AUSTRALASIA SATELLITE FORUM ORGANISED BY COMMSDAY

I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of this place. I also acknowledge Comms Day – the Organisers of this Summit.

You are here to listen to experts on new developments in satellite communications.

 

I am not one of those experts. However, as a member of the Australian Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network, I have heard significant evidence about the implementation of the Sky Muster satellite broadband service. 

 

And as Labor’s Shadow Minister for Regional Communications, I am here to talk to you mainly about the communications experience on the ground for customers.

 

Delivery of reliable affordable broadband services to regional and rural Australia is an issue of equity.

 

For access to education, health services, business and government services and customers – access to the NBN is more important not less.

 

The question we should be asking is how can we ensure that people living in these areas get the best service possible.

 

We should not start with the assumption – as the Minister has – that people in the regions have lower expectations – if that is the starting point we will always fail to deliver.

 

The deployment of Sky Muster satellite broadband in Australia has been far from exemplary.

 

This poor deployment has been compounded by a complete lack of transparency around the operation and management of Sky Muster by NBN Co and the Government.

 

That is why this morning I am calling for action on the following:

 

First, an Independent Expert Review of NBN’s satellite service, to be conducted at arm’s length from government, which will provide an authoritative non-partisan basis on which to address the following matters:

 

  1. Installation issues;
  2. Stability issues; and
  3. Network assurance issues between NBN and Retail Service Providers;

 

I’ll make the case for why this independent review is necessary shortly.

 

Second, we need a new approach to the current “Fair Use” policy.

 

This review is needed in order to increase data for customers – particularly in the under-utilised satellite areas of very remote Australia.

 

A Fair use policy is a reasonable approach to take at the commencement of a new service but I don’t believe that all of the settings are right.

 

The absence of transparency on the assumptions that NBN uses for growth in population and data demand, and the ability to shift redundant capacity underlie this.

 

Many premises in remote Australia not only have a need for data to cover residential needs but also to operate a business.

 

Any property running one or more businesses, educating themselves and their children and with everyday residential needs is currently highly data restricted.

 

Third, Labor is calling for transparency and accountability on the arrangements which underpin how NBN Co and retail providers interact to service Satellite customers.

 

The public has a right to understand what is going on and what this means for the consumer.

 

We must have greater transparency over what obligations and incentives NBN Co have to assist retail providers in resolving faults and delivering for their customers.

 

A lack of accountability on the wholesale network-operator has left retail providers disempowered and unresponsive. This is to the detriment of consumers who will continue to be left stranded.

 

We are also currently awaiting the Productivity Commission’s review of the Universal Service Obligation for a standard phone service.

 

For those living in remote and rural Australia, the USO still has a critical role for the provision of a standard telephone service in the satellite foot print.

 

The inherent latency of satellite means that it is best suited to providing a data service and does not yet have the capability of providing a comparable voice service for its customers.

 

This must be taken into account in the review of the USO.

 

Now, let me make the case for these matters in more detail.

 

Sky Muster issues

 

Sky Muster should have been a good news story for remote Australia.

 

However, the deployment of Sky Muster has been nothing short of abysmal and this has greatly damaged the reputation of satellite technology solutions in Australia.

 

Sky Muster has been plagued with problems.

 

Confidence in the delivery of broadband services via satellite has taken a hammering.

 

It is no wonder that only 17% of eligible premises have taken up Sky Muster, compared to 35% for Fixed Wireless and 47% for Fixed Line.

 

The chronic lack of transparency around Sky Muster has left those on the outside – the customers, advocacy groups, retail service providers and others – left to scramble to fill in the gaps and try to understand exactly what is going so wrong.

 

Background

 

In February 2012, the Labor Government and NBN Co announced that Space Systems/Loral (SS/L) would build two next-generation Ka-band satellites to cover remote parts of Australia.

 

In doing this, NBN Co was fulfilling Labor’s mandate to  provide an open access network to facilitate competition among retail service providers, across Australia.

 

Through an investment of around $12 billion, including around $2 billion on satellite services, Labor’s NBN would have put regional Australia on a near equal footing with urban Australia.

 

These NBN-owned satellites were commissioned to replace the Interim Satellite Service that saw customers lease space on existing private satellites and before that the Australian Broadband Guarantee.

 

At the time that Labor commissioned the Ka-band satellites, now known as Sky Muster – our political opponents – led by the then Communications Minster and now Prime Minister – described this as a “Rolls Royce” solution.

 

It is doubtful that remote Australians would ever have the opportunities of faster internet speeds of Sky Muster if it hadn’t been for Labor’s strong commitment to regional communications – a commitment backed by record investment.

 

Sky Muster has the aim to lift broadband speeds for remote Australians to 25/5 Mbps – which is a vast improvement from ISS which had speeds of around 4 Mbps.

 

In short, Labor’s approach was to dramatically lift regional communications capacity.

 

By contrast, the current Minister’s approach appears to be to lower customer expectations.

 

Problems with Sky Muster

 

It is understood that there is a limit to the capacity and capability of satellite technology.

 

Broadband delivered over satellite is affected by latency (signal delay) between the ground station and the user because geostationary satellites are located in space at an orbital distance of approximately 36,000 kilometres above the earth’s surface.

