You’re wrong, global satellite authority tells Turnbull


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


  1. Glad you decided to post this, Turnbull needs to get a new platform, NBN-bashing is clearly not working for him. He also just published a long diatribe / speech about the NBN progress over the past 3 years, not surprising that pretty much everything is wrong.

  2. More noalition NBN bashing without the correct facts. Seems facts are optional in politics. Sad.

    • “More noalition NBN bashing without the correct facts.”

      When it comes to facts they are a mere inconvenience in the coalition clown world. Of course Turnbull and his apologists see nothing wrong with his statements and will defend him to the bitter end but the bigger issue is here is this politician who wants us to trust him with our communications infrastructures yet has to resort to this sort of thing to convince us.

  3. And as is par for the course, the misguided criticism gets the media attention but not the correction. Apart from Delimiter of course!

    • The media’s reporting of these things really is the sad part. The major news organisation is happy to publish stories that bash NBN, but they seem to be a bit lax when it comes to publishing corrections to the stories.

      Yet another reason “old media” is dying and why I stopped buying newspapers for my daily train ride to work.

      • What would fix the issue is leaving the publisher liable for content published without conducting due diligence on content, even when that content is a poli blabbing off.
        Might also put a stop to “newsvertising”, when all the people who bought fuel pills or magic wristbands can then sue Today Tonight when they don’t work.

      • I stopped buying news papers over 40 years ago because I did trust what they printed, each news paper had a different story, you couldn’t tell which one got the facts straight, thank heavens for Delimiter.

  4. This is not a debate over the “science of satellite positioning”. It’s a question of proper bureaucratic procedure (or filing paperwork) in securing satellite slots.

    l would hardly expect Mr Turnbull to be an expert on such mundane issues.

    Let’s not lose track of reality: Mr Turnbull is now an ambitious politician sitting on a parliamentary committee vetting a Labor project. In a former reincarnation, he was also mercurial and aggressive corporate LAWYER.

    Seriously, what do you expect from someone with those well-honed instincts and motivations? Of course, he’s going to grill everyone who appears before the Committee, especially the boss of NBNco. Those meetings are not meant to be friendly, social events with everyone patting each other on the back.

    And sometimes, Malcolm’s line of interrogation will lead to nothing. But, that’s perfectly fine – he’s just doing his job. If members of the parliamentary committee do not ask questions, nothing will be learned and the Committee will be failing to perform its auditing function.

    Also, Malcolm never said there is sufficient EXISTING capacity to meet NBNco’s satellite needs — he merely argued that NBNco shouldn’t be launching satellites itself, but should lease capacity from a third-party satellite operator (via competitive tendering for new launches, etc).

    • Why would you lease 100% of the capacity of 2 new satellites (what would be required for the NBN, as there isn’t enough bandwidth – let alone redundancy in the current satellite market for NBNCo’s current goals re bandwidth requirements) and pay a third party to operate them, when you are building a sizable telecommunications company with the expertise to launch and maintain these 2 satellites to begin with.

      Why build a multi-billion dollar communications infrastructure company and then expect it to outsource for the construction and operations of communications infrastructure. At these prices it is cheaper to in-source it since you have 99% of the expertise required. The final 1% of expertise is a couple of satellite launching and regulatory experts.

      • This satellite controversy is basically a debate over “lease or buy” investment decision.

        To form an independent opinion on this matter, you would have to understand how satellite technology works, how the satellite industry functions from a business perspective, etc. There are very few people in Australia that would have such specialist insight.

        Or, you can accept at face value that NBNco has made an intelligent decision that is in keeping with broader public policy principles. Nevertheless, l think Malcolm is doing a good job keeping NBNco on its toes by continually probing.

        From what I can gather, there seems to be two general concerns over NBNco’s satellite plans. These revolve around the policy principle that NBNco should deliver services in a manner that minimises distortion to the private (satellite) market and exposes the public purse to the least risk.

        Just briefly —

        While a single satellite may be indeed be insufficient, the fear in the satellite industry is that launching two satellites may potentially create surplus capacity that will lead to NBNco flooding (or distorting) the private market somewhere down the track.

        Finally, there is the view that leasing or contracting capacity, as opposed to acquiring an expensive capital asset, would be more prudent from a risk management point of view for a government enterprise. lntroducing a “middleman” into the equation does mean some margin will be paid to the contractor, but it also means a lot of the risk involved in commissioning, launching and owning the satellites would be off-loaded to a third-party. Quid pro quo.

        Also, what do you think is happening with the fibre builds? NBNco is “outsourcing” the construction of communications infrastructure. And you can bet that if more of the risk in these contracts fell on NBNCo’s shoulders, the value of these contracts would be lower (cheaper). It’s all about risk management.

