NBN launches first satellite

The first satellite has been launched by NBN, aiming to provide the Australian population living in regional and remote areas with high-speed broadband.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The company rolling out Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has launched the first of its two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites as part of its long-term satellite solution for those living in rural and remote areas.

The satellite, named "Sky Muster", was launched on Thursday morning 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 won't be providing commercial services until April or May 2016, however, according to Matt Dawson, NBN program director for Satellite.

"The launching of the satellite is one thing, but it will take about two weeks for us to get the satellite into its correct geostationary orbit above Australia," Dawson told ZDNet.

"And 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."

Optus and NBN will then work together on integrating the satellite with NBN's 10 ground base stations, with Dawson saying that it is important the companies take the time needed to get the satellites to be fully operational.

"They're very necessary tests; we need to mitigate the risk of either some technical function not working, but also all of the business processes and business operations and IT systems that we wrap around all of that to be able to offer commercial services and a commercial product," he said.

"We expect that we will be able to commercially launch the product late April or early May."

The second satellite involved in the long-term solution will not be launched until sometime next year, though Dawson said there is "no sort of super urgency associated" with the supplementary satellite provided all goes well with the first.

Communications Minister cum Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has previously said that the new satellites will provide higher speeds for those living in regional and remote areas who cannot access broadband by any other means.

"The NBN long-term satellite service will be a game changer for those living in the bush, and will help bridge the digital divide currently experienced by many," Turnbull said in July.

"These next-generation Ka-band satellites will deliver world-class performance and peak speeds of up to 25 megabits per second regardless of where people live."

Dawson added on Wednesday that while 25Mbps down/5Mbps up is the top-tier plan, the company is also offering speeds of 12/1Mbps on its basic plan, which he said is "very similar" to NBN's fixed-wireless plans.

The Coalition government's so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) NBN model, which will cost up to AU$56 billion in peak funding, aims to cover 20 percent of the Australian population with fibre to the premises (FttP); 38 percent with fibre to the node and fibre to the building (FttP/B); 34 percent with HFC; 5 percent with fixed wireless; and 3 percent with satellite services.

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.

"I'm the first to acknowledge the bad rap the interim satellite service has had," Gavin Williams, NBN's general manager of fixed wireless and satellite said in August. "So I can understand a level of scepticism that many users in regional and remote Australia have about the nature of the [new] satellite service."

However, Williams said that the long-term satellite service will 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.

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

The new satellite service will cap IP address' usage to prevent capacity being outstripped by demand again.

"We will institute a new stringent 'fair use' policy to ensure a minority of very heavy users cannot crowd out the majority," Turnbull said in March last year.

Dawson said that this fair use plan capping is necessary to prevent network congestion and ensure that those on the satellite service get equal access to their designated speeds.

"The thing that people need to understand about satellite networks is that, unlike the terrestrial networks, where there's basically unlimited capacity, satellites have a finite amount of capacity," he said.

"We want to make sure that the end users on the long-term service satellite have an excellent service, and to do that, we need to place some rules around how that finite amount of capacity is fairly managed across the network."

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) welcomed the launch of the satellite, saying it will improve the speeds and provide more sufficient data allowances for those living in remote areas.

"People increasingly need a reliable and affordable internet connection for essential services, such as education, banking, and health. The successful launch of Sky Muster is an important milestone in the delivery of fast broadband services to regional and remote Australia," said Teresa Corbin, CEO of ACCAN.

"When these services become available to consumers in the first half of 2016, ACCAN hopes they will meet consumer need and be sold at a comparable cost to services sold in the rest of Australia."

With distance education reliant on the satellite service, Dawson also 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.

Deep packet inspection for satellite service users

NBN on Tuesday put out a request for information (RFI) in order to help it select reliable, qualified, and experienced suppliers to facilitate its deep packet inspection (DPI) program.

NBN's DPI initiative is designed to prevent congestion and increase capacity on its satellite service by funnelling and inspecting the data and header of packets of information sent through the NBN network for statistical purposes.

Suppliers can register their interest, and must be able to perform at a national scale; sustain carrier-grade components and solutions; be sufficiently flexible to distribute functionalities across different network segments; have a proven deployment reference point that reasonably aligns with NBN's functional requirements; allow for centralised data viewpoints across technologies; be able to provide services directly or through partnerships in Australia; and provide fast fault recovery via redundancy.

There has been some concern that NBN could engage in improper DPI usage by collecting the content of packets along with their statistics, which could be used primarily for the purpose of copyright policing.

The company has denied this, saying that the initiative is aimed only at ensuring network service delivery for consumers.

"This is all about providing NBN with tools that provide statistical information so we can manage the fair use policy on the long-term satellite service," said NBN spokesperson Andrew Sholl in a statement to ZDNet.

"We want to make sure that all users get their fair share of scarce satellite capacity. NBN is not looking to collect or store end-user content."

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