NBN satellite commercial services launching April

NBN has successfully demonstrated the capabilities of its satellite services, with a customer field trial to take place later this month and commercial launch aimed for mid-April.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The company rolling out Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has demonstrated a trial of its long-term satellite solution to provide high-speed broadband to those living in rural and remote areas, ahead of its commercial launch in mid April or early May.

During a test of the satellite services on Tuesday morning, NBN simultaneously tested usage of internet banking, educational websites, Google Maps, HD video streaming over YouTube, ABC iView, Netflix, and Skype calls over the satellite service, with NBN program director for Satellite Matt Dawson telling ZDNet that the tests "went really, really well".

"Following the launch of Sky Muster back in October, we've been commissioning all the spot beams and integrating the system with the 10 ground stations around the country," Dawson said.

"We've got 150 test services on the system at the moment, so we're going through and loading up the system and making sure that we're configuring it correctly. We're still going through an optimisation process, because we are the layer 2 wholesaler -- we have to make sure that our system interfaces and works properly with the RSPs, who of course operate it at layer 3 right up to application layer, so we're still balancing the network and optimising it all.

"But certainly, in terms of what we were able to demonstrate today well and truly demonstrates the system is delivering exactly what we said it would deliver."

The first of its two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites, designed and built in conjunction with Arianespace, SSL, ViaSat, Optus, and Ericsson, was launched from French Guiana.

Once in full commercial operation, the satellite, which will "bridge the digital divide between Australia's cities and regions", according to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, will project 101 spot beams to provide coverage for the 3 percent of the Australian population not living within the fixed-wireless, fibre, and hybrid fibre-coaxial NBN network footprint.

Users on the satellite solution will attain download speeds of 25Mbps and upload speeds of 5Mbps on the top-tier plan.

Despite still being in what Dawson called the "business-readiness testing phase" of the satellite system, NBN expects to launch commercial services between late April and early May.

While some retail service providers (RSPs) have already released their plans, customers cannot place orders yet, though this is "not very far away", Dawson said.

Before commercial launch of the product, however, the next phase involves a customer field trial with 200 end-user participants and three RSPs: Harbour ISP, SkyMesh, and Activ8me.

The three RSPs chose which customers would take place in field trial, which is set to take place "in a few weeks", with the test restricted to those living in surrounding suburbs of Melbourne.

"The customer field trial will be geographically constrained to a couple of beams that we have commissioned and set up for the purpose in and around the Melbourne fringe area," Dawson told ZDNet.

In regards to launching the second satellite, Dawson said NBN is waiting on the launch provider to decide on timing, although it is expected to occur "in the middle of the year or just thereafter". Dawson emphasised that not until user numbers ramp up will NBN need the capacity of the second satellite in order to load share.

While 400,000 premises will be eligible to order a satellite service, NBN foresees only 200,000 to 250,000 will actually take up the system. Were all 400,000 eligible households to order the satellite service, the "fair use" policy would prevent speeds slowing substantially, however.

The fair use policy is set to remedy the situation created by the interim satellite service put in place by the former Labor government, which saw so many sign-ups that broadband speeds slowed to a crawl.

"It still is a finite amount of capacity that has to be managed robustly and properly by NBN and the RSPs," Dawson explained on Tuesday.

"So even though this satellite system is groundbreaking in terms of the amount of capacity it can provide -- 135 gigabits per second of capacity is a lot of capacity -- we still have to have in place our fair use policy and mechanisms to make sure that that capacity is managed effectively and efficiently."

The satellite service will impose a cap on each IP address' usage at 150GB per month maximum in order to prevent capacity from being outstripped by demand again.

In December, NBN had announced an increase in data allowances for customers on its satellite service, upping its offering to 150GB per month plus 50GB extra for distance education students, having freed up satellite capacity by moving 40,000 premises to its fixed-wireless or fixed-line networks.

With distance education reliant on the satellite service, Dawson had previously 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."

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