NBN Sky Muster satellite a 'game changer': Fifield, Morrow

Australia's new communications minister and the CEO of NBN have both lauded the successful satellite launch, saying it will close the digital gap despite caps on usage and higher prices.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The satellite launched for the National Broadband Network (NBN) will "bridge the digital divide between Australia's cities and regions", according to Australia's newly minted Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, despite data usage being capped and fast speeds attracting higher price points than those on fibre.

Fifield, speaking at a press conference in Sydney on Thursday morning after NBN successfully launched the first of its two new AU$620 million Ka-band satellites earlier in the day, called the service a "game changer" in ensuring the delivery of broadband access for all.

"The NBN long-term satellite service will be a game changer for many remote Australians, offering broadband services at ADSL2-comparable speeds for the first time," Fifield said.

"Sky Muster and her sister satellite are among the largest commercial satellites ever launched. Each will project 101 spot beams providing coverage to Australia and to five offshore locations: Christmas, Cocos, Lord Howe, Norfolk, and Macquarie Islands."

The satellite was launched from French Guiana as part of NBN's long-term satellite solution to provide high-speed broadband coverage to the 3 percent of the Australian population not living within the fixed-wireless, fibre, and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) NBN network footprint.

"With the launch of Sky Muster, we're one step closer to changing the digital face of our nation," said NBN CEO Bill Morrow.

"The ability to video conference friends and family, study courses online, and visit doctors from your lounge room will all be possible in areas which have traditionally struggled to access basic internet services, like online banking and shopping.

"Many homes and businesses in regional and rural Australia still rely on dial-up level speeds and have little or no access to a commercial broadband service -- this satellite will help to close the divide and ensure no one gets left behind."

The Coalition government's so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) NBN model, which is expected to 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. It is due to be completed in 2020.

Fifield acknowledged that NBN and the government must work together to achieve the "ambitious" completion dates and pricing targets set for the network, and suggested that both are keeping an open mind about possible changes to the rollout.

"It's important to recognise that NBN is still continually learning. They're still continually perfecting. There will no doubt be, and could be, adjustments over time as NBN refines," Fifield said.

"We know that as an organisation, they're getting ever better in the light of experience in terms of estimating costs, and in terms of estimating the rollout timetable. So I think it would be wrong to essentially say that the hard work has been done ... There's still a lot of work to do. This is still relatively early stages, and this is an ambitious project with ambitious timeframes."

Fifield also called himself the "overall steward" of the project in his role as communications minister.

"It's my job to make sure that the taxpayers' interests are looked after, and to ask the sorts of questions that the public would expect the shareholder minister to ask," he said.

The new satellite was designed and built in conjunction with Arianespace, SSL, ViaSat, Optus, and Ericsson, and will begin providing commercial services in April or May 2016, 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 on Wednesday.

"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.

The second satellite involved in the long-term solution will be launched next year, with the satellite service to provide speeds of up to 25Mbps down/5Mbps up.

Morrow conceded, however, that "extreme usage" on this top-speed plan will cost more for satellite users than those using comparable speeds over fibre services in cities, although "average usage" will be priced at the same amount in all regions of the country.

Despite the cost differences, Fifield argued that the mere availability of high-speed, non-dial-up broadband in remote areas alone makes these regions more viable for people to live and work in.

"Remote areas and rural areas will be a more realistic option for a larger number of people, because there'll be the greater technological capacity for them to transact business, so it means that there's more choice, there's more opportunity for people to determine where they want to do their business, where they want to live," Fifield said.

"You can live and work where you want to, where you grew up. No longer do you have to move to the city centres to have an appropriate job," Morrow added.

According to the minister and the CEO, however, access to the satellite service does not necessarily involve placing a dish on each and every rural roof.

"Certain Indigenous communities have told us they'd like to take a slightly different approach; for example, they might just want a Wi-Fi station within their village or their town or area, rather than have it connected to each and every home," Morrow said.

"We know that there's individual approaches that they want to take, and we're very much willing to work with them on ensuring that everybody gets what they need."

Gavin Williams, NBN's general manager of fixed wireless and satellite, outlined plans in August to provide internet access for Indigenous communities by piloting a Wi-Fi hotspot trial in several remote communities in the Northern Territory.

"We're committed to giving regional and remote Australia world-class broadband," Williams said.

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.

As a result, the new satellite service will cap IP address' usage as part of a "fair use policy" to prevent capacity being outstripped by demand again.

"There are limits behind this, because each satellite that we're going put up in the air is constrained by amount of capacity," Morrow said.

"We don't anticipate there being any problem because we know, again, if there are a few users that need more than the average, we can accommodate them. And it'll be done through the price points through the retailers."

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."

In a show of support for those hoping to make use of the NBN for education, the company allowed the satellite to be named by a six-year-old primary school student based 400km outside of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

Fifield admitted to having been apprehensive about the satellite launch, but said it had launched without a hitch as yet.

"Even freshly minted communications ministers were a little apprehensive in their second week -- but so far, so good."

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