A look into rural broadband - the ABG, NBN and Satellite

  • What is the Australian Broadband Guarantee?
  • How will the NBN address the issue of rural broadband?
  • What is the Interim Satellite Service?

Regional broadband: From ABG to ISS to NBN

City dwellers and suburbanites stuck with ADSL1 should spare a thought for the thousands of rural Australians who rely on expensive and unreliable wireless services for access to the internet.

regional and rural broadband satellite iss nbn wireless

Although Telstra's copper network reaches the majority of the population, Australia's sheer size has prevented the creation of a wired network connecting every residence to a workable, competitive telecommunications grid. The National Broadband Network (NBN), still in its early roll-out stages, is the Labor Government's solution to the problems of providing fast, universal broadband; however, the project is a massive, expensive undertaking and opposed vehemently by the Opposition.

Some of Australia's most important industries, such as mining and agriculture, are typically located far beyond the limits of Australia's well-connected urban capitals. It's easy to see why connecting regional Australia is important to everyone, not just the people who live there.

But with so many technological and political challenges for regional broadband, it can be difficult to establish the answers to some fairly simple, yet important questions: What is the current state of broadband and what does the future hold for regional Australia?

Australian Broadband Guarantee


The Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) was an Australian Government initiative that ran from March 2007 to June 2011. It was a program set up to help residential houses and small businesses access high-quality broadband services, no matter where they lived, particularly targeting those living in remote parts of Australia who were unable to access comparable metropolitan commercial services. All services were price-capped and required to perform at a guaranteed minimum level of service.

For the purposes of the program, a comparable broadband service was defined as "any service that offered a minimum 512 kilobits per second download and 128 kilobits per second upload data speed, with three gigabytes per month data usage at a total cost of $2500 GST inclusive over three years (including installation and connection fees)".

The ABG particularly allowed for a subsidy of satellite services of up to $2750, when the customer was unable to access a broadband internet service from a non-subsidised provider or was not able to receive a terrestrial broadband connection.

At the peak of the ABG provision, 34 providers were connecting more than 100,000 ABG customers. About 95% of the subsidies that the Australian Government paid out were for the provision of satellite connections. In the first three years of the program, $258 million was paid out.

When the National Broadband Network (NBN) was introduced, it was announced that the ABG would cease to exist, although existing ABG customers would continue to be supported by the plan and contract they were under. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, continued to supply extensions of the ABG program to safeguard broadband opportunities for all Australians while the NBN was rolled out.

At the time, Senator Conroy said: "The Australian Government is committed to providing Australians with access to high quality broadband services, no matter where they live or work. A key plank of the Government's strategy is the Government's commitment to establish a National Broadband Network to provide high-speed broadband services to 98% of premises and businesses.

"However, it is important that all Australians have equitable access to broadband, both while the network is being rolled out, and in those most remote areas that the new network may not cover. That is why, in parallel to the NBN process, the Government is separately conducting a consultation process on policy and funding initiatives to provide enhanced broadband to rural and remote areas, including those that may fall outside the network."

The NBN Interim Satellite Service

The Interim Satellite Service (ISS) is the temporary solution to regional broadband services until the NBN launches its long term solution in 2015: two Ka Band satellites, servicing around 350,000 Australian homes. Until then, Australians who are beyond the reach of 'metro' broadband services such as ADSL or mobile broadband, will be relying on satellites owned by IP Star (A division of Thaicom, a Thai state-owned satellite telecommunications provider) and Optus. The wholesale peak speed these services are capable of is 6Mbps down and 1Mbps up, which is passable now but insufficient for future applications.

For example, a 6/1Mbps connection provides sufficient speeds for most web applications used today, such as browsing websites, sending emails and online banking. However, once higher speeds are available to more people, applications requiring more speed – and data – are expected to become popular, such as video streaming.

As part of the Long Term Satellite Solution (LTSS), NBN Co has begun construction of two Ka Band satellites, purpose built for the sending and receiving of internet data (the current units in place are constructed mainly for passive streams of data, such as television). Ka Band transmissions are more susceptible to rainy conditions than the current technologies being used (these being Ku Band and C Band), but are otherwise capable of greater throughput (more data, per second).

