NBN's $1.3B Satellite Program Lifts Off

Australia's troubled NBN project has finally caught a break, with the successful launch of its first broadband satellite.

Known as Sky Muster, it is the first of two satellites that will have a combined capacity of 135 Gbit/s to serve 400,000 households across remote Australia.

The state-owned NBN, which will wholesale the capacity to retail providers, is promising connectivity of 25 Mbit/s on the downstream and 5 Mbit/s up.

The downside is that data plans will be capped, but NBN CEO Bill Morrow has pointed out that many users are still relying on "dial-up level speeds and have little or no access to a commercial broadband service."

The launch by Arianespace on Wednesday evening is welcome news for the contentious project, which has recently come under renewed scrutiny.

Although it has been on the drawing board since 2009, the NBN rollout is still in its early stages. It has a target of connecting 8 million households to the NBN by 2020 and plans to hook up most of those using an FTTN network it switched on just ten days ago.

If the Sky Muster service is to launch in mid-2016, as planned, then one of the most difficult parts of the NBN program -- providing broadband services across Australia's huge and sparsely populated interior -- will have been addressed well before the national rollout reaches scale.

The A$1.8 billion (US$1.3 billion) Sky Muster satellites are from the traditional playbook, covering a whole continent through Ka band spectrum from a geostationary orbit of 20,000 miles above the earth. This is a very different approach from that being taken by Internet giants Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), which are testing drones and balloons as ways of providing broadband services in remote areas. In both cases, their craft will operate at around 12 miles above the ground and will cover areas of a few dozen square miles.

The economics are different, too. NBN says the cost of Sky Muster puts it out of reach of developing countries, but the technology may work in other mature markets where governments are prepared to tip public funds into broadband rollout in remote areas.

The rollout of gigabit broadband access networks is spreading. Find out what's happening where in our dedicated Gigabit Cities content channel here on Light Reading.

Nevertheless, there are various financing and technology issues that NBN has yet to resolve.

The company, which plans to use a whole range of fixed and mobile technologies during its rollout, recently acknowledged that its budget had blown out, leaving it with a funding gap of as much as A$26.5 billion ($19.2 billion). It's not clear where those additional funds will come from. (See Australia's NBN Cost Blowout.)

The technologies may change as well. Former communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has now taken over as Australia's prime minister, with Senator Mitch Fifield steppping into the communications role. In his first interview, Fifield said the technology mix was "not set in stone," leaving open the possibility of fiber assuming greater importance in the rollout.

— Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

R Clark 10/4/2015 | 11:30:47 PM
Re: Diversity Interesting point. I'm not sure how much redundancy there is between satellite and the other technologies.  Supposedly it's for those remote locations that can't get access to DSL or wireless, ie, where presumably backhaul cost is too great. But no one has ever shown a map.
danielcawrey 10/4/2015 | 4:56:59 PM
Diversity I think it's important to have a mix of technologies providing services. So I see satellie, wireless and fiber as part of a larger infrastructure rollout. I know it's probably a lot more expensive to do all three, but it is very important to consider the redundancy of such a plan. 
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