Satellite-hating Libs blow policy free kick

Satellite-hating Libs blow policy free kick

Summary: Malcolm Turnbull has become so good at deflecting anything that Labor does that he reflexively launched a volley at NBN Co's $2 billion satellite project, fumbling the tremendous opportunity that the investment presented. Better use of the satellites could help both the Labor and Liberal visions of the NBN, but can policy dogma bend enough for Turnbull to admit it?


It's a shame that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacted to the news of Labor's impending satellite launch with his usual knee-jerk negativity, since the news actually presented a rare opportunity to turn a Labor NBN policy move into a Coalition policy win.

The biggest issue with the satellite launch is that the birds are being purchased to service just 3 per cent of Australia's households, or around 200,000 premises that lie so far from rural centres that even fixed wireless isn't economical. Turnbull wasted no time before doing the maths: amortise the $2 billion cost across that limited number of premises, and you find out that this part of the NBN will cost over $10,000 per property. That's a lot.

Sputnik kick-started the space age; could NBN Co's satellites do the same for the Liberals' NBN policy? (Credit: NASA and NSSDC)

The thing is: the new Ka-Band satellites have way more capacity than that; the comparable North American ViaSat-1 satellite, based on the same technology, can provide 12Mbps connections to over 1 million premises.

That's a lot of broadband — and it would indeed be a shame to let it lie fallow. However, true to his private-sector-oriented psyche, Turnbull's instinctive response was to look past the numbers and simply blast the purchase of the two satellites as a lamentable waste of money. He also argued that it would flood the satellite market with excess capacity — destroying the private-sector satellite market as NBN Co pushes its excess capacity into new markets to claw back its expenditures. One could almost see him trying to dredge up the old nugget that NBN Co will kill private-sector fibre operators by retailing services to government departments.

It's the same argument that he's been using to fight the fibre to the premises NBN, but with the nouns replaced with satellite-related terms. Turnbull even dug up the old "Rolls-Royce" argument, which is always a semantically difficult comparison, because it implies that Australians only deserve a Hyundai Getz solution.

The common goal of the NBN, lauded by both Labor and Liberal politicians alike, is to bring broadband connectivity to areas that don't currently have it. Conveniently enough, satellites have coverage beams that extend well past the boundaries of this country — which means that the day they're switched on, Labor's new satellites will provide enough capacity to bring 12Mbps broadband services to not just 200,000, but over 2 million Australian homes.

The day they're switched on, Labor's new satellites will provide enough capacity to bring 12Mbps broadband services to not just 200,000, but over 2 million Australian homes.

That's an entirely different kettle of fish. Amortise the $2 billion across 2 million premises, and you're suddenly paying just $1000 per property. And that's pretty good, actually — only slightly higher than the amount that Kevin Rudd put as cash into everybody's hands a few years ago, and it would fix our most glaring broadband deficiencies.

Latency is higher on satellites, sure, so gamers wouldn't be impressed, but, as anybody will concede, some connectivity is better than no connectivity. And those two satellites are surely much cheaper than rolling the fibre NBN to remote areas, or even the bother of installing thousands of terrestrial towers to support a fixed-LTE broadband network that will deliver a similarly performing 12Mbps service.

Granted, it's not the 100Mbps or 1Gbps that the fibre NBN will provide, but it's still something. It's certainly enough capacity to not only provide decent broadband to remote Aboriginal communities hours off the beaten track, but to also plug coverage black spots in urban areas that paradoxically are still struggling along at dial-up or slightly better speeds.

In other words, it's a quick-fix solution and policy free kick, the likes of which most politicians dream of — and Labor placed it right in Turnbull's hands to be promptly fumbled. Had he taken a few moments to think laterally rather than just giving into his basest reflex instinct and not-invented-here party line, Turnbull could have come up with a pleasant and surprising policy winner. What if he'd said something like this:

It's ironic that Labor has turned to satellites to deliver the same kind of wireless services to the same places OPEL would have served. However, we welcome the government's investment in Ka-Band satellites, because it will immediately provide a 12Mbps baseline service to every Australian premise.

In so doing, it will obviate the need to roll out fibre to nearly 2 million of Australia's most remote properties. It will also expedite the delivery of services to urban black spots, which will gain a basic level of service that has been unavailable to them until now.

Most importantly of all, it will allow Labor's inordinately expensive fibre roll-out to be suspended and refocused. Rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all solution on every Australian, availability of 12Mbps satellite services as a common baseline will allow a Liberal or Labor government to pause the NBN roll-out, reassess the FttP business case and prioritise fibre or other infrastructure investments in the areas that really need them. In this sense, it is an exceedingly promising investment that provides far better value for money than Labor's current fibre-NBN white elephant.

Had Turnbull come out with something like that, he would have been able to parry the announcement while repositioning his party's policy as a rational step forward. His actual response, however — to stick with ageing satellites that are far slower and mostly obsolete, even in telcos' eyes — just comes off as predictable and wan. It's like someone's grandfather explaining why he wants to keep his 1950s-era carpet and curtains, and jealously hoards his collection of old bottle caps. Sure, they have value to him — but he can't expect everyone else to get as excited as he is.

Having access to a reliable if not warp-speed service would give all of Australia a leg up into the 21st century. And once all Australians have access to such a service, the government could let the private sector — with or without government support and guidance — work out the details on how to proceed from there.

What do you think? Could Labor's satellites be better utilised to immediately plug Australia's broadband black spots? Or are they just a pointless distraction from the real game?

