At 6:30am this morning, NBN’s first satellite – Sky Muster – blasted into orbit from its launch pad in French Guiana, South America. The $1.8 billion project is expected to provide the national broadband network to around 200,000 Australians, mostly in regional and rural areas.
Matt Dawson – who has been the program director, satellites at NBN for the past five years – told CIO that some people expect that their satellite high speed broadband services will be available immediately after launch.
But there are several steps that need to be taken by engineers, system architects and technicians to mitigate certain risks before commercial services will be switched on around by about April/May next year.
“We are not getting ahead of ourselves – there’s a bit of work to do to test systems and commission the satellite,” said Dawson. “We believe we have the best mix of not being too aggressive and taking too much risk and not doing enough testing versus being ultra-conservative and dragging things out.”
The next two weeks
After launch – which is controlled by French company, Arianespace – Sky Muster is separated from its rocket as it reaches ‘geostationary transfer orbit’, which is about 250 kilometres above the surface of the Earth.
“One of the most important things we have to do then is deploy the solar panels so that the batteries can start charging from the power of the sun,” Dawson told CIO.
Dawson and his team then ‘raise and circularise’ the orbit to about 36,000 kilometres, its ‘geostationary orbit’ altitude above the Earth’s equator at 140 degrees east longitude.
“It is perfectly positioned, deliberately, to serve Australia,” said Dawson.
This process will take 10 days to two weeks, and will be controlled by American firm SSL – which built Sky Muster – from its facility in Palo Alto, California.
The following two months
SSL will spend the next two months completing ‘in orbit’ tests on the satellite to make sure that it is performing as intended so it can handle the expected payload.
“That takes us through to the end of November, early December – when we will say ‘there you go, the satellite is working beautifully’ and they will hand over control to Optus,” Dawson said.
Last February, Optus signed a five-year agreement with NBN to operate this satellite, and a second one which is due to launch in the second half of 2016.
“We then have to work with Optus to commission the satellite and integrate it with the 10 ground stations and fire up the 101 spot beams – pencil like beams of radiation that the satellite uses to lay down its capacity,” he said.
“This is why these types of satellites are high throughput, high capacity satellites because they have these torch-like beams that are laying down capacity across Australia. All of those have to be commissioned and calibrated.”
Beyond the technical function of the satellite, NBN will also need to complete business readiness testing with its retail service providers that are offering high speed broadband services.
This will ensure that all processes and IT systems – ordering portals, assurance and activation systems – are working properly, he said.
“All of those have to be tested as well to make sure that we have a functional product that we can launch with confidence in the market. And we expect to be able to do that by about late April, early May."
The top end satellite broadband plan will offer 25Mb/s upstream, 5Mb/s downstream speeds through to a basic plan which will offer speeds of 12Mb/s upstream, 1Mb/s downstream.
NBN has been operating an interim satellite service, and earlier in February it enforced a fair use policy for its satellite customers after acknowledging last year that it had underestimated the uptake of these services, which affected performance for users in regional and rural areas.
"The main thing with satellites, unlike terrestrial networks, is that they don't have unlimited capacity. They have limited capacity. Our satellites have vastly more capacity than we were able to lease for the interim on the Optus network.
"But nevertheless, even though it's more than an order of magnitude and more capacity - we've got over 130Gb/s capacity with these satellites... we still have to manage that capacity very carefully. That's why we put in place these fair use rules to make sure that we do control that capacity in a fair way so that the network doesn't become congested.
"The main thing we learned from the interim service is that we need to have fair and robust fair use mechanisms, and we need to enforce them - and put in place the right pricing drivers to enforce those."
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