        • The reason for the second satellite isn’t about extra capacity so much it’s about redundancy. Suppose they spent all this money designing the satellite, renting the spectrum space and launching it and something went wrong. If they’d just done one all that money is thrown out the window because it’s not like they can just drive upto the satellite and fix it once it’s up there.

          If they only had one and it failed the last 3% would have to wait another 5 years and we’d all be talking about how badly NBNCo had managed it. If one fails and we’ve launched two… it’s not a problem. If they both work great, we’ve got two running at once and if one fails then we’ve still got one running!

        • I agree it’s a good policy for Turnbull to be keeping them on their toes. I have a lot of respect for Turnbull and sincerely wish he was not on the “opposing” side of the NBN, because I think he could do a somewhat better job than Conroy at both organising it and selling it.

          However, the problem is, whenever Turnbull questions something about the NBN or NBN Co’s decision making, which (usually) turns out to be right, the media go NBN bashing because of the Coalition PR machine.

          It really aggravates me that this debate can’t be done in a sensible, logical manner, which would’ve happened if the NBN were bi-partisan and would be much preferable. We’d end up with a much more efficient and cheaper NBN. But such as Australian politics that mostly, we’re relegated to seeing who in question time ISN’T yelling obscenities that have no relevance to the argument, let alone civilised speech….

          • One could almost surmise if now opposition leader, John Howard would have shown leadership and given bi-partisan support, for at least the NBNs concept.

            That would then have left the door ajar for tweaking.

            Old Tony doesn’t seem to have the same political smarts and simply burns all his bridges.

            But in saying that, his 24/7 negative approach and no policy details, certainly, appear to be working with the apathetic, ever more conservative and selfish Aussie.

  5. Well, Turnbull did state during the senate committee hearing that he didn’t know all that much about satellite communications.

    At least he was right about that.

  6. @one percent poster: “And sometimes, Malcolm’s line of interrogation will lead to nothing. But, that’s perfectly fine – he’s just doing his job. If members of the parliamentary committee do not ask questions, nothing will be learned and the Committee will be failing to perform its auditing function.”

    Any line of interrogation will lead to nothing if the questioners do not appear to know what they are talking about. As you note, Turnbull is a clever lawyer and he seems to like using big words to infer that he knows what he is talking about, but this does not always seem to be the case.

    Asking a lot of questions merely in an attempt to sound knowledgable and fill in time may not be a good example of a committee fulfilling an auditing function. In fact it might sound a lot more like personal politics than proper procedure.

  7. “This should be a discussion of fact…”

    Dont be silly Renai, this is politics, not technology =P

  8. Turnbull is right about one thing. The risk that he thinks NBNco is taking is so ‘highly unusual’ that no other companies see it as much of a risk *grin*.

  9. i don’t know about “highly unusual” but it is certainly a (small) risk. and a lot of money. Turnbull wouldn’t be doing his job as a conservative if he didnt want to minimise risk. while the ITU says its no unusual, they would probably still like NBN to get permission. better not (technically) break any agreements, even if nobody cares.

    alternatively, it is possible that a 3rd party (such as optus) is/will also apply for the same location/frequency (im not a satelite expert, but whatever the ITU manages). if the NBN starts building satellites and the ITU gives those postions to someone else, that would be a problem.

    alll very unlikely, but Turnbull is pointing out that it IS possible. Turnbull isnt against the NBN (not now that theres been so much money put into it), he is just doing his job and making sure taxpayer money isnt wasted, that there isnt a chance of money being wasted.

    at the very least we now have a public statement from the ITU for the NBN to hold up if things DO go pear shaped, which may or may not have happened without media attention

    • But NBNco is progressing on the process by negotiating with operators of neighboring satellites.

      This is a big project. Multiple phases of the project happen concurrently and dovetail neatly for the completion. The negotiation and approval for the slot happens while the satellites are being built. I am sure that the ISPs do not wait for Telstra to open the exchange gates for them before they design and purchase the equipment needed to go into the exchange.

      Does Turnbull expect NBNco to sit on their hands while they go through a multi-year process to get the slot and then spend a few more years designing and building the satellite? Or would he then complain about how NBNco is running over time and over budget?

    • If you read closely, the ITU said, “it is possible” and somehow when Bill Hope repeated this, it morphed into, it’s not unsual… but you have to ask yourself, are the ITU in the business of assessing risk? I’d say, not.

    • “… at the very least we now have a public statement from the ITU for the NBN to hold up if things DO go pear shaped, which may or may not have happened without media attention …”

      You seriously think the ITU will so much as blink over half a billion dollars of someone else’s money going pear shaped? Are the ITU in the insurance business now?

    • Yes I wonder how Godwin is these days? Just imagine if Gillard *had* a Grech. All I can see is a raging double standard.

  10. I used to have some respect for Turnbull, but with each passing day that respect is evaporating. Now he’s just become a Tony Abbott lite. So sad to see what the Libs have become.

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