The two long-term broadband satellites to be launched in 2015 will enable people living in rural and remote areas to access more video-based health services, NBN Co CEO Mike Quigley said.
In a statement announcing the signing of a $300 million contract for the launch of the promised long-term satellites in 2015 with European satellite launch company Arianespace, Mr Quigley said the satellites “will allow access to fast internet to up to 200,000 homes, farms and businesses in remote parts of the country at speeds people in the city currently take for granted”.
The long-term satellites were originally slated to deliver broadband upload speeds of one megabit per second and download speeds of 12Mb/s.
However, those speeds were recently revised by NBN Co with a higher speed tier of 25Mb/s download and 5Mb/s upload available, equal to the fixed wireless speeds that will be rolled out to some rural areas beginning in June.
NBN Co's current interim satellite service, which is used by 25,000 homes in regional Australia, is capable of peak download speeds of up to 6Mb/s.
Mr Quigley said the NBN satellite service was key to bridging the divide between the city and the bush.
“It will give people in the outback, remote regions and Australia’s overseas territories access to economic and social opportunities that the rest of us take for granted,” he said.
“For instance, faster speeds will allow people in regional communities to work from home like they would from the office, access video-based health services and make high-quality video calls to family and friends.”
However, NBN Co adds a caveat to these claims, stating that end-user experience will depend on factors outside of its control, including equipment quality, software, broadband plans and how service providers design their networks.
Last year, CSIRO issued a whitepaper on the potential for telehealth provision using satellite broadband, setting out some guidelines on what is achievable within the limitations of the technology.
Sarah Dods, health services research theme leader at CSIRO's Digital Productivity and Services Flagship and lead author of the whitepaper, told Pulse+IT that the differences between satellite communication and other kinds of broadband need to be taken into account when considering the development of telehealth applications and the services they can deliver.
While not precluding the use of video conferencing for purposes like general medical consultations, the limitations of satellite – particularly the element of latency – could have an effect on the quality of the interactions and might restrict somewhat the services healthcare providers can offer.
CSIRO developed a graph (figure 4 in the whitepaper) showing what sort of telehealth services – from simple sensor monitoring to store and forward to low- and high-resolution video conferencing and remote operation – were probably achievable within the parameters of download and upload speeds and the interaction timescale.
Dr Dods said that with the higher tier speeds now being introduced, the extra bandwidth would enable more services to be delivered, although latency or lag may still prove a problem, depending on the services envisioned.
“The fundamental latency of the satellite service is largely set by the altitude of the satellite, which sets the physical distance the signal has to travel,” Dr Dods said. “The announcement today indicates that the new satellites will go into geostationary orbits, so this latency limitation will be unchanged.”
Dr Dods said the graph illustrated that bandwidth and interaction timescales, which partially depend on latency, work in different directions.
“The extra bandwidth moves across to a new rate on one axis, but won’t have much effect on the other,” she said.
“In terms of transport systems that we can relate to more easily, the bandwidth upgrade is like upgrading the highway between Melbourne and Sydney from a single-lane road to a four-lane highway. The signal has to travel the same distance, but the extra lanes will make the trip easier.
“The extra bandwidth may help move from standard resolution to real-time high resolution video for some telehealth services, particularly the upstream increase from 1Mb/s to 5Mb/s. For these signals, all the bits that make up a picture need to transmitted in a burst, travel along the physical link, and then get reconstructed at the destination.
“There are more bits in a high resolution picture, so the extra bandwidth will help transmit them faster and in a shorter burst. The burst still has to travel the same distance, but the first and last bits of information will arrive closer together, so the picture also can be reconstructed faster.”
Whether this made a significant difference for telehealth still depended on the clinical application, she said. "For example, real time clinician responses in an emotionally charged therapy session are likely to require lower latency for a satisfactory interaction than a general consultation."
CSIRO is currently engaged in research to develop deeper understandings of these processes, she said.
The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, said the satellite service will give Australians in rural and remote areas access to broadband that is superior to that which people living in cities can get through Telstra's copper network, which will gradually be switched off under the government's fibre to the home (FTTH) plan.
The two long-term satellites, currently being built by Space Systems/Loral in California, will be launched separately into geostationary orbit in 2015 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.
Last year, Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull criticised the purchase of the two satellites, saying there was enough capacity on private satellites already in orbit or scheduled for launch for the NBN to deliver broadband to the 200,000 or so premises in remote Australia without building its own.
“When these two NBN satellites are launched, there will be huge spare capacity on them,” Mr Turnbull said. “Once again, the NBN is investing more than is needed to achieve its mission. Once again, the incentive will be for this giant new government monopoly to intrude into other markets, and undermine existing private sector providers.
“At the expected cost of $1 billion to build, launch and operate two satellites built from scratch, NBN Co is spending over $10,000 for each of the 106,000 households its corporate plan says will be using satellite broadband in 2021. That does not even account for the other costs required for the satellite portion of the NBN, such as installing receivers at remote premises.”
However, Optus CEO Paul O'Sullivan defended NBN Co's decision to build and launch its own satellites, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that his company would not be able to provide the same quality of broadband service on its existing commercial satellites.
Mr O'Sullivan told the SMH that the two long-term satellites were being specifically built to carry broadband traffic, while the satellites his company and others use is mainly for television and video services.
The NBN satellites will use the Ka band, which is capable of carrying data at a higher radio spectrum frequency than broadcast-type satellites, which use the Ku band.
NBN Co says that instead of splitting capacity between a number of other tasks such as satellite telephony and broadcast television, or between a number of countries, the multiple high-capacity beams on NBN Co's two Ka-band broadband satellites will be dedicated to the delivery of high-speed broadband to rural and remote Australia.
NBN Co is planning to build satellite ground stations across the country, including in Wolumla, Bourke and Broken Hill in NSW, Ceduna in South Australia, Geeveston in Tasmania, Roma in Queensland and Kalgoorlie, Geraldton, Carnarvon and Wagerup in Western Australia.
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