Blog: Ensuring the NBN Satellite Revolutionises Life in the Bush

August 3, 2015
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A story in The Weekend Australian stated that the National Broadband Network is ‘failing those who need it most: the bush folk who eke out a living from the hard plains of this country’.

The article identified some of the limitations users have faced on the Interim Satellite Service and steps we have put in place to rectify the situation.

But the overall tone of the piece was that the satellite service – and in particular the Long Term Satellite Service – would fail remote users.

This is not true and doesn’t take into account the significant work the nbn™ has  undertaken both with the industry and other levels of Governments to deliver a service that will truly revolutionise life in the bush.

The Economics of the Satellite Service

One of the mistakes that Labor made in Government is that it sold its interim satellite service as offering ADSL-equivalent services in the city.

This may have been true of headline speeds that could be achieved, but capacity is different.  Whereas you can always make an incremental investment in the core of your network for fixed line – or even fixed wireless – networks to increase capacity, once a satellite is launched, its capacity is fixed until you decide to launch another one.

But Labor badly misjudged how much capacity would be needed on the Interim Satellite Service, and crucially underestimated how much demand there would be for the Long Term Satellite Service.

A review of the fixed wireless and satellite services found that they had underestimated demand by around 200,000 end-user services.  This has meant we have had to do substantial work and invest billions of dollars extra to ensure that we are able to cater for the extra demand.

They also had no tools to enforce ‘fair-use’ policies meaning that Retail Service Providers (RSPs) and heavy users could use data allowances of up to 60GB a month and clog services at peak times, without having to pay for that. 

The NBN’s Long Term Satellite Service will be able to identify both RSPs and individual end users and take action to ensure they are not unduly disrupting capacity across the network.

Managing the Satellite Footprint

Since the fixed wireless and satellite reviews, work in the nbn™ and indeed in my own Department, has been ongoing to see how we can relieve capacity constraints on the satellite services. 

Modelling by the National Farmers Federation quoted by The Australian claimed that ongoing usage increases on the LTSS will mean it will hit capacity by 2020, but this neglects a number of programs the company has in place.

One of the exercises being undertaken by the nbn™ is modeling how we can expand the fixed wireless footprint into satellite areas – both now and as individual beams become overcrowded.

For instance, by loosening the service qualification for a fixed wireless service from 99 dBm to 96 dBm, there are thousands of premises that could get a fixed wireless service. 

This means that thousands of premises would both qualify for a fixed wireless service and allow other users on the satellite service will have a much better experience.

Identifying Key Services

Another key objective is ensuring we can deliver data-intensive services, such as remote education modules, that are affordable and accessible for households given data limits.

Indeed, the story in the Australian noted that School of the Air services alone would consume the entire monthly data limit of the Hoar Family at Maroak Station in the Northern Territory.

As my Parliamentary Secretary Paul Fletcher noted in a speech on Wednesday, the average distant education student requires around 15 to 20 GB a month of data to complete the curriculum, which may swamp a household’s monthly limit.

That is why we are we working with State and Territory education departments to develop a new service which can be delivered over a dedicated port at the user’s home.

As Paul noted: “This would be the modern-day equivalent of having a separate phone line, allowing users to have one satellite broadband service provisioned for personal use and a second service for education – meaning the education service would not impact the download quota of the home broadband service.”

New Technologies Increase Capacity

The economics of providing a decent satellite service rests heavily on ‘peak busy hour’ demand – the quality of the service when everybody jumps on the network at the same time.

That is why the NBN is working with RSPs and the industry to both shape consumer behavior to better utilise the network in off-peak times, and develop tools to do this even without consumers  noticing.

As the Satellite and Fixed Wireless review stated last year at p45:

“If RSPs do not provide differential usage approaches to time of day, the standard product may be sold by RSPs as, for example, a 12/1Mbps service with 20GB monthly usage allowance … In practice many RSPs will likely provide mechanisms for end-users to download or upload in off-peak periods, thereby greatly increasing the total monthly usage allowance of each end-user.  RSPs would have the opportunity to purchase upgrade options beyond the standard network capacity allocation per AVC (150kbps), but would be charged substantially higher prices. In practical terms, 20GB a month is much higher than existing satellite and mobile broadband services offered in Australia and much higher than what is available around the world at fixed line equivalent prices.”

So pricing signals and product design are important.  So too are technology advancements. Although the Long Term Satellite Service is not being designed so that all end-users on standard packages will be able to stream video content without limit, there are ways being investigated that would allow rural users to access services such as ABC’s iView without blowing monthly data allowances.

One such technique for improving services is by HTTP acceleration, which uses algorithms to, in effect, predict popular content being downloaded, and help to preload material even as a user is writing a HTTP address into their browser.

Algorithms being used by companies such as ViaSat can cut down the average time to load a webpage by half.

Conclusion

None of this is to say that there is a single, easy answer for ensuring the Long Term Satellite Service is world class.  But each little piece of work helps, and the Government is exploring every opportunity to ensure that we are maximizing the bang for the Government buck that’s being spent.

The Australian got it right when it wrote that one of the chief reasons for building the National Broadband Network is to provide a service that will revolutionise life for those in the bush who have for many years been locked out of getting decent broadband services.

We are doing everything to ensure this happens.

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