Labor calls for independent review into NBN satellite service

The federal opposition wants an independent review to examine installation issues, data caps, outages, and a lack of transparency involved in NBN's satellite service.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian government's National Broadband Network (NBN) satellite service should be subject to an independent expert review, according to the federal opposition party, which said the installation issues, data caps, outages, and lack of transparency between NBN and its retail service providers (RSPs) needs to be examined.

Shadow Regional Communications Minister Stephen Jones called the deployment of NBN's Sky Muster satellite service "nothing short of abysmal", claiming that under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government, more premises have been shifted onto satellite connectivity.

"An inquiry would establish what assumptions are being made about data needs, usage, and allocation," Jones said on Tuesday.

"To their surprise and dismay, many more customers in outer metropolitan areas and outer regional centres are now finding themselves being allocated to Sky Muster for their NBN services, whereas previously under Labor's NBN plan they were allocated FttP or fixed-wireless."

Under NBN's 2017 Corporate Plan, between 200,000 and 250,000 premises will receive a satellite connection, although 400,000 premises are eligible. Labor did not respond to a question by the time of publication on how many premises would receive a satellite connection under a Labor government.

Jones said Labor is calling for NBN's Fair Use policy across its satellite services to be increased, especially in remote areas.

"A Fair Use policy is a reasonable approach to take at the commencement of a new service, but I don't believe that all of the settings are right," Jones said.

"Many premises in remote Australia not only have a need for data to cover residential needs, but also to operate a business. We should not start with the assumption that regional Australians have lower expectations. For regional Australians, access to the NBN is more important, not less."

NBN's Fair Use Policy caps customers on its 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, and has a maximum download speed of 25Mbps.

By comparison, the fixed-wireless service will begin providing speeds of 100Mbps next year with no cap on data usage.

Meanwhile, NBN -- which on Tuesday announced that its second satellite is now operational and taking orders from RSPs -- has said that it has been working on avoiding satellite service outages, with the company having deployed 147 network fixes and "optimisation changes" between September and April. Its weekly incident rate has dropped by 91 percent as a result.

"We have also overhauled the installation process which is now a strength," NBN chief customer officer John Simon said on Tuesday.

"This has all resulted in positive feedback from our retail partners and a steady increase in our overall end user satisfaction measures since December last year."

In January, NBN revealed that there had been 31,007 reschedules of Sky Muster service installations between April 2016 until October, caused mainly by technician issues, customer issues, weather, network issues, and non-standard installations.

The average closure time for complaints was 21.4 days during October last year, with 520 complaints between April and October.

"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."

According to satellite RSP Clear Networks, these complaints are exacerbated by the lack of information on connectivity issues given by NBN to RSPs, which leaves customers at the mercy of NBN's 10-day turnaround.

Several of Australia's states and territories have also slammed the data caps, outages, and lack of transparency on NBN's satellite service; last month, the South Australian government advised the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN that Sky Muster should be a "last resort" because the lower-grade connectivity is a form of discrimination.

"It is the South Australian government's view that residents and businesses should not be discriminated against simply by virtue of where they choose to live," the SA government said.

"To maximise equity and to ensure that farmers and other regional Australians can enjoy the benefits of an NBN service that is comparable to that provided to metropolitan residents, the South Australian government requests that satellite connections only be deployed as a technology of last resort when no other fixed-line options are feasible."

Similarly, the Queensland government said that the use of "lower-grade" NBN services for those living in regional and remote areas of Australia is unacceptable and inequitable, and the Northern Territory government slammed NBN's "technically inferior" satellite service.

The NSW Farmers' Association agreed in its submission that satellite services are not equal to fixed-line connections, referring to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's comment during his tenure as shadow communications minister that NBN's two new Ka-band satellites were unnecessary "Rolls-Royce" satellites.

"Far from being a 'Rolls Royce option', Sky Muster plans are being restricted to meet the capacity in beams that have a large number of consumers in them, mostly on the eastern borders. This is restricting rural and regional farmers' access to services that they need," the NSW Farmers' Association said.

NBN has also confirmed reports that CTO Dennis Steiger has left the company, with former Vodafone Australia GM of Strategy and Planning, Business Development and Intercarrier Tom Roets taking over his responsibilities.

"Now that the MTM is well underway, we're looking forward to the next phase where Tom Roets, EGM Future Tech and Architecture, will lead the team and focus on the technology and the architecture of a network to serve our future needs," an NBN spokesperson said.

Roets has been at NBN for almost three years.

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