Remote internet boost to counter skyrocketing Starlink

·2-min read

More regional Australians will be connected to wired and fixed wireless internet as the National Broadband Network tries to staunch the flow of customers switching to Elon Musk's Starlink satellites.

NBN's own internet satellite service Sky Muster has experienced a 15 per cent drop in customers to 95,000 from a peak of 112,000, as its two ageing satellites suffer from comparatively poorer performance.

This month Starlink told the federal government its subscriber numbers had rocketed to 120,000, up 20,000 since February.

The US-based company's low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are closer to the ground and offer faster speeds than Sky Muster.

Additionally, Sky Muster is available only to customers without access to land-based internet connection, while Starlink is open to all Australians.

NBN chief executive Stephen Rue says a $480 million investment connecting remote customers to terrestrial internet infrastructure is helping free up capacity and boost performance.

"The opportunity of the fixed wireless expansion is to actually de-load some of the beams within the satellite," he told a Senate estimates committee in Canberra on Thursday.

While providing a cheaper service and no connection fees, Sky Muster internet speeds max out at 25 megabits per second (mbps), which is eclipsed by Starlink's offer of 100mbps.

NBN chief development officer Gavin Williams said moving 120,000 customers off the satellite network and on to fixed wireless has enabled Sky Muster to trial uncapped data and speeds up to 100mbps.

"One of the key differences of Starlink is they offer uncapped data, and that's what we're working on through the trial," he said.

"The feedback we got from customers through this trial of over 10,000 customers is incredibly encouraging and positive." 

Mr Williams said the NBN was also looking at the possibility of introducing its own LEO satellites.

"There's been more change in the last three years in the satellite industry than the last 30 years," he said.

"So it is absolutely incumbent on us to look at all options, and they could include further expansion of our fixed wireless service ... new satellite technologies."

Sky Muster's higher-orbiting geostationary satellites were launched in 2015 and 2016 and will soon be approaching the end of their 15-year design life, meaning planning will need to begin soon to ensure replacements are ready on time.

"The problem with infrastructure is you've got to plan years in advance," Mr Rue said.

"Particularly when you live in Australia, where the distance is so vast and our cities are so widespread."

More competition is on the way, with Telstra planning to launch a LEO satellite service of its own with UK-based OneWeb.

In September OneWeb said it was hoping to offer its services globally by late 2023.