Labor forgot about AUSSAT 'debacle': Fletcher

Coalition can correct some mistakes, but stuck with others, says MP

Parliamentary Secretary of Communications, Paul Fletcher, addresses Australasia Satellite Forum in Sydney.

Parliamentary Secretary of Communications, Paul Fletcher, addresses Australasia Satellite Forum in Sydney.

Labor disregarded history as it developed its satellite policy for the National Broadband Network, Parliamentary Secretary for Communications, Paul Fletcher, claimed today.

Speaking at the CommsDay Australasia Satellite Forum on Tuesday, Fletcher said that Labor overlooked lessons about the high cost and operational difficulty of maintaining satellites that should have been learned from the government’s AUSSAT satellite in the '90s.

In addition, Fletcher said that Labor overestimated satellite’s ability to serve fast connections to people in remote areas of Australia.

“The lessons of the AUSSAT debacle were very clear but Labor wilfully ignored those lessons” when it decided to build and operate its own satellite for the NBN, Fletcher said.

“Some of Labor’s mistakes, such as the hopelessly incompetent approach to allocating a finite capacity on the satellite can be corrected. Others we are stuck with.”

The Coalition agrees that satellites are a “sensible” way to reach remote areas, said Fletcher. However, he said former communications minister Stephen Conroy created great financial risk when he decided that NBN Co should own and operate its own satellites.

The government lost large amounts of money the last time it tried that with AUSSAT, Fletcher said.

“AUSSAT faced technical and financial difficulties from the outset. Between 1981 and 1991 there was only one year in which it managed to make a profit. By the early ‘90s it had debts of $800 million – it was clearly unsustainable.”

In addition, Fletcher claimed that NBN Co under Labor bungled the Interim Satellite Service (ISS) by not understanding satellite capacity limits.

Read more: NBN Co renews Service Stream greenfields contract

The service promised 6Mbps download speeds for 250,000 households. However, NBN Co only bought enough capacity for 48,000 users, Fletcher said.

As a result, many users on the ISS have reported speeds as slow as dial-up, he said. “Indeed there are customers who report they cannot even send an email.”

“This is a terrible end user experience and it is a terrible public policy outcome when the Commonwealth and ultimately taxpayers are paying a very large subsidy of $7300 per service.”

Making matters worse, said Fletcher, the retail service providers are selling bundles of data to consumers that are larger than what users can physically consume with the 30kbps capacity per user guaranteed by the service.

Fletcher praised NBN Co’s recent review of satellite and fixed wireless, saying its proposal to increase the number of NBN fixed wireless users and reduce the number on satellite would help address the capacity issues.

Under the new plan, the percentage of users on fixed wireless will increase to 57 per cent from 39 per cent under the previous proposal, while the number of satellite users will drop to 40 per cent from 57 per cent, he said.

The change will require an extra 1300 fixed wireless base stations, bringing the total number to around 2700. However, it will also mean the government can avoid paying $6 million for a third satellite, Fletcher said.

“This approach will mean the scarce capacity on the satellite will be reserved for the users who really need it and who cannot practically be served by other technologies, and in turn ensure that there is sufficient capacity so they receive a good quality user experience.”

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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Tags Laborsatellitenational broadband networkCoalitionNBNbroadbandpolitics

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John Ernst


Interesting this selective memory stuff as I can recall a certain Tim Fischer then deputy PM and Minister for communication when he turned off the analogue phone network and launched the now forgotten CDMA Telephone network that the CDMA system will include a series of low orbiting satellites which would enable 100% mobile coverage for rural and remote communities. What ever happen to that promise and for that matter the "better" services we were promised here in the bush???



Good. Satellite really is the absolute last option for broadband. Much is made of the of speeds, and as the article discusses, but the experience often falls far short.

However speed (and bandwidth) are only part of the satellite problem. An issue seldom mentioned is the latency of the service, the result of an inescapable law of physics which even a year 12 science student would be able to identify as a potential issue. This latency makes browsing laggy and using video conferencing or VPN networks/ cloud computing impossible.

I have not experienced the new system, but did experience the previous, government subsidised system, run by commercial operators. We have since moved to antenna 3G access which is still less than optimal. If we could access a 4G connection it would transform our experience.



Hmmm, comparing a 30 year old satellite program to the NBN proposal - suspicious. Interim Satellite Service - emphasis on INTERIM - was never supposed to carry 250,000 users and always had 48,000 capacity. Selective use of statistics and predictions of failure prior to the birds even being in the air. Makes one wonder what deal they really have in place for the new satellites...



So, let me get this right. The total cost to the government of providing telecommunications services to the most rural Australia over satellite was a grand total of something near enough $0? Let's remember that Optus - which old Fletchikens here worked for some years later - bought AUSSAT at the end of that decade, including the debt, and it became near enough the foundation of their business, a foundation that continues to this day. $0. Over an entire decade? That doesn't sound bad, that sounds bloody brililant!

> The service promised 6Mbps download speeds for 250,000 households.

Please find a citation for that. But I don't think you'll be able to, because the government never ever promised that 250,000 households would be connected to the ISS. In fact, they put a self-imposed limit of 33,000 premises in for the first two years. It may be true that at some points the eligibility criteria were such that there were 250,000 premises in the country that were eligible to sign up, given they'd meet some hurdles after that. But as to where they were promised access to the ISS is anyone's guess.

> However, it will also mean the government can avoid paying $6 million for a third satellite, Fletcher said.

Look, we know you're not good with numbers - my local MP recently said Telstra's 4G would do 100 GB a second - but you could at least try at times. Just try doing some algebra or calculus and basic arithmetic and you might find you may even enjoy it!



Let's do us up a rough timeline, shall we?

1991: AUSSAT privatised - with all debts paid for - and became the apparently quite profitable Optus.
1996: Paul Fletcher becomes chief of staff to Minister for Communications
2000: Joins Optus as Director of Corporate and Regulatory Affairs
2008: Leaves Optus.
2009: Becomes MP.
2013: Becomes Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications.
2014: Says latest government satellite project must be sold off (and probably given to Optus and Labor is evil) on the same exact day Optus is suing the government for $28 million in damages because of something evil Labor did.

So, why are we listening to Paul Fletcher on this?

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