New horizons open up for NBN Co’s Sky Muster satellite service

Delivering satellite services at Layer 3 potentially allows NBN Co to transparently implement traffic management techniques such as media compression, device awareness

Credit: NBN Co

Changes to how NBN Co operates its satellite service will open up new possibilities for the company to manage traffic as demand continues to grow for connectivity in regional Australia.

NBN Co earlier this week revealed its intention to launch a ‘Sky Muster Plus’ product that will allow satellite-connected households to conduct certain types of downloads without eating into their monthly data quota.

The announcement was welcomed by advocacy group Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR). “This is a very positive step in the right direction to end the ‘data drought’ that has restricted business, education and social development across regional Australia,” BIRRR co-found Kristy Sparrow said.

(Last year NBN Co announced it had increased the monthly data usage per household from 150 gigabytes a month to 300GB.)

The first Sky Muster satellite launched in late 2015. Sky Muster II launched a year later.

In addition to making certain categories of downloads 'off-quota', Sky Muster Plus will also offer faster speeds in some circumstances. At the moment, Sky Muster services have wholesale speeds of up to 25/5 megabits per second (Mbps). In its Sky Muster Plus announcement, NBN Co said the new product would support bursting above that speed “when applications and network support allows”.

The launch next year of Sky Muster Plus has significant implications for the future of the satellite service. So far Sky Muster has been operated by NBN Co’s as a Layer 2 service, in a similar fashion to the company’s fixed-line technologies.

Last year NBN Co’s then customer officer John Simon said that a lack of international experience with building a satellite-based Layer 2 Ethernet bitstream service was one of the sources of teething problems encountered by Sky Muster end users after launch.

“By operating above Layer 2, on Layer 3, NBN Co will have visibility of different traffic,” an NBN Co spokesperson told Computerworld.

“This will allow us to monitor unmetered data, such as web browsing, email and common smartphone and PC operating software updates, versus metered data, such as video streaming, for Sky Muster users.”

In response to a question whether NBN Co had signed specific contracts associated with the delivery of a Layer 3 service, the spokesperson said that the company is “currently in consultation with Internet providers on Sky Muster Plus and how it will be delivered”.

“We will provide further information on this product closer to public launch,” the spokesperson added.

“Sky Muster will continue to operate at Layer 2. However the optional Sky Muster Plus product will operate off Layer 3 and is expected to be released by mid-2019.”

US company ViaSat, which supplies group equipment for NBN Co’s Sky Muster service, has previously advocated for the shift to a managed Layer 3 network.

At a June hearing of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network, Viasat’s Asia-Pacific vice-president Peter Girvan said he estimated such a move would cost NBN Co in the “low millions”.

“We recommend implementing a Layer 3 network traffic and policy management program on the Sky Muster network, which could double the amount of data that could be consumed by customers while preserving the service quality at the same economics to NBN as today's service,” Girvan told the hearing

In a written submission to the inquiry, lodged in March, Viasat noted that NBN Co’s satellite service still had “hard data caps... as its primary method of controlling capacity utilisation during the daytime/evening (peak) hours.”

Viasat said that while in the past “this type of management was common practice for both satellite and wireless operators, consumers have increasingly indicated that hard data caps are obsolete in a world where internet is a necessity... In fact many interesting plan options, that offer a good customer experience and near unlimited feel to the service, can be developed without sacrificing bandwidth.”

Those options include “soft caps, video optimisation techniques, expanded free zones and unlimited non-video usage” based on traffic management techniques such as usage metering, rate limiting, application awareness, device-type awareness, time of day policy modification, media compression, and zero-rating.

However, those approaches would only be available with a Layer 3 service, Viasat said.

NBN Co said that initially Sky Muster Plus plans will pass on media at the speed requested by the end user or end user device. However, the NBN Co spokesperson said that “operating at Layer 3 could potentially allow media compression and device awareness.”

“As with any product NBN will continue look at innovating in order to provide more utility to end users,” the spokesperson said.

As of 30 June, NBN Co had more than 90,000 active satellite end users, up from around 75,000 a year earlier.

The company is currently preparing for a 2019 launch of business satellite services.

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