NBN Co's slow road to providing satellite services

NBN Co's glacial approach to bring satellite services online is discussed in Business Spectator and how this will mean that people desperate for improved broadband in remote Australia might be waiting up to a year or longer.

Read the full article below

The successful launch of NBN Co’s first satellite is a major step towards providing remote Australians with significantly improved broadband services but this achievement has been overshadowed to some extent by concerns that the transition to NBN Co’s Long Term Satellite Service (LTSS) from the temporary over-subscribed and heavily congested Interim Satellite Service (ISS) could take up to May 2017 or longer. For some the year will seem like a long time but the interim service will have to suffice and at least there’s a progressive migration roadmap in place.

The ABC Landline episode on October 4, which highlighted  the “data drought” being experienced in remote Australia has reinforced the need for the LTSS which will provide a total throughput of about 135/40 Gbps to an anticipated 200,000 connections from the 400,000 premises located in the 7.69 million square kilometres of remote Australia.

NBN Co corporate affairs manager for Queensland Kylie Lindsay told ABC that “We're actually planning to migrate all current ISS users across within a year from the service being commercially available.” For those on the ISS now the broadband congestion should decrease as customers are migrated from the ISS to the LTSS and while it might take a year to migrate everyone onto the LTSS the total time from when the decision to commence the LTSS project to when the 50,000 on the ISS are all finally transitioned to the ISS will be about five years and this is a significant achievement by the satellite team at NBN Co.

NBN Co’s General Manager for fixed wireless and satellite Gavin Williams is responsible for the provision of NBN access to families and business in Australia’s most marginalised areas. Recently Williams told ABC News that the new satellite called Sky Muster will provide “a revolution in capacity and capability for broadband in the bush.”

"It's a $1.8 billion investment and it will deliver world class broadband with higher speeds, bigger allowances and a satellite designed from the ground up for people in regional and remote Australia."

While the data drought in remote Australia is real this is not the only area of Australia with sub-standard broadband and it is important to remember that NBN Co is now half way through a ten year program to rollout a national broadband network to provide the nation with far better broadband than was available before NBN Co was formed.

On the NBN Co satellite FAQ it states that new equipment compatible with the Ka band satellites will need to be installed at customer premises and some of the existing ISS customers will transition to fixed-wireless rather than the LTSS, but this is contingent on the fixed-wireless rollout being completed in their local area first. Installation of the equipment needed to access the LTSS is free, but customers have been warned in an NBN Co FAQ that RSPs may have additional connection fees.

In 2012 NBN Co awarded an initial contract in excess of $240 million to ViaSat to provide the satellite ground-based communications equipment, network management and data processing systems for the LTSS.  At the time ViaSat announced that “is under contract to supply consumer satellite terminals, including broadband modems and antennas for Australian homes and businesses, and 13.5-metre diameter Ka-band satellite antennas for ten ground station gateway facilities across Australia.”

Starting in about three to four weeks NBN Co will carry out testing of the systems on the first satellite and commence site trials with each of the satellite providers to ensure that there is successful interfacing of management, monitoring, provisioning and operational systems.

After the field trials the satellite providers will develop their own internal processes to transition their ISS customers to the LTSS, and this is why the transition process, including where site visits are required to install and test customer premises equipment, will take about a year to occur.

It might be possible for service providers looking at an early start to the migration process to commence the deployment of the ViaSat consumer satellite terminals to customers currently accessing the ISS that have signed up for the LTSS.

Australians have become very familiar with consumer satellite terminals as any visit to a caravan park will clearly show. It is likely that the ViaSat consumer satellite terminals will be designed and built to withstand the rigours of being permanently installed but there are some similarities to the systems built for caravans and motor homes and many families in remote Australia can be counted on to have one or more people on hand with considerable technical and practical experience.

Apart from the obvious construction needs to permanently situate the satellite dish another challenge is to line up the satellite dish with the designated satellite in geo-stationary orbit. In the past this was a task that called for a site visit and access to an expensive satellite finder but today the availability of low cost digital satellite finders makes this activity significantly easier to complete.

Another aspect of NBN Co’s satellite program was touched on by NBN Co Chairman Dr Ziggy Switkowski, who was representing NBN Co at the satellite launch, when he told The Australian that “he was disappointed Australia had not embarked on its own space program, whereas countries such as Argentina had ‘produced what is demonstrably a successful space program’”.

Dr Switkowski, who has a history of tilting at windmills with his fervent passion for the development of an Australian nuclear industry, might be accused of raising the possibility of a significant government involvement in a space industry at a time when the government is looking to private enterprise to take the lead with new industries and especially with large infrastructure projects.

But what Dr Switkowski was highlighting is a valid point and that is there’s likely to be a time, possibly within a couple of years, when the number of satellite connections reduces the effective capacity available to the point where NBN Co will need to find more capacity on other satellites or to launch further satellites. And it’s important to remember that the NBN Co satellites have an effective life-time of about 15 years so there will be a need in about five years to start the planning process for replacement satellites or to being negotiations with satellite operators for capacity on their satellites at that time.

It is very likely that the NBN Co satellites will become overloaded within four years for two reasons.  There are about 400,000 premises within the currently designated satellite coverage areas and as government, education and health move online so will the need for everyone to be connected to access these services. Australia’s population has been growing rapidly over the past decade and the number of people living in remote Australia either permanently, as transients or as tourists has grown and this trend is not likely to slow down soon.

Providing broadband to regional and remote Australia is a challenge that will require lateral thinking before being overcome but it is vital that the broadband needs of families and business in these areas can be satisfied. There is a cost involved, but this is a marginal cost compared to the wealth generated from regional and remote Australia so it is in the nation’s interest to find ways to improve broadband access across Australia.

Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.