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Telstra has inked a deal to use Elon Musk’s low-Earth orbit satellite constellation, Starlink, to provide voice and internet plans to rural customers, in a move that may pile further pressure on NBN’s own Sky Muster service.
Australians have been able to access Starlink services since 2021, and more than 120,000 had reportedly done so as of May this year. Telstra will aim to make its services more accessible, offering local tech support and professional installation, as well as the option of voice-only or voice-plus-broadband plans.
It will be the first telco in the world to offer such bundles using Starlink.
Demand for Starlink services in regional Australia have outpaced NBN’s own Sky Muster services, which are sold through various telcos.
The service will be available in select rural and regional areas that are not sufficiently serviced by existing copper, fixed wireless and mobile networks, and are expected to roll out late this year. Telstra has yet to announce pricing.
“Starlink will provide an additional connectivity option for people and businesses in rural and remote locations where distance and terrain make it difficult to provide quality connectivity with existing terrestrial networks,” said Telstra regional Australia executive Loretta Willaton, in a blog post.
“As well as offering great data throughput, the proximity of these satellites reduces latency making them a great and more consistent option for services that need low latency, like voice and video calls.”
The Starlink constellation, operated by US company SpaceX of which Musk is the founder and CEO, is essentially the only alternative to NBN’s Sky Muster satellites that Australians have for satellite internet.
Sign-ups for Sky Muster services have fallen since Starlink’s arrival in Australia, with user numbers sitting at 100,114 in February this year, from a high of 112,600 in 2021.
Sky Muster uses a very high Earth orbit of around 36,000 kilometres, which means it only needs two satellites to achieve wide coverage, but speeds are low and latency is high.
Sky Muster plans typically deliver speeds between 5Mbps and 25Mbps, with plans offering low data allowances compared to other forms of broadband. Unavoidable latency of around 600 milliseconds means applications that need to be synchronised — like voice calls, video calls and online gaming — have issues over Sky Muster connections.
In June this year, NBN began offering a “premium” service with unlimited data and “bursts” of up to 100Mbps speeds whenever network conditions allow, which telcos sell to consumers for around $100 per month.
Starlink uses a very low orbit of around 550 kilometres, meaning many satellites (currently more than 4000), but better performance.
Its singular plan has an up-front hardware cost of around $900 (often steeply discounted), and then $140 per month for unlimited internet with consistent speeds of between 100Mbps and 200Mbps. Latency is generally less than 40 milliseconds. Telstra has yet to announce the performance specifics of its Starlink-powered plans.
When questioned at Senate Estimates in May about competition from Starlink, NBN executives pointed to its new premium service, as well as a $750 million upgrade program it announced in March.
That upgrade will move around 120,000 households currently serviced by Sky Muster onto NBN’s faster fixed wireless network. It said this would also have the effect of easing stress on its satellite services.
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