The launch of these satellites is currently scheduled for the end of 2015. They will increase the maximum available speed to 12Mbps down and 1Mbps up, bringing remote broadband in line with most current metro expectations. The new satellites will also have increased capacity, allowing for bigger data plans than are currently available. Beyond that, it will take the launch of new satellites and advances in technology to increase the speed and capability of the service.

Though not an explicit goal of NBN Co, it is assumed that over time more efficient means of transmission will reach even these remote locations. This could include Fixed Wireless connections, and even fibre if a local council is willing to pay the high costs of extending the network.

Technically, the NBN won’t be providing any services to regional Australia. NBN Co will provide the means for retailers (up to 20 now, more under the long term solution) to provide services directly to end users. The NBN is strictly a wholesaler only.

Once the new satellites are in place, prices will fall in line with the rest of Australia, according to the NBN Co.

Ms Hinchliffe says: "NBN Co sets prices at the wholesale level and the uniform national wholesale price of $24 a month is the same for the basic 12Mbps service across fibre/wireless/satellite. Uniform pricing for our basic product is a key plank of the NBN, and in effect this acts as a cross-subsidy. Internet service providers set the retail prices end users pay.

"NBN Co plans to install and maintain the Long Term Satellite Service equipment at an end user’s home or business, as per the current arrangements for the Interim Satellite Service.  There is no charge for a standard installation."

In layman terms, Hinchcliffe is making a case to justify the scope of the NBN - a blanket wholesale price, regardless of transmission technology, will apply across the board; the actual price to connect urban customers is much cheaper than the price being charged, while the price of providing a satellite signal is much more. In this way, millions of urban customers will cross-subsidize hundreds of thousands of rural customers.

What is satellite broadband?

It’s pretty much what it says on the tin. Satellite Broadband encompasses a small range of technologies that use Low-Earth-Orbit (LOE) satellites to maintain a high speed connection to the internet. It is, by far, the most expensive and least efficient method of maintaining such a connection; as such its use is reserved for people in extremely remote locations who have no access to a network using public switch telephone services or 3G/4G mobile data services.

Like mobile broadband, satellite connections use Radio Frequency (RF) as the means of transmission. This means you need to set your expectations accordingly. The main drawbacks of any radio-based connection are latency and Rain Fade, which is a broad term covering rain, hail, snow and anything in between. Lower-frequency signals will carry more reliably through rain and cloud, but will carry less data per second. As such, satellite broadband is subject to the same atmosphere limitations as mobile broadband. However, contention (slow speeds because the network is overloaded with people) will be less of an issue.

Latency is the amount of time is takes for a signal to be sent from a transmitter and to receive a response, to open the lines of communication. This transmission happens on a constant basis as each new command is initiated – each time you put in a Google request, each time you enter a username and password, each time you shoot an opponent in an online game and wait to see them explode! Every one of those actions initiates a contact between your modem and the network receiver on the other end.

Thankfully, the link between the satellite and the actual internet is a little more solid. A satellite will usually have 2 or 3 high-capacity base stations on land that maintain an open connection to the satellite. These base stations are usually connected to the worldwide web via high-capacity fibre optic links.

In the case of a fixed-line ADSL2+ connection, each request will travel a few kilometres at most, at 95% the speed of light, along a copper wire. With mobile broadband, it will travel hundreds of metres or several kilometres in the air, to a mobile transmission tower. But in the case of satellite, every single packet of data must travel 35,000km, to a satellite in orbit.

For this reason, online applications that require low latency like gaming, video streaming, Skype and streaming audio, are all going to be very hard to use to any satisfactory level. Satellite Broadband is most suitable for object-based internet applications. So this can include downloading specific items (like a video, music file, picture or web page) or of course, sending emails back and forth.

Most satellite connections are utilised for one-way communications between the satellite itself and the end-user, such as those used for satellite television. These satellites travel at different speeds to the movement of the earth itself, so they can cover a wider area with varying signal strength. Geosynchronous satellites are focused on a particular area, and move in such a fashion that they would appear, from our perspective, to be fixed in space. These types of satellites are better suited to the type of two-way communication most internet applications require.