 

Notwithstanding these inherent limitations, I believe that there are four main areas of concern that need an Independent Expert Review to examine and make recommendations on.

 

  1. 1.    Installation issues

 

Sky Muster has been plagued with installation issues including delays, missed appointments and faulty installs.

 

The delay in appointments for installation of Sky Muster has seen waits of up to 6 months in some cases.

 

Just recently the NBN Committee heard that School of the Air – an education service that you would think had some priority has been waiting since November last year for their installation.

 

For RSPs, this is inexplicable. They are frustrated because there is no Service Level Agreement on installations with NBN Co.

 

Under the previous Australian Broadband Guarantee satellite service, RSPs had 20 business days to do installations – and this was accepted as the industry standard.

 

Compounding this is that RSPs can’t deal directly with installers – they have to communicate through NBN – which leads to delays, miscommunication and a backlog of frustration.

 

RSPs told us that NBN can take 10 business days to respond to them – this is simply unacceptable.

 

  1. 2.    Stability issues.

 

Since the launch of Sky Muster, NBN has been dealing with a number of stability issues regarding the software and modems as well as a series of outages, some lasting for days.

 

Since September last year, NBN has been working frantically to fix these.

 

A number of software fixes have been implemented and RSPs report that the system has now largely stabilised.

 

But while ever these unplanned outages continue, there is surely a public interest in getting better information about the cause of these and establish how better to communicate with customers around these.

 

  1. 3.    Network Assurance issues

 

I have already referred above to a number of the frustrations with the Sky Muster technology that put Retail Service Providers in breach of their capacity to fulfil their customer contracts.

 

Installation delays and errors are the main bugbears, with RSPs bearing the brunt of customer frustration at missed appointments and the requirement for multiple return visits to fix problems.

 

One RSP reported to the NBN Committee that in the first eight months of Sky Muster, calls to their help desk increased by 250 per cent – forcing them to employ additional staff, training costs and stress on the organisation.

 

Complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman around Sky Muster have escalated.

 

RSPs have been caught between angry customers and an opaque NBN.

 

In order to placate customers and manage the reputational damage to their business, they have no recourse but to make offers to customers to mitigate the damage and to prevent problems even getting to the TIO.

 

This masks the number of customers experiencing problems with Sky Muster.

 

This lack of transparency is doubly compounded since TIO doesn’t disaggregate complaints to the type of technology behind the problem.

 

If there are systemic problems around installations, a systemic investigation is required to deal with these.

 

  1. 4.    Data restrictions

 

One of the main areas of contention around Sky Muster are the data restrictions known as the “Fair Use Policy” which gives premises a data allowance of 75 Gigabits in peak times and 150 GB in off peak.

 

The chronic lack of transparency around the data capacity of Sky Muster has left those on the outside once again frustrated.

 

No-one knows the assumptions that underlie the data restrictions on Sky Muster.

 

No one knows what happens with the Fair Use policy over time – whether it remains constant or incrementally increases.

 

No one knows what the level of utilisation is of the 101 beams or what the growth projections are. It is all shrouded in mystery.

 

We know that of the 101 beams directed towards Australia, that those down the East Coast, are “hot” – crowded with customers, while those in remote areas are being under-utilised.

 

We know that Government has been slow to act on concerns raised by the organisations that have formed the “Regional, Rural and Remote Communications Coalition” to advocate for changes to data restrictions.

 

That these concerns are finally being address is welcome.

 

NBN is now looking at data usage patterns to see how the satellite capacity can best be managed to better meet the needs of customers and to unlock some capacity from the second Sky Muster satellite .

 

Technology is never fixed in time – Labor sees this as nothing more than a logical consequence of the staged deployment of the Sky Muster satellites.

 

As I said at the outset, the importance of communications infrastructure for access to services, society and the economy is particularly acute for people living in remote Australia. 

 

There are currently 415,455 premises within the NBN satellite footprint, of which 70,373 have been activated.

 

Some short sighted decisions are being made now to put more customers onto Sky Muster – driven largely by the Turnbull Government’s panic about cost and rollout timeframes.

 

Over the long term, this will surely crowd out others in remote areas with no alternative.

 

To their surprise – and dismay – many more customers in outer metropolitan areas and outer regional centres are now finding themselves being allocated to Sky Muster for their NBN services – whereas previously under Labor’s NBN plan they were allocated FTTP or Fixed Wireless.

 

As a consequence of a collapsing business case and diminishing rate of return on the investment by Australian taxpayers on Mr Turnbull’s NBN, the Government has created an incentive for NBN to shift customers from fixed line services onto satellite and fixed wireless.

 

While some have the option of retaining their ADSL – if their local ports in the exchange aren’t already oversubscribed – this means that they are facing paying two bills.

 

For those who can’t get ADSL, they are left with the prospect of the data restrictions and the latency limitations of satellite.

 

Conclusion

 

Labor MPs like myself are proud of the record investment made in regional communications by the previous Labor Government.

 

In conceiving of the National Broadband Network, Labor recognised that the market was not serving regional, rural and remote Australia and drastic action was needed to prevent regions being left stranded on decaying and outdated infrastructure.

 

In that regard, too little has changed. 

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