SINGAPORE – Australia’s NBN Co. on May 31 said it will use the full capacity of its second Ka-band spot-beam satellite, scheduled for launch this year, to accommodate the faster-than-expected rise in bandwidth demand rather than keep it as an in-orbit spare.
The decision follows what NBN Chief Executive Bill Morrow said has been a spike in average bandwidth consumption by Australians due to the same Netflix/video-streaming effect seen in other nations.
“In the last 12 months our end users have increased their data consumption by more than 60 percent and now average 115 gigabytes per month,” Morrow said in an address here to the CommunicAsia conference.
NBN is financed by the government but has a mandate to make a profit. It is deploying what is probably the most extensive and costly broadband-connectivity program of any major nation.
Using a combination of fixed wireless, fiber-to-the-premise, fiber-to-the-home, hybrid fiber/coaxial and satellite platforms, NBN’s charge is to connect all Australians by 2020. Some 400,000 premises will be connected by satellite, according to NBN.
The capital investment – two large satellites, two rocket launches, insurance, a ground network and user terminals – works out to 7,900 Australian dollars ($5,670) per satellite subscriber premise, NBN estimates.
Fifteen of the 50 registered distribution partners are now active structuring retail sales packages in the 121 geographic zones identified by NBN. Each zone has its assigned technology based on population density and other factors.
The poorest families will get a contended service that forces bandwidth sharing, especially during peak hours. More demanding households and small businesses will be offered a guaranteed throughput for a higher price.
“Retailers can sell a highly contended service for 30-40 dollars per month, with customers that demand 50 megabits per second all the time a service for maybe 80-100 a month,” he said.
Australia is about the same size as the continental United States but its population, at 24 million, is one-thirteenth the U.S. size and averages just three people per square kilometer.
In his address, Morrow used the United States as an example of a wealthy nation with a history of legacy telecommunications providers and newer private-sector cable operators – initially not competing with each other — that was nonetheless unable to fashion sufficient economic incentive to extend deployment into rural areas.
“Based on what we see around the world, it is quite clear that the private sector models lack universal access,” Morrow said. “We offer a return on investment but because the shareholder is the government, we consider the broader benefits to the economy and society on making strategic investment decisions. Wholesale cost will always be debated. Do we want to make profit? Right now we are held to profitability. That’s why it is retailers that determine how to approach each of the market segments.”
NBN’s mandate is at least 50 megabit-per-second links to a majority of Australians, with the rest guaranteed at least 25 megabits per second, with a path to service enhancements if demand exceeds supply.
It looks like this will be the case sooner than expected. In late 2015 NBN decided to move thousands of homes located in regions assigned satellite delivery to fixed-line and fixed-wireless service to relieve demand on the Sky Muster 1 satellite. NBN was then able to raise the monthly data caps that satellite consumer broadband providers say is the least-liked feature of their service.
One of two identical satellites built for NBN by SSL of Palo Alto, California, Sky Muster 1 was launched in October 2015. It has a total throughput capacity of 74 gigabits per second divided among 101 spot beams that are sliced into 85 different sizes depending on population density and take-up rate in their respective regions.. ViaSat Inc. of Carlsbad, California, is providing the NBN ground terminals.
Nearly one in four homes now connected to the NBN service when all delivery platforms are combined. Within 12 months half the nation will be connected, NBN said.
Moving satellite subscribers to terrestrial platforms is a stopgap solution. To materially improve the performance of the satellite service, NBN has decided to use the second satellite, scheduled for launch this year aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket, to nearly double the available capacity of the service.
“That second satellite was originally intended to be there for reliability and redundancy,” Morrow said. “As the satellite people will know, the probability of something going awry after a certain period of time drops down to almost nothing. It doesn’t make much sense to have a $200-to- $300 million insurance policy up in the sky. So we have repurposed it for capacity.”
Some of the available bandwidth has been reserved to assure that rural schools, hospitals and other high-priority services have sufficient connectivity even in peak demand hours.
And when even the two satellites near saturation? “We’ll put up another satellite,” Morrow said.