In summary, satellite download speeds on the NBN should be a reliable 12Mbps but drop outs could be a problem in wet weather. Latency is also an issue and will affect applications like VoIP and online gaming. However, downloading and uploading files, browsing websites and streaming video will be a similar experience to a fast ADSL2+ connection (when it's not raining).

NBN Co will be launching two such satellites by the end of 2015 specifically catering to the areas of Australia (mostly the centre of the continent) requiring satellite broadband services. In the meantime, NBN Co will be using the IPStar satellite (which is also geosynchronous, but covers most of the Asia-Pacific region and not specifically Australia) to provide the Interim Satellite Service, and the Optus satellite as a backup.

Which areas are covered?

The satellite service is strictly reserved for people in remote areas who cannot achieve a 'Metro-Comparable' service through traditional transmission methods. This definition is limited to speeds of 512kbps download speeds, 128kbps upload speeds, and 3GB of data consumed a month. As such, there is no fixed service area (technically, the entire continent is covered). The criteria for receiving a connection is based on the Unavailability of other services.

For the most part, areas that are known to require satellite service include many indigenous community outposts, small mining communities in central Australia, and several areas along the more heavily populated coast that are far removed from the main fixed and mobile telephone networks.

NBN Co says it is on target for its goal to sign up 1,000 customers a month to the interim satellite service scheme.

Is it cheaper or more expensive under the ABG scheme?

The Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) was a government scheme that ended June 30, 2011. It allowed for satellite customers to be subsidised for their broadband connection, to bring the total cost of installation and service to no more than $2500 over three years (equivalent to about $70 a month). The NBN Co Interim Satellite Service took over from July 1, 2011, and protects customers with the same agreement and with the same conditions. So no matter what a retailer charges you, the government or NBN Co will reimburse you to that figure. So, in short, satellite broadband will cost you no more under the NBN Co scheme than it did under the ABG scheme.

How many people need satellite broadband services?

An estimated 3% of Australian premises requires satellite broadband, or 350,000 homes, small businesses and community centres. The figure is mutable and will change over time, as the range of mobile broadband coverage will improve, and as populations shift.

Eligibility

Edwina Hinchliffe, spokesperson for NBN Co, says: "Up until 30 June 2012, the ISS has been available to eligible homes, small businesses (with fewer than 20 full-time staff), not-for-profit organisations and indigenous communities (including Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Community Organisations) in rural and remote areas that do not have access to commercial broadband services that are comparable to those available in metropolitan areas.
 
"However, on 24 May the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), Senator Stephen Conroy, announced changes to the eligibility rules.
 
"As of 1 July 2012, the criteria have now been extended to include eligible schools, health clinics and local council facilities such as public libraries around Australia that don’t have access to metro-comparable broadband services. This change has broadened the eligibility of the ISS to better meet the educational and health needs of people living in country and outback areas."

Eligibility is determined by use of NBN Co’s Broadband Services Locator at http://bcoms.dbcde.gov.au/NBNBSL. As earlier stated in this piece, eligibility is based on the unavailability of ‘metro-comparable’ services. A further criteria for residential customer is that the individual has resided at the target address for at least the last 12 months, or for at least the next 12 months. So people wandering through on short term leases might not be eligible (although in a case like this, responsibility to secure a broadband connection might be shifted to the landlord).

Temporary locations like caravan homes, boats, demountable or temporary buildings are also ineligible, as is vacant land. In essence, the residence must be permanent and have a permanent power supply.

"Alternatively, NBN Co’s Contact Centre can also provide assistance with eligibility queries and can be contacted on 1800 881 816 weekdays between 8.30am and 5pm AEST," Ms Hinchliffe adds.

Coverage and coverage gaps


Mainland Australia, Tasmania and several islands including Macquarie, Christmas, Cocos, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands will be covered by the Long Term Satellite Solution. However, coverage on the interim service is limited to mainland Australia and Tasmania. Since the coverage is based on line of sight under a clear sky, there is technically no coverage gap – but heavy rainfall, tree cover between the dish and the satellite and tropical precipitation can all interfere with the service.

