NBN Co plans to launch in 2015 two satellites (illustrated) that will provide extra capacity. Illustration: NBN CO
NBN Co, the company charged with building Australia's national broadband network, is considering how to maximise the efficiency of the network's interim satellite, which is likely to reach capacity in the new year.
The government-owned enterprise is also planning how to upgrade 48,000 users who will eventually need to have their satellite receiver equipment replaced. The change will take place when the users migrate from the interim satellite to NBN Co's long-term satellite, set to be launched within two years.
Satellite beams on the interim satellite covering Victoria and Tasmania have already reached capacity. Beams covering NSW and Queensland are also close to capacity, while those covering central and western Australia have some space left.
The satellite service was an interim one made available in 2011 by NBN Co under the Labor government and managed by Optus. It was designed to help cover the 3 per cent of Australians who would not have access to the Labor government's planned fibre or fixed-wireless broadband network.
But NBN Co has enough space for only 48,000 customers on the interim satellite and has already connected 42,044 premises, figures released last week show.
To deal with the shortfall, the Labor government previously committed to spending $620 million for NBN Co to launch two new long-term satellites in mid-2015. These will have capacity for 200,000 customers and will offer download speeds of up to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 5 Mbps.
NBN Co's head of satellite, Matt Dawson, who spoke at CommsDay's NBN: Rebooted conference in Sydney on Tuesday, said he always expected the interim satellite to fill up quickly.
"We believe that the beams will fill up one by one where we'll reach a point where we'll eventually have to cease sale … going into the new year," Mr Dawson said.
"But this, of course, amplifies why we need the long-term solution. And that, of course, is where the focus is on trying to deliver the long-term solution as quickly - and as on time - as we can."
Migration of tens of thousands
Mr Dawson said NBN Co was figuring out how to migrate tens of thousands of users over from the interim satellite to the long-term one post mid-2015.
"None of that [existing equipment] will be able to [be used with] the long-term solution," Mr Dawson said. "All of that will need to be replaced with the new Ka-band [satellite] equipment.''
Technicians from retail service providers would decommission the Ku-band [consumer-premises equipment] and install a Ka-band dish, he said.
A Ka-band dish was "slightly smaller" and would be "a lot quicker and easier to install".
The cost of replacing equipment was built into NBN Co's corporate plan and he anticipated it would take 12 to 18 months to migrate 48,000 customers.
What to do now 'under consideration'
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, through a spokesman, said that the matter of what to do — given capacity had almost been reached on the satellite — between now and mid-2015 was "under consideration".
Asked by Fairfax Media what NBN Co was doing to address the capacity issue, Mr Dawson said NBN Co was working with the market to "examine and analyse" the options.
Mr Dawson said the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications, Paul Fletcher, was "well aware" of the issue.
"They're also pondering whether or not to extend the service," Mr Dawson said. "That's all I can really say. I can't pre-empt the outcome of that other than to say that it is being looked at."
Extra interim capacity available: Optus
Optus' director of Satellite Services, Paul Sheridan, who was also at the CommsDay conference, said there was additional capacity on the satellite which could be made avaialble to NBN Co.
But other considerations would affect planning.
"You've got to take into consideration, when will the long-term satellite solution be available, how do you transition from the interim to the [long-term] satellite? As a long-term satellite company, we look to engaging in sorting out the answers to these questions,'' he said.
Mr Dawson said the speed of the service provided to customers had been degrading as users began to make full use of bandwidth.
At launch in 2011, the interim satellite offered peak download speeds of 6 megabits per second, Mr Dawson said. He said Australian satellite users were previously used to 1Mbps download speeds.
But users of the interim satellite were "starting to experience some contention issues", he said.
"People now are able to do video streaming and do Youtubes and Skyping and those sorts of things and that has placed a huge demand on the network," Mr Dawson said.
"So it's a positive feedback thing where people who previously hadn't had access to broadband are now enjoying that facility … but it always did have some capacity limitations."
On Tuesday, ISP iiNet, one of Australia's largest broadband retailers, said it would not sign up any new customers to NBN Co's satellite services because the capacity problems were slowing broadband speeds to "be almost unusable". It has called on other re-sellers to do the same.
To address the speed degradation issue, Mr Dawson said, the company had imposed a "fair use" policy on service providers.
Asked whether NBN Co would prioritise and put customers on its long-term satellites in mid-2015 who weren't able to access the interim satellite now, Mr Dawson said NBN Co was "going to try and design the migration plan in the most efficient way", but didn't comment on priority.
With Lucy Battersby