news Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday announced the National Broadband Network Company had instituted a “fair use” policy and deployed additional capacity to allow its interim satellite service to function more effectively, amid reports users were seeing the broadband service on the platform slow to a crawl.
NBN Co is currently building two major, brand new satellites with the assistance of Space Systems/Loral under a contract worth some $620 million. The company plans to launch the satellites in 2015 to provide high-speed broadband coverage to about three per cent of premises that fall outside the reach of the NBN’s planned fixed-line and fixed-wireless services. The locations include outback areas and Australia’s external territories such as Norfolk Island, Christmas Island, Macquarie Island and the Cocos Islands.
NBN Co’s contract forms part of a total investment of approximately $2 billion required to deliver the NBN Long Term Satellite Service (LTSS). Under the terms of the contract, SS/L will also provide associated telemetry, tracking and command systems for NBN Co’s LTSS. NBN Co also signed a separate contract with Optus in February this year for the company to provide tracking, telemetry and control services to the satellites.
The launch of the satellites is widely anticipated in Australia’s rural communities. Currently, many residents and businesses in those communities are being served by either existing satellite services from other companies, or through NBN Co’s existing satellite services, which it operates through renting capacity on existing Optus satellites. However, the interim NBN satellite service has already reached its capacity cap of 48,000-odd customers, meaning many other rural customers will need to wait until 2015 to get upgraded services.
In addition, that interim satellite service is not just reaching its capacity in terms of the number of users who can connect to the service, but also in terms of the experience each user is able to achieve on the platform.
Speaking in Parliament yesterday, Turnbull said: “Most of the 5,600 interim satellite users in Western Australia now are getting no better—and often worse—than dial-up speeds. Kids cannot do their homework, and farmers cannot access the online national livestock identification system, real-time prices or weather services.”
Turnbull described the situation as a “train wreck” instituted by the previous Labor Government.
“The 45,000 unhappy current customers are costing the tax payers of this nation $7,300 each indirect subsidy,” he said. “That is nearly three times the level of the old Howard era Australian Broadband Guarantee subsidy and for a much worse service.”
“Here are the measures that we are announcing today. First, at a cost of $18.4 million, the NBN Co will upgrade the current capacity to all users on this satellite service by one-third. Second, we will institute a new, stringent fair use policy to ensure a minority of very heavy users cannot crowd out the majority.”
“The NBN Co’s trials of these changes demonstrate that even in busy periods families will be able to answer the emails, surf the web, do their banking and see their kids complete their homework. It will not be as fast as the speeds promised but never delivered by Labor, but it will be broadband and much higher and certainly not anywhere near the anaemic dial-up speeds experienced at present.”
“We are also working on additional measures to provide new services so that at least some of those—about 9,000 in total—who have not been able to get on, will be able to do so, and we will have more to say about that in coming days when the arrangements are complete.”
The news comes as NBN Co is also conducting a review of the future of the satellite and fixed wireless portions of its planned network. Last week, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Malcolm Maiden reported that new NBN Co chief executive Bill Morrow would seek to sell the networks to the private sector as soon as possible. Pure play satellite company NewSat has already made an offer to buy the satellite infrastructure.
I want to note here that the responsibility for this situation rests on both sets of political shoulders in Australia’s chronically incompetent Federal Parliament — both Labor and the Coalition.
Turnbull’s right — Labor mismanaged this satellite solution. NBN Co looks to have over-provisioned the service to start with, leading to the necessity of the fixes which Turnbull has this week instituted. It should have been obvious to those involved in this process from the start that this situation was going to eventuate, if NBN Co had consulted widely enough about the capacity of the services it was leasing from existing satellite companies such as Optus.
However, it’s also true that Labor put in place the interim satellite service as a much-needed emergency measure. Turnbull can rant and rave all he likes about “Conrovian” failures, but in the end the key responsibility for poor satellite services in Australia rests with the previous Howard Government under Helen Coonan. Nobody would have taken up NBN Co’s ISS service if the old Australian Broadband Guarantee subsidy which existed under the Howard administration had been anywhere near functional enough.
This little episode contains the whole NBN debate in a nutshell. Labor tried to do something about the nation’s broadband future, but mismanaged a fundamentally good policy. However, the original issue can still be traced back to previous Coalition Governments, which just didn’t tackle the problem at all.
Turnbull, let it be widely remembered, suggested in Opposition that there was no need for NBN Co to build its own satellites, because existing satellite capacity was more than enough. “There is enough capacity on private satellites already in orbit or scheduled for launch for the NBN to deliver broadband to the 200,000 or so premises in remote Australia without building its own,” Turnbull said in a statement at the time.
Well, the Minister’s Parliamentary Statement this week certainly gave the lie to that ridiculous statement. One wonders whether the Earl of Wentworth will consider admitting that he was wrong.
Image credit: NBN Co