I’m sure the regular readers of my blog know that I’m not the biggest fan of Senator Conroy, mostly because of his idiotic support of the Internet filter which I’m vehemently against. However he’s been distancing himself more and more from that piece of legislation and seems to be shifting most of his focus on the National Broadband Network, something that I definitely support in principal but still disagree with parts of the proposed design. You can then imagine my surprise when I heard the words Conroy and space in the same sentence, especially considering that Australia is still in the infancy stages of, you know, actually doing anything in space:
The minister, who last week announced he would take the axe to Telstra’s monopoly, told a Tamworth forum that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to solve coverage issues in rural and remote Australia.
He says he will not rule out Australia sending its own satellites into space to ensure adequate coverage.
“If we can’t do a deal with operators who’ve got satellites in the sky, we’re actually looking to do it ourselves,” he said.
Now when I first read this I had one of those moments when the scientific part of my brain shuts down and I go into gullible mode. Think that this might lead to Australia developing a small launching capability in order to support the government’s satellite program. Of course this isn’t going to happen, especially considering the kind of infrastructure that would be required and the hired help we’d have to bring in from overseas. In reality the government would probably be buying the infrastructure from overseas partners and launching them from either America or Russia, with China still being an outside possibility.
Seeking to disprove his idea even before it got off the ground I decided to look into the costs of setting up such infrastructure. A good example to base this off is Iridium, a company specializing in delivering such a capability. Currently they have a network of 66 active satellites with 7 in orbit spares, for a total of 73. They’re relatively cheap satellites, coming in at around US$5 million each fully constructed. That doesn’t take into account the launch costs however, and the majority of them were launched in bundles of 5 on top of a Delta-II rocket which costs about $50 million per launch (the wiki article cites 1987 dollars as the cost). That’s about $15 million per satellite up there and whilst I’m sure we won’t need the coverage of the Iridium network you’re still looking at a price tag in the AU$100 million area, which is actually quite doable even with just the initial funding for the NBN of $4 billion.
It’s a very interesting idea and it illustrates the issue for providing broadband to rural areas. As someone who lived in a not-so-rural-but-still-far-out area for most of his life I can attest to the sorry levels of Internet available. I was a mere 30 minutes outside of Canberra yet the only way for me to get any kind of broadband was satellite for many years. That changed when a company supplying wireless broadband set up shop in the area, although their service at the time was a little questionable and it appears that they’ve decided to charge everyone for the set up costs now (to the tune of $1500, no less). The situation is getting better, but not by much.
Conroy’s idea of creating a satellite network as part of the NBN is a solid idea, and I can only hope that it would lead to many larger ISPs buying satellite capability from the NBN which would drive competition and lower prices. The barrier to entry for being a competitor with this capability is currently far too high for any real competition to happen so a new satellite wholesaler makes quite a lot of sense if you’re looking to increase broadband penetration.
Good on you Conroy.