NBN Fixed Wireless

Only 3% of Australians are expected to use NBN satellite services, in rural locations where the population is less than one person per 2-5KM². Around 4% of Australians, mostly in regional areas, will be connected to Fixed Wireless broadband instead. NBN Fixed Wireless is a means to leverage current mobile broadband technologies into a more suitable connection for the home.

Mobile network operators like Optus, Telstra and Vodafone use 3rd generation (3G) mobile technologies to transmit data over the same network they use for mobile phone services. 4th generation (4G) services are an evolution to faster speeds using higher frequencies. Long Term Evolution (LTE) is a blanket term for a long view of how people will be able to achieve better mobile data connections in the future, as a reasonable alternative to fixed-line services like copper or fibre optics.

The problem with existing 3G mobile data connections is the Broadcast method used by the network. The signal is 'sprayed' from the tower into a wide area, and anybody with a compatible device and an active SIM card can connect. Over time, as more subscribers get on to that network, it becomes harder to predict and engineer your network to account for each user. So the amount of available data-per-second (a metric often referred to as ‘throughput’ or ‘bandwidth’) becomes spread over more users.

Fixed Wireless uses the same technology to deliver the connection, but uses a different transmission principle. Instead of broadcasting a signal for all eligible users, each user will have an antenna mounted to their roof, which will be tuned to attach to a unique connection back to the tower.

Each mobile tower will be fed by fibre optic cable to provide sufficient thoughput back to the network. Each tower will be locked to all but the known subscribers, and capacity can be added more dynamically and with greater speed and control to each tower. Needless to say, a large roof mounted antenna can collect a stronger signal than the very small antenna embedded in mobile phones and mobile broadband modems.

In the current experience, a network operator may add as many as 900,000 new connections every year. Collecting real world information on how much to expand the capacity of each tower would only come every few months. Moreover, it can be hard to account for mobile users – users who are in that cell area that day, overextending the network.

A tourist visiting town will not be able to access the NBN network on their smartphone or tablet, as it is exclusive to residents who have an antenna. This means residents welcoming large numbers of tourists for a festival, for example, will still be able to enjoy their normal broadband speeds. Broadcast-type mobile broadband providers, such as Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, still have access to provide their services. The NBN is intended to end infrastructure competition in fixed line communications, but wireless communications will still be competitive at a wholesale level.

Moreover, Fixed Wireless will not carry voice traffic in the way that Mobile broadband does. Instead of completing full circuit radio calls the way a mobile phone network does, calls will be digitally switched and transmitted as data using advanced Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol technologies (VoIP).

In essence, Fixed Wireless seeks to offer a similar experience to a fixed-line network, over the air to customers who can’t be reached by Fibre. It is far more cost effective than satellite and offers greater possible speeds and data allowances.

The rollout of Fixed Wireless is controlled at the moment, with specific sites in regional and rural areas being targeted. As much as 4% of premises (around 500,000) are estimated to be part of the Fixed Wireless portion of the network. Speeds of 12Mbps down and 1Mbps up (guaranteed) are currently on offer, with data limits of up to 1000GB a month.

This is vastly beyond the capabilities of Mobile Broadband, which can offer faster theoretical speeds, but usually top out at 8mbps (3G) and 35Mbps (4G) in real world tests, with data limits up to 20GB only.

The entire Fixed Wireless portion of the whole NBN has a completion target of 2015. After that, it is not out of the question that NBN Co might open their wireless transmission network to traditional mobile broadband models, but the current agreement will not allow NBN Co to compete with existing mobile network operators. Fixed Wireless will be about dedicated internet connections to individual premises.

If the Liberals get in at the next election, what will happen?

The NBN is a policy initiative of the Labor Government. The Liberal-National Coalition has opposed the scale of the rollout, on the grounds that it will eliminate infrastructure competition in Australia, and cost too much to the Australian taxpayer to build.

