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Rain fade should never be an issue on satellite: Clear Networks

To help users with issues, satellite RSPs have told the joint NBN committee that they would like greater visibility and diagnostics on Sky Muster connections.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

While retail service providers (RSPs) are not pleased at being unable to access consumer National Broadband Network (NBN) satellite hardware by design, the network should be able to handle weather conditions that lead to so-called rain fade, the Joint Standing Committee on the NBN has been told.

Speaking to the committee in Melbourne on Wednesday, Clear Networks CEO Rob van der End said that while the NBN's Sky Muster satellite service still has "lots of gremlins", the weather should not be one of them.

"People that all of a sudden find their modem starts blinking and doesn't connect, and I know I've heard people say 'Oh, it's raining', but reality is, as satellite operators, we've dealt with rain in Far North Queensland without any issue," he said.

"The design of the network is such that it can cope with things like rain -- it's just possibly incidental that something like that comes up, and yes, Ka-band is more prone to issues to do with rain -- but if they have done their job right, got the right antenna size, rain should never really be an issue, or clouds, or any of that."

When issues do crop up with the network, the satellite RSPs feel like message passers between NBN and customers, the committee was told.

"Under the Australian Broadband Guarantee, we had a direct relationship through to the installer," van der End said. "So we knew when they were arriving, or cancelling, or whatever. Now, we've got zero visibility, and when someone doesn't show or cancel, all we are is a messenger service; we can't determine what went wrong, or hold them accountable."

Chief executive officer of Activ8me, Tony Bundrock, said he would prefer to deal directly with the companies NBN has outsourced its managed network and installation services to -- Ericsson and Skybridge, respectively.

"With all respect to NBN, they have outsourced this sort of function to both those companies," Bundrock said. "So to streamline everything, I'd like more direct access into those companies."

Activ8me said last year the NBN installation process was an absolute bugbear, and had tripled the size of its call centres in response.

"The issues are so far removed from things that we can control as an RSP, because the NBN do all of the installs, and they sub-contract that to Ericsson, who then sub-contract that to Skybridge, and that communication about that installation process is done by those third parties," Activ8me general manager Ian Roberts said in September.

"[But] the first point of call for the customer when the install fails or the installer doesn't turn up, or things don't work, is to come back to us, and they might be things that we can't resolve."

Under previous Australian Broadband Guarantee arrangements, van der End said providers had access to a much higher level of diagnostic information than is available under the NBN regime.

"We had access to that modem, we could actually see signal levels, we could see a whole lot of information -- so for a customer call, we were able to log into that modem, see that information, and determine 'Oh, you've got an issue there, your dish has come out of alignment'," he said.

"That information is no longer available. As an RSP, you have to refer to NBN. Therefore, there is an extra step involved, NBN have maybe a 10-day turnaround -- so we are talking a very long time before they will come back to us with 'This is the issue'."

To help determine whether the matter needs to be escalated to NBN, the Clear Networks CEO said having read-only access to the customer's modem, which is handled by NBN, would be helpful.

"I think it would deal with a huge percentage of those more difficult cases, because they're the ones that take time to resolve," he said.

In a submission to the NBN committee, the Northern Territory government said NBN should remove its data cap on satellite services, move users onto fixed-wireless connections, and said satellite was not suited for the weather in the Top End.

"The nature of extreme weather conditions common within the Northern Territory, especially in the coastal regions, makes satellite unreliable due to rain fade and loss of signal," the submission said.

"In a natural disaster, satellite communications are likely to fail precisely at the time a community needs them the most."

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