Topics: Broadband, Emerging Tech, Government, Government AU, NBN, IT Employment


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • Even you will admit that spending that kind of money servicing 200,000 premises and close to $50 billion to satisfy the need of the rest even though the satellite can do the whole job, is lunacy in this day and age.
    Vasso Massonic
    • "...even though the satellite can do the whole job"????

      Now I know you've gone off the deep end. Even these satellites, with a capacity of 90Gbps each, could only provide the tiniest fraction of the required broadband capability for all of Australia.

      Let's see......10 million premises divided by 180Gbps..... That's 0.01Mbps each. But, let's be fair and assume an industry-standard 20:1 contention ratio. That's 0.07Mbps each. Well, I guess it's better than dialup. Should be perfect for the conservative side of Politics.
    • Vasso, welcome back! The $37.8 billion, ten year construction and operation budget of the NBN includes the design, launch and operation of these two satellites. They are not extra. They are part of the optimal technology mix to deliver the KPIs of the project, i.e. at least 12 Mbps uncontended bandwidth to all Australian premises.
  • I don't think 'plugging' australia's urban black spots is the answer. iIf that was the intention, why not just re-lay copper cable in those areas. If it's econimically possible and I'm guessing it is in urban areas, then they should use a state of the art scalable solution such as Fibre. Only in the areas it's simply not possible or financially feasible should they choose another method such as Satellite.
    • i.e, the NBN. It comprises fibre to premises where this is cheaper to provision than wireless, fixed wireless to catch outlyers up to the point where the cost of towers and backhaul become prohibitive, and universal satellite coverage. Full details of the methodology to arrive at the footprints for fibre and wireless is available in the May 2010 NBN Implementation Study, for which we taxpayers paid $25 million - money well spent to have all the facts and costs needed to get this project right.
  • Your extrapolation to $1000 per property does not take into account that the end user equipment costs about $5000 per site so you should state $1000 plus $5000 per property.
    Dave of Nakara
    • Yeah, and let's not forget the $4000 in services costs per site to get it in. Thats $10K.

      The we have 20% great big new carbon tax, that takes it to $12K per site.

      As Labor are screwing the economy no matter what they do we will need to add another 25% great big new white elephant tax cost, that takes it to $15K per site.

      Now as Labor only ever lie, we gotta add 50% cos the filter is going slow down the internet by 87%, so now we already have $22,500 per site.

      So that is $22,500 of MY money per site so that jmill can pick up a few emails a week???

      Nope, do not want it. I would much prefer to stay on my old and trusty 14.4K modem, it cost nearly nothing!
      • And let's not forget that the sky is probably gunna fall in so there's another pile of cash down the drain.

        And the NBN modem sitting on the floor is probably gunna affect the resale value of my house??
      • Ocker this is a comms blog.

        So if you wanna campaign for a political party (particularly the one you endorse), please go over to BigPond or The Australian where they will welcome you with open arms and leave the rest of us here (trying to look past the idiocy of politics) to discuss the more pressing comms issues, thank you.
        • Seems like the only thing NBNCo groupies are reticent on is the very subject of communications networks.

          Mark Addinall.
          • Mark two things.

            The good news first...

            You have cutting edge ideas.

            Now the sad truth...

            Pity it's not longer 1982, when they could have been used.

            Just 30 years too late, never mind!
        • Beta I think you might have missed the sarcasm in Ocker's post...
          • Yes I had hoped afterwards that no one noticed, but alas... d'oh.

            Problem of course being, there are those who actually believe and "would" say that, as witnessed @ comment #1...
  • We have satellite internet at the moment as we are in a black spot in western NSW.
    We find it OK.How fast do we need down load to fetch my emails.My children and my grand children and my great gran children. will be paying for this white elephant.
    • Are your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren 'fetching emails' are they?

      For every 1 dollar spent on the NBN, Australian tax payers will receive $1.07.
    • Your children and grand children will thank you for your vision of envisaging that the only use for it is to download emails....
  • ...satellite isn't a solution for everyone. VOiP telecom is big here in North America, I use Vonage as my primary phone, and the huge bandwidth offered is no solution to the packet delay created by a geo-stationary satellite round trip time delay.. usually 1/2 up to 1 second. Most satellite phone calls wind up being more like 2 way radio party yakks for a bit then says 'over' to the other animated conversation is pretty much impossible.
  • I live in suburban Melbourne, not within 3km of an exchange. On a good day my Internet is about 3.8Mbps. It used to be closer to 5 but as time goes by it is getting worse. I know that for me the NBN could be ten years away, possibly never if the great wrecker gets elected. I would welcome a 12Mbps satellite link to tide me over, especially if coupled to an ADSL 2+ uplink.
  • I think David hit the nail on the head pretty much. Even as a Liberal supporter, I'll vote Labor just to get the continued investment into the NBN - Abbott's short-sightedness regarding this and Global warming is annoying to say the least. Politicians are too focused on arguing the issue then actually coming to some sort of solution. God forbid two opposing parties could actually work towards a common goal.

    Vasso - Satellites cannot do the whole of Australia - that is lunacy. It's no one-size fits all solution. If this technology hasn't changed somewhat, it is a 'download only' service, and needs to be supplemented by a fixed line connection of some description, my knowledge of this may be out dated though.
  • What I've been wondering is if NBN Co can lease the excess capacity on the satellites to other players in the SE Asia/Pacific region and get some additional revenue that way?