufficient download speeds but working from home might require greater upload speeds to handle large files and video-conferencing.
“Speak with your internet retailer to make sure your plan has the upload speeds you need to work from home,” he said.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Zoe Samios is a media and telecommunications reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Rachel is a breaking news reporter for The Age.