NBN satellite launch worries

01 Oct, 2015 01:00 AM
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An impression of the Sky Muster satellite.
ky Muster is just one part of the overall long-term system.
An impression of the Sky Muster satellite.

CAYENNE: The National Broadband Network will be hoping everything goes to plan when its $500 million satellite is sent into orbit today from Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana. The launch is set for 6.30am Australian eastern standard time.

There has been plenty written about the possibility the 780-tonne rocket that will carry the satellite dubbed "SkyMuster" could explode long before it leaves the earth's atmosphere.

Rockets are far from a fail-safe means of transport: A Russian-built Proton-M rocket carrying a satellite for the Mexican government exploded about eight minutes after lift-off from Kazakhstan in May.

A few weeks earlier, another Russian-made Soyuz rocket carrying food, fuel and supplies to the international space station crashed into the Pacific Ocean soon after launch. In late June, an American-designed Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX disintegrated minutes after lift-off from Cape Canaveral. And Australian telecommunications company Optus lost a satellite in 1992 when a Chinese Long March blew up at the Xichang launch centre in western China.

NBN has chosen a French company, Arianespace, to get the satellite to its orbit position, which is just over one-tenth of the way to the moon.

The French are more expensive than the Russians but also more reliable. The Ariane 5-type rocket the NBN is using - not dissimilar to an intercontinental ballistic missile but with civilian cargo where the nuclear warhead used to be - has experienced 67 successful launches in a row. But things could go wrong. And what happens if they do?

The NBN's so-called "long-term satellite service" plan is what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull once described, when he was shadow communications minister, as the "Rolls-Royce" option. Which is to say it's very expensive.

Chosen by the former Labor government, Sky Muster is just one part of the overall long-term system. A second satellite will be launched in the first half of 2016, and 10 ground stations are needed for support; the total price will be about $2 billion.

This means the cost of connecting about 3 per cent of the population to the NBN accounts for almost 10 per cent of the total $45 billion to $56 billion budget - people in urban areas are subsidising their remote counterparts.

So if there is problem with the launch or the complicated deployment of the satellite into its pre-arranged "slot" in space, where it will orbit the earth at speeds of up 11,000 kilometres an hour, it will be costly.

Particularly, when most rocket operators including Arianespace get paid regardless of the success of the mission (they argue they cannot afford to cover the risk of a failure themselves).

However, taxpayers will be covered by one of the larger and more complicated insurance policies the government holds. Signed with multiple underwriters (the exposure is too big for one insurer to manage) and organised by insurance brokers Marsh, the policy should ensure the NBN is not out of pocket if anything goes wrong.

The policy covers any launch failure and certain mishaps and problems for 12 months once Sky Muster is in space.

Insurance is a critical part of this expensive project. Little wonder a representative from Marsh's Singapore office will be joining the NBN officials watching the launch from Cayenne.

But the real cost of any launch failure is time. Under the current over-subscribed interim satellite service used by people in remote areas, which relies on spare capacity from private operators such as Optus, download limits are severely limited. Once you use up your allocations, speeds are diabolically slow. "The state of broadband in regional Australia at the moment is absolutely woeful," NFF general manager of rural affairs and agribusiness Charlie Thomas recently told The Australian Financial Review.

If Sky Muster was to explode, people in remote areas would have to rely on the interim service until the second satellite was launched, which could be eight months away.

Satellites take years to construct and launch so a second satellite wouldn't be orbiting earth until at least 2019.

This is a problem, as many experts predict demand for broadband will be so strong, the NBN will struggle to meet this demand with the two it plans to launch.

Slow broadband in rural and remote areas is a political problem for the government too. In recent months, Turnbull has sold Sky Muster as an answer to the bush's problems.

As embarrassing as an explosion off the coast of French Guiana on Thursday morning would be, the cost can be recovered. It's the delay in providing acceptable broadband to 600,000 Australians that would be the problem for the new prime minister.

The reporter travelled to Cayenne as a guest of the NBN.

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READER COMMENTS

Invey
1/10/2015 3:00:39 PM

So James travelled as a guest of the Govt or us as taxpayers. I hope this isn't all he is going to write on this topic. What about some substance about how it will work? Not just telling the city they are subsidising those of us that have no essential services. If I am already getting NBN sat, will my speed increase? I assume it will stay pathetically slow, the new sat will be used to over subscribe new users, just like the old one did. Are all NBN sat users going to get better speeds James or only those hooking up onto the new NBN sat?

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