NT government slams NBN's 'technically inferior' satellite service

NBN should cut the cap, move more users onto fixed-wireless services, and improve its Sky Muster satellite service reliability, the Northern Territory government has suggested.

The Australian government's National Broadband Network (NBN) company is linking up rural residents to satellite services even where towns have existing fixed-line communications infrastructure, according to the Northern Territory government, which has also criticised the installation delays, service dropouts, and usage caps on the service.

"The Australian government's current position is that areas outside the major cities and towns, including all remote communities in the Northern Territory, will be connected to the NBN via the technically inferior satellite service rather than fixed broadband infrastructure," a submission by the Northern Territory government to the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network this month said.

"This position is to be applied even where the communities have existing, state-of-the-art terrestrial telecommunications connections."

The territory's government said the "idiosyncratic nature" of satellite services also renders the delivery of some online applications costly and impossible to ensure, while the high latency makes voice communications not viable, both of which result in limiting business growth within the region.

The submission pointed towards a farm outside of Alice Springs that can only access the internet via satellite services -- which cut out every three to four days per week -- and a fish farm near Darwin, which runs on a 3G connection because it noticed a lack of business account availability on NBN's Sky Muster satellite service, did not receive responses to its enquiries from RSPs, and was quoted a AU$300,000 price for fibre installation from Telstra despite having fibre to its driveway already.

The Northern Territory climate and weather events could also cause a loss of satellite communications, the government argued.

"The nature of extreme weather conditions common within the Northern Territory, especially in the coastal regions, makes satellite unreliable due to rain fade and loss of signal," the submission said.

"In a natural disaster satellite communications are likely to fail precisely at the time a community needs them the most."

The government also argued that the Fair Use Policy -- which caps customers on NBN's satellite service from using more than 150GB per month, separated into 75GB off peak between 1am and 7am and 75GB on peak, with 50GB extra for distance education students -- discriminates against those living in remote areas.

NBN last freed up capacity on its satellite service by moving 40,000 premises to its fixed-wireless or fixed-line networks back in December 2015, but has not announced any similar programs since then.

Despite the federal government agreeing with Recommendation 3 of the Regional Telecommunications Review 2015 that NBN should extend its fixed-wireless footprint to provide an alternative for regional premises to the satellite service, the Northern Territory government said it has seen "little evidence" of this occurring -- and that the federal government has avoided involvement in the policy since.

"In November 2016, the Northern Territory government asked the Australian government to approach NBN Co to change its service delivery model for 34 remote Northern Territory communities to a fixed-wireless solution utilising existing fibre technology to provide residents with a superior broadband service than the proposed satellite solution," the submission said.

"In a reply dated 19 December 2016, the Minister for Regional Communications Senator the Hon Fiona Nash stated that NBN Co is building the National Broadband Network at arm's length from the Australian government which is not involved in the day-to-day technology selection and network design decisions as these are operational matters for the company."

NBN said in January that where fixed-wireless is available, "resources are in place with NBN's delivery partners to ensure installation for those eligible".

"Where fixed-wireless services are planned but not yet available, end users will be able to migrate to Sky Muster in the interim, before connecting to fixed-wireless when it becomes available at a later date," NBN added earlier this year.

Installation delays have also occurred due to NBN having "insufficient availability" of contractors to install the equipment, as well as a poor level of engagement with local governments in remote areas, which consists of distributing a newsletter to councils but avoiding direct meetings with stakeholders.

"This low level of engagement with regional councils has likely contributed to a poor understanding of the benefits of the service," the government said.

In January, NBN revealed that there had been 31,007 reschedules of Sky Muster service installations between April, when services were launched, until October, caused mainly by technician issues, customer issues, weather, network issues, and non-standard installations, with 18 premises visited by a technician unable to establish satellite line of sight.

A breakdown by state saw just 813 customers in the Northern Territory connect to Sky Muster as of October 31. By comparison, 13,814 customers were connected in New South Wales; 8,950 in Queensland; 6,773 in Victoria; 4,250 in Western Australia; 3,115 in South Australia; 2,021 in Tasmania; and 24 in the Australian Capital Territory.

The order lead time for services averaged 20 business days between May and October 2016, while the average closure time for complaints was 21.4 days during October last year.

NBN said that there had been 520 complaints between April and October: 21 in the Northern Territory; 206 in New South Wales; 103 in Queensland; 94 in Victoria; 42 in Western Australia; 31 in Tasmania; and 23 in South Australia.

"Over the past two months, there have been issues with the software responsible for managing various aspects of the satellite network," NBN explained in January.

"The root causes are understood, fixes have been identified, and we are in the process of rolling out new software to the network to improve stability and reliability.

"The total number of network faults since launch is 325 with an average restoration time of 1.5 hours. The total number of service faults raised by RSPs on behalf of end users since launch is 2,984; however, it should be noted that this is likely to include multiple reports relating to the same network fault or issue."

NBN said in October that the issue with connecting users to its Sky Muster satellite service had been resolved, with a software upgrade that "didn't go to plan" to blame.

In total, the Northern Territory government made seven suggestions in its submission: That it continue fighting on behalf of its remote residents to receive better broadband infrastructure; that it work with NBN to move 34 communities to fixed-wireless services; that NBN increase the reliability of its satellite service; that NBN investigate expanding capacity by adding more satellites; that end-user support is improved; that NBN engage more with local bodies; and that NBN work with both the federal government and the Northern Territory government to determine appropriate solutions for those living in rural and remote areas.

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