Sky Muster a rural game changer

26 Sep, 2015 02:00 AM
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The Sky Muster satellite.
Sky Muster is going to be a game changer for remote and regional Australia
The Sky Muster satellite.

HE once described it as the "Rolls-Royce" option. Now the $500 million NBN satellite Malcolm Turnbull never wanted is ready for launch, writes JAMES CHESSELL.


MALCOLM Turnbull's election as Prime Minister means he won't be able to visit an obscure corner of South America next Thursday to watch the launch of a satellite he once hoped would never leave the ground.

In his previous job as communications minister, Turnbull was scheduled to attend the launch of the first of two $500 million national broadband network satellites at a space centre about an hour from the capital of French Guiana, Cayenne.

Assuming all goes to plan, the 6.4-tonne satellite dubbed "Sky Muster" will travel on the back of a rocket more than one-tenth of the way to the moon before orbiting the earth at speeds of up 11,000km/h - about the same rate the planet spins. Its job is to provide about 200,000 homes and businesses in remote areas with their first taste of fast broadband.

"Sky Muster is going to be a game changer for remote and regional Australia," NBN chief executive Bill Morrow says. "People who have previously had no, or very slow, internet access will experience broadband access like never before."

Turnbull, who definitely won't be making the trip to Cayenne now that he is Prime Minister, has been similarly enthusiastic.

"The [satellite] will be a game changer for those living in the bush and will help bridge the digital divide currently experienced by many," he said in mid-August when the launch date was announced.

It wasn't always this way. In opposition, Turnbull had derided the satellite plan approved by former Labor communications minister Stephen Conroy as wildly expensive and completely unnecessary.

"Don't buy yourself a Camry, a Falcon - buy yourself a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley," he said in February 2012.

"Nothing but the best will do. Nothing but the most expensive will do."

The former Goldman Sachs partner claimed the Rudd government should have contracted the work to the private sector, arguing that there were existing operators able to provide broadband for about 600,000 Australians who cannot access the NBN's fibre or fixed-wireless services.

"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," he said.

Turnbull's change of heart has been described by Labor's current communications spokesman, Jason Clare, as a backflip "worthy of [Romanian gymnast] Nadia Comaneci".

Back then, Turnbull conceded his criticism was largely symbolic. Labor had signed binding contracts with companies to build, launch and manage the satellites that meant any future Liberal government would have to live with what is known as the "long-term satellite service" plan.

His advocacy of the Rolls-Royce option these days may be an obvious case of political expediency. But it is also smart politics. Providing a constituency of country voters who are yet to experience decent mobile phone coverage - let alone reasonable internet speeds - will do his already impressive approval ratings no harm. What is interesting to note is how the more substantive debate over the NBN's satellite strategy has developed over the past three and a half years.

The first point to make at a time when new Treasurer Scott Morrison says Australia has a spending problem is that the long-term satellite service hasn't got any cheaper.

The aim of the long-term satellite service is to deliver peak download speeds of 25 megabits per second, vaguely comparable with some urban areas. This involves the two satellites each projecting 101 torch-like spot beams across the continent (and offshore locations such as Christmas Island) as well as the construction of no fewer than 10 ground stations with twin 13.5-metre satellite dishes.

All this costs money. For a $45 billion to $56 billion project beset by cost blowouts since its inception, the long-term satellite service and its associated infrastructure is clearly the most expensive component. The cost of each satellite connection is $7900, compared with an average cost of connecting fibre to existing homes and businesses of about $4400. Put another way, the cost of connecting about 3 per cent of the population to the NBN accounts for almost 10 per cent of the total budget.

A cost-benefit analysis of the NBN, commissioned by the Coalition government and released in August last year, found the most cost-effective option would be an unsubsidised model in which the private sector delivered high-speed broadband to 93 per cent of homes - leaving 7 per cent of premises in regional and rural areas without fast internet. While admitting subsidising broadband in remote areas was "fiendishly expensive", Turnbull responded by saying the alternative would be unequal access to communications. "That wouldn't be fair from a social point of view; it's not politically acceptable."

Turnbull knows all about what it is like to deal with a disparity in broadband speeds across Australia. Before he rolled Abbott for the prime ministership, he toured regional and remote communities to reassure them Sky Muster represented a vast improvement on their current circumstances.

Glacial broadband speeds in remote areas are a source of severe frustration. Under the current oversubscribed interim satellite service, which uses spare capacity from satellite operators such as Optus, download limits are severely limited. A National Farmers' Federation submission to the current regional telecommunications review chaired by former Telstra executive Deena Shiff claimed many users were unable to perform basic tasks online such as email photographs or use accounting software. Children have been unable to complete School of the Air lessons.

"The state of broadband in regional Australia at the moment is absolutely woeful," says NFF general manager of rural affairs and agribusiness Charlie Thomas.

The new satellites boast a total capacity of 135Gbps compared with only 4Gbps for the interim satellite service, so Turnbull and his hand-chosen replacement, Mitch Fifield, can safely claim the upgraded service will be a considerable improvement. "[The new satellites are] helping to significantly bridge the digital divide," Fifield says.

However, not everyone is so sure Sky Muster and the second satellite - which will launch next year - will be able to handle an expected surge in internet usage.

"We are going to see rapidly faster speeds and real broadband in a lot of these areas for the very first time," says Thomas, who describes it as a "game changer" for agricultural productivity.

"Things like soil moisture probes, weather stations, a lot of the machinery we are using at the moment, have sensors inbuilt but we have no way of getting that data back to a place where it can be analysed. So that's all very exciting."

The issue with many of these applications is that they use up plenty of data. Thomas argues that a basic analysis of broadband usage suggests a worst-case scenario where the long-term satellite service could end up like the struggling interim system.

"We could quickly outstrip the capacity that is available under those satellites. So what we are saying to the government is: 'The satellites are great but we need a road map around growth forecast and when we expect capacity to be exhausted, and what are the options for upgrading that capacity once the limits are reached?"'

Turnbull addressed some of these concerns in a blog post in August. He argues that an NFF forecast that suggests the new satellites could hit capacity in just five years neglects a number of programs the NBN has in place.

These include a potential expansion of the fixed wireless services into areas currently covered by satellite, as well as a secondary port for data-hungry services - such as remote education - that would not affect household download limits.

Other left-field options include launching a third satellite - a costly scenario raised in last year's Fixed Wireless and Satellite Review - or using a third party such as the Richard Branson-backed OneWeb, which is planning to place about 800 satellites in orbit to provide internet access to Africa and remote regions of the world.

"None of this is to say that there is a single, easy answer for ensuring the long-term satellite service is world class," Turnbull wrote.

"But each little piece of work helps, and the government is exploring every opportunity to ensure that we are maximising the bang for the government buck that's being spent."

AFR

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