NBN Co labels exodus to Starlink ‘modest’

As active users of Sky Muster hover just above 100,000.

NBN Co is still confident that its broadband services can satisfy users, despite clear growth in Starlink’s user base in Australia at the national network operator’s expense.

Chief development officer for regional and remote, Gavin Williams, told a senate estimates hearing that Sky Muster satellite users had “declined by about 10,000 in the last year or so” in response to a question about Starlink’s impact.

iTnews reported the first signs of an exodus a year ago; after peaking at a high of 112,600 SAky Muster users in September 2021, the number has since slid to 100,114, according to NBN Co’s most recent activations data. [pdf]

“Starlink has] certainly gained some interest in regional communities,” Williams said.

“I’d assess it as so far having a modest implication on our Sky Muster satellite. 

“As a matter of record, we publish Sky Muster active premises, and they’ve declined by about 10,000 in the last year or so.”

NBN Co had previously attributed the reduction in Sky Muster numbers to “seasonal” factors, but appears to have changed its tune now that Starlink has gained more of a critical mass of subscribers.

Williams said that “on balance” he was happy to see Starlink and other low earth orbit (LEO) constellations progress.

“I’m excited that the technology that’s included in Starlink and the other LEO constellations that are being rolled out or planned has been invented, because three years ago this just wasn’t the case,” he said.

“It’s made enormous progress and there’s been significant investment.”

NBN Co has previously indicated that LEOsat-based services could become an alternative for Sky Muster subscribers once NBN Co’s own pair of Sky Muster satellites reach end-of-life.

Still, Williams saw Sky Muster as having some advantages over Starlink that would lead many users not to make the switch.

“One thing Starlink does is charge an upfront charge which is a fair bit to some families, and a monthly fee which is substantial for some families,” he said.

“There’s probably three other service characteristics that are relevant: download, latency and plan size.”

Williams said that the Sky Muster Plus service could burst to 25-50Mbps speeds. He also said that an increasing amount of traffic is unmetered.

While not matching Starlink on speed or unlimited use, Williams at least saw NBN Co as remaining competitive and, by implication, able to retain most of its customer base.

NBN Co CEO Stephen Rue added that an upgrade program that will see 120,000 premises in the satellite footprint given access to fixed wireless instead would further tip the balance in the company’s favour.

“The fixed wireless program… takes 120,000 [satellite-serviced premises] onto a fixed wireless service that can deliver speeds of up to 350Mbps,” Rue said.

“That’s going to provide a way better service even than the one [being] talking about with Starlink.”

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