Two minutes before the launch of the Sky Muster 2, NBN Chief Executive Bill Morrow looked anxious. He got up from his seat to stand in satellite manufacturer Space Systems Loral’s conference room in Palo Alto, California, where he and a group of executives, including SSL President John Celli, gathered to watch the final countdown and preparation for Sky Muster 2’s Oct. 5 launch in Kourou, French Guiana, on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket that also carried the Indian Space Research Organisation’s GSAT-18 telecommunications satellite. When the launch was successful, Morrow and his SSL hosts were obviously delighted.
There was a lot riding on the successful launch. The Australian government established NBN in 2009 with promises to offer fast, affordable broadband service to the nation’s 12 million homes and businesses using satellites, fiber, wireless communications and hybrid fiber coaxial, which is the television cable NBN is paying companies to upgrade and include in its network.
Since NBN began providing homes and businesses with Internet connections in 2010, demand for bandwidth has risen at an astonishing pace. That high demand is prompting NBN to move Sky Muster 2, a satellite originally intended as an on-orbit spare, into action and to start discussing the possibility of acquiring a third communications satellite.
NBN launched its first Ka-band communications satellite, Sky Muster 1, in October 2015. Sky Muster 1 offers service in remote areas of the country, including the outback and offshore locations, with 410,000 homes and businesses. To date, about 30,000 of those premises have been connected. Overall, NBN is providing broadband services to more than 1 million customers, Morrow said.
Sky Muster 2 is its predecessor’s identical twin. With the solar panels and antennas deployed, the 6,400-kilogram satellites are 26 meters long and nine meters tall. Each is equipped with four 2.9-meter antennas and four 1.2-meter antennas to produce 10 large beams focused on rural and remote regions of the country, and 101 tailored spot beams for higher density areas. The Sky Muster spacecraft are two of the largest satellites ever built by Space Systems Loral. Only EchoStar Corp.’s mobile broadband satellite EchoStar 21 is larger. Morrow talked with SpaceNews after the launch.
What is the most challenging aspect of building the Australia’s broadband network?
Building the infrastructure is complex. It includes satellites, fixed wireless, fiber to houses, fiber to nodes and hybrid fiber coaxial. It’s also a very fast rollout. The goal is to connect eight million homes and businesses by 2020.
Is NBN expected to recoup the Australian government’s investment?
Yes. The Australian government has $29.5 billion Australian dollars of equity in NBN, and we borrowed $20 billion Australian dollars. We expect to be cash-flow positive in 2022 or 2023.
Will you buy additional satellites?
That depends on demand from consumers. Sky Muster 2 will double our satellite capacity. If consumer demand outstrips that, we will consider a new satellite that takes advantage of the newest technology.
So you will not buy another Sky Muster replica?
No. But it all depends on demand. There is about a four-year cycle from the time we say “Go” until launch.
How is demand growing?
The demand is twice what we thought it would be. People are really eager to get it.
Our customers use an average of 134 gigabits per month, which is more than anybody else. By 2020, we predict users will average 350 gigabits per month.
Is that the fault of Netflix?
That’s part of it. But Australians have always been early adopters of technology. Plus, there was pent-up demand. NBN was formed in 2009, but people began talking about it in 2006.
Is Australia the only large country to establish a national broadband network?
Yes. A number of countries have contacted us. The Italian government is dying to talk to us because they want to do something similar.
What is ViaSat’s role in this network?
They did all the ground stations, 10 ground stations across the country. ViaSat also produced the modems that go in all the houses, and did a lot of project-management work and some design work.