NBN doubles satellite data allowances, moves 40k homes to fixed-wireless

NBN is now offering 150GB data allowances for users on its satellite service, proposing to also give distance education children an additional 50GB per month.

The company rolling out Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has announced an increase in data allowances for customers on its long-term satellite solution, now offering up to 150GB per month plus 50GB extra for distance education students, having freed up satellite capacity by moving 40,000 premises to its fixed-wireless or fixed-line networks.

The 150GB plan is available as a basic wholesale package, divided into 75GB off peak -- to be used between 1am and 7am -- and 75GB on peak. The company is also debating allowing retail service providers (RSPs) to offer packages with 150GB per month peak usage.

"Using the full extent available capacity on the second satellite, we've determined that with an increase in the fixed-wireless footprint -- around about 40,000 services -- and optimisation of the rest of the environment, we can deliver that doubling of the basic plan for consumers in regional and remote Australia," Gavin Williams, NBN executive general manager of Fixed Wireless and Satellite Products, told media on Monday.

"So what that means is our basic service moves from an average download of 15GB a month to 30GB a month, and the maximum allowable package on most plans moving from 75GB plan to 75GB in peak, but a total size of 150GB. So that's a massive increase into what previously has been contemplated for the satellite basic plan."

Williams added that although the second satellite won't be launched until Q4 2016, the high-data plans will be available prior to this.

"We will initially load up Sky Muster, and the second satellite will then support growth once we need to, when Sky Muster is more occupied," he explained.

NBN is proposing to grant an additional 50GB monthly data allowance to be used by children for distance education purposes over a second port. This 50GB would be given to a maximum of three students per premises.

"We'll be going into consultation with industry to provide a separate, distinct port available to kids that utilise distance education as their primary means of education. And from launch, this will provide up to 50GB of allowance to each of these kids, up to 150GB per homestead, distinctly separate and over and above whatever other plan is used at that home or business," Williams said.

"We are also contemplating developing this capability further with multi-cast and high-quality video conferencing so that there really is a tailor-made solution for kids educated at home."

The decision will be finalised following consultation with state and federal departments of education as well as other stakeholders.

"Children living in rural and remote locations have long suffered poor access to broadband," said Wendy Hick, federal president of the Isolated Children's Parents' Association (ICPA).

"The impact on schooling has caused serious concerns amongst users. Today's announcement is the result of collaboration between NBN, government, and organisations such as ICPA working together to address the challenges presented. This should allow Australian children to keep up to speed with their education, no matter where they live."

NBN launched the first of its two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites -- which Communications Minister cum Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull labelled unnecessary "Rolls-Royce" satellites during his tenure as shadow communications minister -- at the beginning of October as part of its long-term satellite solution for those living in rural and remote areas.

The satellite, designed and built in conjunction with Arianespace, SSL, ViaSat, Optus, and Ericsson, was launched from French Guiana to provide high-speed broadband coverage in conjunction with the second satellite to be launched in mid-2016 for the 3 percent of the Australian population not living within the fixed-wireless, fibre, and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) NBN network footprint.

The satellite will "bridge the digital divide between Australia's cities and regions", Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said in October, despite data usage being capped and fast speeds attracting higher price points than those on fibre.

"The NBN long-term satellite service will be a game changer for many remote Australians, offering broadband services at ADSL2-comparable speeds for the first time," Fifield said.

"Sky Muster and her sister satellite are among the largest commercial satellites ever launched. Each will project 101 spot beams providing coverage to Australia and to five offshore locations: Christmas, Cocos, Lord Howe, Norfolk, and Macquarie Islands."

The satellite won't be providing commercial services until April or May 2016, with NBN program director for Satellite Matt Dawson telling ZDNet in October that testing of the satellite's functionality would take place until the end of this year.

"The launching of the satellite is one thing ... then there will be a period of about two months, where SSL, the manufacturer of the satellite, have to do some in-orbit tests to make sure that the satellite is functioning as intended, and that will take us through until early December, where they will then hand over control of the satellite to Optus, because we've outsourced flight operations to Optus," Dawson said.

Updating the satellite's progress on Monday, Williams said it is now about to enter business readiness testing.

"This is the point where our test retail service providers are plugged into the satellite network and are able to place the initial orders," Williams said.

The new satellite will replace the interim satellite service put in place by the former Labor government, which has seen so many sign-ups that broadband speeds for satellite customers have slowed to a crawl.

The long-term satellite service is set to remedy the situation, providing improved broadband connectivity for those living in regional and remote areas.

"These [satellites] were designed ground up for the job at hand: To connect regional and remote Australia. The aggregate capacity supported by these satellites is 135 gigabits per second," he said in October.

"To put it in perspective, the full capacity of the interim satellite service is ... closer to 3 gigabits per second."

The new satellite service now caps each IP address' usage at 150GB per month maximum in order to prevent capacity from being outstripped by demand again, in accordance with a "fair use" policy.

Deena Shiff, director of the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee, argued in September that it is unfair to criticise heavy users of satellite services, as it is their only link to broadband, while those living in urban areas can spread their usage over several plans and internet access points.

"A satellite user is going to be paying a lot more. In practice, where there's choice of offerings, clearly, you will shop around for the best offer and you will optimise your usage between Wi-Fi, VoIP, fixed, and mobile. And that opportunity simply doesn't exist for a lot of regional users," she said at the annual ACCAN national conference.

"When people talk about data hogs on satellite, it's a bit offensive because they rely so much on communications for their basic needs, and also their business use and their consumer use within a homestead is really sitting within the one plan, so they tend naturally to be above the average users."

However, NBN CEO Bill Morrow has pointed out that because satellite is a finite service, unlimited download allowances cannot be provided.

"There are limits behind this, because each satellite that we're going put up in the air is constrained by amount of capacity," Morrow explained.

"We don't anticipate there being any problem because we know, again, if there are a few users that need more than the average, we can accommodate them. And it'll be done through the price points through the retailers."

With distance education reliant on the satellite service, Dawson also previously explained plans by NBN to deliver this capacity through possibly designating a port on a customer's modem to be used specifically for education and learning.

"The modems already have four ports, so we would use one of those extra ports potentially to connect user services directly into an educational network of some description that we are provided by an education department, a state-based department," Dawson said.

"Therefore, the information that they would download over the internet then wouldn't count towards their monthly plans, which has been a concern raised by a number of distance education organisations ... and that's an option that's entirely possible with the way that we've constructed the network."

Then-Parliamentary Secretary for Communications Paul Fletcher first raised this possibility in August, with news that a distance education working group had been established in Canberra to examine how the new NBN satellites could be leveraged to improve distance education.

In a show of support for those hoping to make use of the NBN for education, the company also allowed the satellite to be named by a six-year-old primary school student based 400km outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

Trials and developments for dedicated education video services are ongoing, as is industry consultation on the distance education data allowances.

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