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Satellite-hating Libs blow policy free kick

Malcolm Turnbull has become so good at deflecting anything that Labor does that he reflexively launched a volley at NBN Co's $2 billion satellite project, fumbling the tremendous opportunity that the investment presented. Better use of the satellites could help both the Labor and Liberal visions of the NBN, but can policy dogma bend enough for Turnbull to admit it?
Written by David Braue, Contributor

It's a shame that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull reacted to the news of Labor's impending satellite launch with his usual knee-jerk negativity, since the news actually presented a rare opportunity to turn a Labor NBN policy move into a Coalition policy win.

The biggest issue with the satellite launch is that the birds are being purchased to service just 3 per cent of Australia's households, or around 200,000 premises that lie so far from rural centres that even fixed wireless isn't economical. Turnbull wasted no time before doing the maths: amortise the $2 billion cost across that limited number of premises, and you find out that this part of the NBN will cost over $10,000 per property. That's a lot.


Sputnik kick-started the space age; could NBN Co's satellites do the same for the Liberals' NBN policy? (Credit: NASA and NSSDC)

The thing is: the new Ka-Band satellites have way more capacity than that; the comparable North American ViaSat-1 satellite, based on the same technology, can provide 12Mbps connections to over 1 million premises.

That's a lot of broadband — and it would indeed be a shame to let it lie fallow. However, true to his private-sector-oriented psyche, Turnbull's instinctive response was to look past the numbers and simply blast the purchase of the two satellites as a lamentable waste of money. He also argued that it would flood the satellite market with excess capacity — destroying the private-sector satellite market as NBN Co pushes its excess capacity into new markets to claw back its expenditures. One could almost see him trying to dredge up the old nugget that NBN Co will kill private-sector fibre operators by retailing services to government departments.

It's the same argument that he's been using to fight the fibre to the premises NBN, but with the nouns replaced with satellite-related terms. Turnbull even dug up the old "Rolls-Royce" argument, which is always a semantically difficult comparison, because it implies that Australians only deserve a Hyundai Getz solution.

The common goal of the NBN, lauded by both Labor and Liberal politicians alike, is to bring broadband connectivity to areas that don't currently have it. Conveniently enough, satellites have coverage beams that extend well past the boundaries of this country — which means that the day they're switched on, Labor's new satellites will provide enough capacity to bring 12Mbps broadband services to not just 200,000, but over 2 million Australian homes.

The day they're switched on, Labor's new satellites will provide enough capacity to bring 12Mbps broadband services to not just 200,000, but over 2 million Australian homes.

That's an entirely different kettle of fish. Amortise the $2 billion across 2 million premises, and you're suddenly paying just $1000 per property. And that's pretty good, actually — only slightly higher than the amount that Kevin Rudd put as cash into everybody's hands a few years ago, and it would fix our most glaring broadband deficiencies.

Latency is higher on satellites, sure, so gamers wouldn't be impressed, but, as anybody will concede, some connectivity is better than no connectivity. And those two satellites are surely much cheaper than rolling the fibre NBN to remote areas, or even the bother of installing thousands of terrestrial towers to support a fixed-LTE broadband network that will deliver a similarly performing 12Mbps service.

Granted, it's not the 100Mbps or 1Gbps that the fibre NBN will provide, but it's still something. It's certainly enough capacity to not only provide decent broadband to remote Aboriginal communities hours off the beaten track, but to also plug coverage black spots in urban areas that paradoxically are still struggling along at dial-up or slightly better speeds.

In other words, it's a quick-fix solution and policy free kick, the likes of which most politicians dream of — and Labor placed it right in Turnbull's hands to be promptly fumbled. Had he taken a few moments to think laterally rather than just giving into his basest reflex instinct and not-invented-here party line, Turnbull could have come up with a pleasant and surprising policy winner. What if he'd said something like this:

It's ironic that Labor has turned to satellites to deliver the same kind of wireless services to the same places OPEL would have served. However, we welcome the government's investment in Ka-Band satellites, because it will immediately provide a 12Mbps baseline service to every Australian premise.

In so doing, it will obviate the need to roll out fibre to nearly 2 million of Australia's most remote properties. It will also expedite the delivery of services to urban black spots, which will gain a basic level of service that has been unavailable to them until now.

Most importantly of all, it will allow Labor's inordinately expensive fibre roll-out to be suspended and refocused. Rather than forcing a one-size-fits-all solution on every Australian, availability of 12Mbps satellite services as a common baseline will allow a Liberal or Labor government to pause the NBN roll-out, reassess the FttP business case and prioritise fibre or other infrastructure investments in the areas that really need them. In this sense, it is an exceedingly promising investment that provides far better value for money than Labor's current fibre-NBN white elephant.

Had Turnbull come out with something like that, he would have been able to parry the announcement while repositioning his party's policy as a rational step forward. His actual response, however — to stick with ageing satellites that are far slower and mostly obsolete, even in telcos' eyes — just comes off as predictable and wan. It's like someone's grandfather explaining why he wants to keep his 1950s-era carpet and curtains, and jealously hoards his collection of old bottle caps. Sure, they have value to him — but he can't expect everyone else to get as excited as he is.

Having access to a reliable if not warp-speed service would give all of Australia a leg up into the 21st century. And once all Australians have access to such a service, the government could let the private sector — with or without government support and guidance — work out the details on how to proceed from there.

What do you think? Could Labor's satellites be better utilised to immediately plug Australia's broadband black spots? Or are they just a pointless distraction from the real game?

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