NBN Russian ahead with satellites despite ongoing slot negotiations

NBN will still be able to launch and operate its satellites even if it doesn't manage to secure use of the orbital slots from a Russian satellite operator, the ACMA has confirmed.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has said NBN could potentially launch and operate its satellites despite not yet securing the use of the orbital slot from a Russian satellite company.

NBN will soon be preparing the launch of the first of two satellites that will provide broadband services to 3 percent of Australian premises outside the fixed line and fixed wireless network footprints.

As the satellites were being built, NBN entered lengthy negotiations via the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in order to secure access to slots to provide uplink and downlink satellite services to Australia through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

As a shadow minister, Malcolm Turnbull was heavily critical of NBN Co for building the satellites without having the slots coordinated.

"If the orbital slot is an important assumption in the design of the satellite, and if the slot assumed in the design is not the one ultimately granted, there would presumably be additional costs to take into account the new slot and potential delays, depending on how long the grant of the new slot actually took," he said in 2012.

"Is it really a risk of such a miniscule nature that [former NBN Co CEO Mike] Quigley is right not to lose a moment's sleep about it? Or is it important when you invest AU$660 million of the taxpayers' money you take a rigorous belt-and-braces approach to all of the legal requirements?"

Almost two years in government, however, and NBN, under the guidance of Turnbull as communications minister, still has yet to secure access to orbital slots for the satellites.

The ACMA's general manager for communications infrastructure, Giles Tanner, told a Budget Estimates hearing on Thursday that a Russian company operating the Express-10Ka satellite had filed with the ITU for access to the slot NBN was seeking.

"The issue here is NBN Co wishes to operate at a particular spot on the earth's geostationary orbit and wants to provide a service in the Ka band to Australia. There is a prior filing from a Russian company," he said.

"They've asserted they wish to provide services anywhere across the visible face of the Earth. My understanding is that they provide services into Russia but their filing was a claim that they may wish to provide services in the Southern Hemisphere as well."

Tanner did not rule out that NBN may end up paying the Russian company for access to the orbital slot over Australia.

"It could end by the Russians saying 'we're going to change our filing such that we would never provide a service into the Southern Hemisphere in such a way that would provide interference for NBN Co.'"

In the mean time, NBN would be free to launch the satellite without having the orbital slot secured.

"It's not uncommon, however, that coordination agreements have not been concluded in all cases by the time a satellite has to be launch. There is a procedure for dealing with any residual, unresolved issues at the time the satellite is brought into use," he said.

"Hypothetically if it were not possible to complete a successful coordination, NBN Co can bring its satellite into use -- it can launch it, it can start services -- but before it brings it into use it would give certain assurances to us as the filing representatives, that in certain circumstances or scenarios if the earlier filing.. did certain things that would be incompatible with what they're doing, they would make changes to the operation of their satellite."

Tanner said that this was "a quite frequent procedure" in satellite launches.

"There are many, many coordinations that have to be done usually over a seven-year period if you want to launch a satellite."

Coordinating with the Russian company was more about risk management, according to Tanner.

"The risk might be that a satellite filing, that might be earlier, might decide it might become a Southern Hemisphere service into Australia," he said.

"There is the potential that within the envelope of the filing of the Russians, you could operate in a way that isn't compatible with NBN Co's use of the satellite."

NBN is due to appear before Budget Estimates later on Thursday.

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