The proposed alternative (although official policy has not been drawn up) is a network relying on Fibre-To-The-Node (FTTN). This means that the government built network will end at a point servicing up to 500 addresses within a range of 1km (these figures are changeable), after which the existing Telstra copper lines will be used to complete the connection to each individual premises. This would fail to eliminate the Telstra monopoly of the ‘last mile’, which is one of the aims of the NBN. However, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that a purchase of the Copper Access Network (CAN) might be part of the coalition alternative. This would require a completely different deal with Telstra than the $11 billion agreement inked by NBN Co, which will provide access to Telstra's ducts, pits and tunnels but does not include the copper itself.

The issue of cost has provided the opposition with the most appealing argument to voters. The NBN is currently costed at $39 billion over 10 years. Conservative estimates suggest overruns could see that price go up to $45 billion, and the rollout to take slightly longer. The coalition alternative has not been officially priced, but an independent estimate from Citigroup, the world’s largest financial group, priced it at $17 billion. The rollout would take slightly less than 10 years at current estimates.

Despite threats from the coalition the NBN would be ‘ripped up’ and warnings from the Labor government of the same, the Coalition has promised to honour any NBN contracts already signed.

If the Coalition won the next election, the party would come into power in late 2013, by which time there would be too many contracts in place to disrupt most of the NBN services, particularly the satellite and Fixed Wireless portions of the network.

There are two points most often cited in rebuttal of the opposition’s concerns. The first is the funding for the project has been raised from a mix of government bonds and investment capital, not from direct taxpayer contribution, making the NBN an investment expected to fetch a return, not a budget cost.

The technological rebuttal to FTTN as the basis for most of the network is that it will still see many regional and rural customers short-changed on speeds, and will fail to provide adequate upload speeds. It will, bluntly speaking, simply bring existing DSL connections to more people, and closer to more addresses. There is also an argument to be made the current NBN plan successfully cross-subsidizes urban and rural connections, to make for a smooth pricing regime, whereas the coalition alternative, while cheaper upfront, will fail to adequately deliver cheaper prices to all in the long run.

What's available right now in regional Australia?

The NBN will be rolling out across the country over the next ten years. The focus of the first 3 year rollout schedule will be areas with a growing population that are otherwise underserved right now. However, it may still be months or years before it's available in your area – so what should you do before the NBN arrives there, now that the ABG is finished with?

First of all, if you are currently provided for by the ABG, the likelihood is that you will continue to be so until the NBN is available in your area. Call your current provider or contact the person you went through to organise your ABG coverage just to check that you will still be provided for until the NBN or another option is made available in your area.

If you do not already have a broadband service, there is no simple way to find out what is available in your area but there are some steps you can follow to quickly find out.

1.    Call several providers and ask if ADSL2+ or ADSL1 is available in your area.
2.    If providers say no, you are too far from the exchange, call some mobile broadband providers and ask about coverage at your address.
3.    If all the 3G/4G network providers (Optus, Vodafone and Telstra) tell you that coverage will be too poor or is non-existent at your address, make an application to the NBN Co for satellite services.
4.    If at any point it is unclear what is available at your address, call Compare Broadband for advice on 1300 106 571 and we can point you in the right direction.

Off-net plans

If you have been told that there is only Telstra Wholesale equipment at your exchange, that doesn't mean that your only option is a BigPond connection, which can be quite expensive. Many providers will rent Telstra equipment in order to provide you with an internet connection.

Of course, this means that you will be paying more than usual, as your provider will need to cover both the usual costs for a broadband connection along with the extra equipment rental fees that they will be paying to Telstra. As well as this, providers will sometimes only be able to offer an ADSL connection rather than a bundle deal, meaning that you will have to get your home phone through another provider – probably Telstra.

Nevertheless, off-net plans are often a good alternative if you can't get anything other than Telstra BigPond – they can still be a cheaper option. Click here for our detailed comparison of the best off-net plans to Telstra's plans, or call one of the following providers to see what they can do for you in your area:

Optus: 1300 137 897
TPG: 1300 106 571
Dodo: 1300 136 793

Mobile broadband

If you're too far away from a telephone exchange or on a piece of infrastructure that keeps you from getting a fixed line ADSL connection, you may still be able to access a mobile broadband connection.

