The National Broadband Network's long-term satellite service (LTSS) can't come soon enough for many remote and rural Australians whose internet connections lag significantly behind their city counterparts.
The first of two NBN satellites, Sky Muster, launched successfully in October with testing of its broadband service now under way. A second satellite will lift off later this year, with customers able to connect to the LTSS from April.
Fairfax Media got a sneak preview connecting to Sky Muster at a testing facility in Brunswick, Melbourne.
Here's the lowdown on what potential customers can expect – plus some other handy facts to impress the neighbours with.
1. It's really, really big. Not just in physical size; although Sky Muster has that in spades at 26 metres long, 12 metres wide, 9 metres tall and a whopping 6400 kilograms, making it one of the world's largest communications satellites. The entire LTSS project aims to deliver broadband to 240,000-odd remote and rural Australians from Christmas Island to Macquarie Island, making it "easily one of the largest satellite projects in the world", according to Gavin Williams, executive general manager new developments, wireless and satellite at NBN.
2. It will follow us around. Sky Muster and its yet-to-be named partner will hover in geostationary orbit above Australia, meaning they will follow us in unison with the Earth's turn to deliver consistent service. Sky Muster is positioned 140 degrees east longitude, while the second satellite will be at 145 degrees. This is in contrast to the IPSTAR satellite which currently provides the interim satellite service to rural Australia; it sits at 120 degrees east.
3. Sky Muster's life span depends on its juice. The LTSS satellites are designed with a life span of around 16 years. That's not because their structure or materials will break down, but because they will eventually run out of fuel. The satellites stay in the right spot above Australia by emitting gentle thrusts to keep them on course. They don't need much fuel at all because in space there's no resistance – that's why it can last them as long as 16 years.
4. Each user gets allocated a spot. The LTSS shoots 101 "spot beams" across Australia. Each one of these contains a limited amount of bandwidth, but there are some overlaps, so some customers might fall under more than one beam. That doesn't mean they can siphon more bandwidth though. When users connect to the service, NBN will allocate them to one beam only, and to one of the two satellites only, depending on what is best for sharing the load across the entire network. If one beam on one satellite happens to get congested – though Williams says NBN is "confident" that won't happen as more than enough room has been allocated – NBN can seamlessly switch customers to another beam or satellite.
5. Dishes were custom built. NBN has specially designed household satellite dishes at 80cm in diameter, which it says will service 94 per cent of LTSS customers. The remainder might need bigger 1.2 metre dishes – the kind currently being used for the NBN's interim satellite service. Williams says the dishes were designed with easy installation in mind, with individual LTSS installation teams aiming to average two satellite installations each day – a couple of hours per installation, plus travel time.
6. They tune up like a radio. A big factor in ease of installation comes in the form of a little accessory called a transmit and receive integrated assembly (TRIA). It's basically a tuner attached to the dish. Once the dish in on a roof, the TRIA gives feedback via a series of beeps to let the installer know where to position the dish to receive the strongest signal from Sky Muster.
7. Netflix will survive a storm. The dishes are designed to adapt to external circumstances. For instance, if a storm comes, it can "dial itself up" to ensure it maintains consistent service, says Williams. However if a storm happens to get really bad and knock the mains power out, customers could be out of luck as the satellite is electrically powered. You can opt to hook your dish up to back-up power, including solar power, but that will have to be at your own time and expense because NBN doesn't have a ready-built option for offline use, such as battery back-up.
8. TV satellites are incompatible. If you live in a remote or regional area and were hoping the satellite dish you already use for watching free-to-air TV or Austar would save you the hassle of installation, you'll be disappointed. Satellite TV dishes run on a different network and cannot connect to the LTSS, so you'll need to crowd your roof with two satellites if you want both services. On the upside, an LTSS connection will open up internet streaming options including on-demand free-to-air services and subscription channels like Netflix and Stan, which have remained out of reach for some remote households due to poor internet connections.
9. Speeds are meant to be reliable, not breathtaking. The satellite broadband connection at the testing facility in Brunswick recorded download speeds of around 25Mbps and upload speeds of around 4Mbps. That's about half the speed of what we get at The Age offices according to a speed test on Wednesday, but potentially much more than many rural and remote users have been stuck with. At the test facility we tested popular sites such as news websites; Google Maps and Street View; the ABC's iView; and Netflix. We were able to run video on Netflix and iView, plus a Skype video call, simultaneously with no disruption to quality or speed. A 4K video on YouTube at 2160p resolution struggled a tad, with minor amounts of jerking and buffering even after having waited for the video to load first. However still running high definition at 1440p the same video performed just fine. NBN noted these were test examples only, with various factors potentially influencing results in the facility. Williams also stressed NBN promises speeds "up to" 25Mbps download and 5Mbps upload to retail service providers on the top speed tier. He said NBN's prerogative was to deliver as consistent a level of service as possible.
10. The network gets smarter. Built into the design of the LTSS network is a smart learning system called an "acceleration machine" or "performance enhancing proxy". It basically learns all about the web pages people are viewing across the network and remembers the pages for next time so it can load them quicker. The system was developed specifically for the NBN satellite service with partner Viasat.