news The global adjudicator on satellite positioning appears to have rejected claims by Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that the National Broadband Network Company had inappropriately gone ahead with plans to launch two satellites over Australia without securing the necessary orbital slots first.
In a fraught parliamentary committee hearing this week, Turnbull repeatedly questioned NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley on the issue. Quigley had stated that there was only a minimal risk that NBN Co would not be able to obtain the correct orbital positions over Australia for the satellites to function as planned, and that NBN Co was not concerned about the issue.
“Most people would have assumed that before agreeing to buy two satellites for $660 million, the design of which is directly affected by the orbital slot in which they will fly, NBN Co would have secured the necessary orbital slots and certainly completely rule out any possibility of launching the satellites without the slots being formally allocated,” said Turnbull in a statement following the hearings.
The organisation responsible for adjudicating satellite positioning issues is a United Nations agency, the International Telecommunications Union. In a statement distributed by NBN Co this morning, the ITU appeared to imply that NBN Co’s approach was more or less business as usual.
“It is possible for a company to purchase a satellite in advance of it being put into use and the orbital slots being finalised,” the Geneva-based agency said. “In order to secure those slots the notifying authority, which in Australia is the Australian Communications and Media Authority, needs to (a) initialise the registration procedure with the ITU, and (b) resolve any major compatibility issues with operators of neighbouring satellites. So long as there are no regional objections and the ITU registration process is underway an operator can proceed with its launch plans.”
NBN Co said it had been “proactively” pursuing the ITU international frequency coordination process since August 2010. “We expect formalities will be complete before the satellites are in orbit in 2015,” Quigley said in parliament this week.
NBN Co also pointed out that to aid its efforts on the satellite front, it had engaged several expert consultants on the matter, including Bill Hope, the former managing director of Optus’ networks division (Optus operates a significant satellite presence in Australia) and Hendrik Prins, a “satellite regulatory specialist” who had led Australian delegations to the ITU and had chaired joint ACMA and communications industry technical committees.
In NBN Co’s statement, Hope said that the ITU statement issued overnight vindicated NBN Co’s approach.
“The ITU statement refutes utterly the suggestion that NBN Co is taking ‘highly unusual risks’ by signing contracts to build and launch satellites ‘without securing their orbital parking spots first’,” he said. “Anyone suggesting otherwise either does not understand the process or is being disingenuous.”
“As the ITU says, it’s not uncommon to launch a satellite before it has received final assent from the agency. I remember on one occasion at Optus the approvals process was so drawn out that the satellite was entered into the ITU’s Master Register several years after it had been launched and was nearing the end of its lifespan. That said, I anticipate no such problems with the NBN satellites.”
Prins added: “NBN Co is following the approach required by both ACMA and the ITU to engage in the international frequency coordination process. This is designed to ensure efficient use of the shared radiocommunications spectrum and other orbital resources.”
“NBN Co’s technical analyses, which were used to select the orbital locations, combined with the results of multiple meetings that have been held with sponsoring operators and nations responsible for other Ka-band satellites lead me to one conclusion: The ITU process that NBN Co has embarked on can be successfully completed on schedule and before the planned launch of the satellites in 2015.”
It’s not the first time that Turnbull has suffered a setback on the issue of satellite broadband access through the NBN.
In February, the Liberal MP claimed there was enough satellite capacity available for rent on existing commercial satellites, and that NBN Co didn’t need to launch its own satellites in order to provide services to Australia. However, an examination of the capacity available appeared to show at the time that Turnbull’s claims were incorrect, with NBN Co’s satellite engineers demonstrating that they had already weighed the options available. At the time, Turnbull did not substantiate his claim with detailed evidence of which commercial satellites NBN Co could lease capacity from.
It seemed obvious during the parliamentary hearings this week that Turnbull had no idea what he was talking about and that NBN Co was completely on top of the satellite situation, so I had initially decided not to report on the matter, as to do so would simply be publishing what might turn out to be misinformation from the Coalition. However, I think it’s important that the ITU’s view of this situation is heard so that we can put it to bed, which is why I published this article.
If Turnbull wishes to contradict the view of the ITU — the independent adjudicator on satellites globally — on this issue, then he is free to, and we will publish that as well. However, given the strength of the expert opinion backing NBN Co here, I would expect him to provide evidence of how NBN Co is following an incorrect process with respect to its satellite claims. This should be a discussion of fact, not conjecture — as satellite positioning is an exacting science.
Image credit: NBN Co