Mobile wireless broadband uses mobile phone towers in the area to connect to the internet. It comes in several form factors, the most popular being a USB modem (a 'dongle') that you plug into your computer, making it a completely portable connection. However, internet speed and reliability will not be as steady as it would be with a fixed line connection. Your internet connection can and will be affected by such random factors as the time of day, the amount of other people online, the amount of tall objects like trees and buildings in your area, and even the weather.

Despite these downsides, mobile broadband is easy and inexpensive to set up, portable and available on a range of plans from different providers. You can also look into purchasing an external antenna that can help boost your mobile broadband signal. Antennas are available for being mounted on a mast, on the side of your house, or even smaller portable antennas that can sit on your kitchen table. You can buy them from online retailers or electronic stores.

There are now three different types of antenna available:

Clip Antenna: This antenna is designed to be a portable solution that clips onto the screen on your laptop or sits on your desk. It is omni-directional, which means it will pick up signals from all directions. Expect to pay around $90 for a clip antenna.

High Gain 3G Directional Antenna: This is a much more powerful signal booster than the clip antenna and is ideal for people who have problems with 3G reception or use their dongle in a fixed location. They are directional, which means that you will need to point this towards your network’s transmitter in order for it to improve the signal. The High Gain antenna when positioned correctly will make a significant difference to the signal you receive and can be wall mounted as a permanent fixture. A directional antenna is more expensive and will cost between $400 and $600, depending on installation costs. Yagi is a well-known manufacturer of this type of antenna.

Mobile Broadband Outdoor Panel Antenna: This is also a more powerful signal booster than the clip antenna and is ideal for people who have real problems with 3G reception. They are also directional, which means that you will need to point this towards your network’s transmitter in order for it to improve the signal. The Outdoor Panel antenna when positioned correctly will make a significant difference to the signal you receive and is designed to be wall/pole mounted outside. An outdoor panel will cost around $150-200.

Each of the antennas can make a big difference to the signal you receive. Some will have an aerial connection that will plug straight into the dongle, and others will use a Universal “strap on” connection.

Telstra BigPond covers most areas – again, though, BigPond is typically more expensive. Try someone who uses Optus's network instead, as it covers 97% of Australia, is reliable, and available at great prices. You could call one of the following providers to ask how good their coverage would be in your area:

Optus: 1300 137 897
iPrimus: 1300 137 794
Amaysim: 1300 302 942

Gerard Mansour, spokesperson for Amaysim, says: "Your best bet is to speak to friends or family who live in your area and are using the network and ask them about their service - nothing beats a real life example. You can also check in with us on Facebook, Twitter or via email, telling us which area you’re in and the type of phone (if you’re tethering), tablet or laptop you’re using so we can give you advice.

"We don’t do lock-in contracts, so customers are free to change plans or cancel their service without any cancellation fees – you simply pay for each data pack you purchase. One option is to pick up an amaysim SIM pack, try us out using our low casual rate of five cents per megabyte and, if you’re happy with the service, then buy one of our data packs. It’s a cheap way to dip your toe in the water."

General principles to keep in mind

It's only a matter of time before you are able to access the NBN, so short contracts are key; try not to purchase any plan that has a contract longer than 12 months. This may mean that your initial connection fees are higher, and you are forced to purchase your own modem, but in exchange for this you will be on a flexible contract that you'll have no problems leaving when an NBN connection becomes available.

To find out when the NBN is available in your area, and whether you can expect a fibre, fixed wireless or satellite connection, you can check your address on NBN Co's official rollout map. If you are having trouble navigating it, you can call us on 1300 106 571 and we'll help you out.

In terms of finding out what providers are currently available in your area, it's best to call providers directly, as they will be able to give you the most accurate information about whether or not they can provide service in your area. Call us for more information, or check out our guide to finding internet providers in your area.

Whatever happens in the political sphere, it seems likely the long-term future for broadband in regional Australia will be a mix of Fixed Wireless and Satellite connections, with peak speeds of 12Mbps. While this is a huge step forward from current technologies, these speeds are still going to seem slow in comparison to the fibre optic connections enjoyed by 93% of the population.

On the bright side, the roll-out is prioritising areas with little or no current broadband services, which means rural locations will soon be experiencing faster connections than some metropolitan areas, at least for a while.