Will Elon Musk’s Starlink make Australia’s NBN obsolete?

Posted: 12 February 2021 10:41 am
Starlink vs NBN

Faster speeds across anywhere in Australia for Elon Musk's Starlink make it look like a straight-up NBN killer – but there's a whole lot more to the comparison than that.

SpaceX's Starlink has started accepting pre-orders for its low Earth orbit satellite broadband service from Australians. The promise is pretty simple: at launch, you'll pay $139 per month for an unlimited connection capable of between 50Mbps and 150Mbps.

Slam dunk Starlink, goodbye NBN, right?

Actually, that's wrong, but that's also because while it might seem like a very simple comparison on the surface, it's considerably more complex than that, depending on your broadband needs, location and NBN technology type.

Let's break it down across all of those factors, because each of these points may apply to all of your needs, or only some of them.

Starlink vs NBN: Installation costs

For the vast majority of Australians who take up the opportunity, getting an NBN connection to their property is effectively "free", because it's part of the overall NBN build. NBN Co also handles the logistics of how your installation is going to work, because it's legally obliged to do so.

There may be a cost for some consumers who need to upgrade their modem-router, depending on its age, handled by their ISP, but in most cases that sits around $100 or so depending on capabilities. Many ISPs will forego that cost if you sign up for a longer contract period.

Starlink's service relies on the purchase and installation of a satellite installation kit, costing $709 plus $100 for shipping to anywhere in Australia. You'll need to have a clear line of sight to the sky and the rights to install on your property, which may preclude many apartment blocks and renters from taking up the service.

Starlink vs NBN: Can I actually get it?

Starlink is technically available for any Australian to pre-order, although the company does note that "Starlink is ideally suited for areas of the globe where connectivity has typically been a challenge. Unbounded by traditional ground infrastructure, Starlink can deliver high-speed broadband Internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable."

At the same time, it's also stated that it's offering packages on a "first come, first served" basis. You put your address in and apply for a pre-order, and Starlink decides whether or not it'll offer you the ability to make that pre-order at all. If you're in, you're in, but if you're not, tough luck.

Conversely, NBN Co is obliged to make NBN service available to all Australians, although how you pay for it and your choice of ISP is very much up to you. What you don't get with the NBN is a choice of NBN connection technology, and that brings up the next, quite vital comparison point.

Starlink vs NBN types available at your home

Starlink uses a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites to deliver its broadband services. The key idea here is that if you have enough satellites constantly spinning around the planet, there will always be enough of them within your satellite's effective "line of sight" to maintain a connection.

NBN Co uses what it calls the "multi technology mix" to deliver broadband to all Australians. The important consideration here is the NBN technology type available at your home or premises, because that very much determines the level of NBN packages available to you.

Here's when the NBN is better

If you're on fixed line Fibre to the Premises, and arguably HFC or FTTC/FTTB, the Starlink advantages are frankly incredibly slim. You'll get better peak speeds – if you want to pay for them – and unlimited data on most packages, plus considerably better peak latency.

Here's when Starlink might be better

It's murkier for the majority of the fixed line Fibre To The Node (FTTN) users, because complaints about speed availability are quite common, and NBN Co's current aim is to deliver a baseline of 50Mbps downstream – which is the claimed bottom frame of Starlink services. It's not hard to see some users becoming interested at that level if their current copper can't hack connections even to that rate.

Here's when Starlink will most likely be better

Where Starlink is more obviously competing is for NBN users on fixed wireless and especially NBN Sky Muster Satellite services. NBN Co currently uses 4G LTE for its fixed wireless customers, although it is experimenting with 5G technologies, recently making claims of delivering 1Gbps downstream connections at up to 7km from a base station. According to NBN Co, that should cover most of its fixed wireless users – although of course you'll have to wait for that to actually roll out before you can take advantage of that speed boost.

It's in the Sky Muster/Satellite space that the technology comparison most favours Starlink. NBN's satellites are around 60 times higher in the sky than Starlink's constellation of satellites. That made them considerably cheaper to deploy – they can be "seen" by a wider geographical area, to put it very simply – but means that speeds are far more limited and latency can be much higher than Starlink's claimed 20-40ms.

Starlink vs NBN: Plan comparison

Again, the plan comparison doesn't favour Starlink at all if you're on a fixed-line NBN service or a FTTN service. Presuming your line can support it – NBN 100 services (FTTN) are pretty easily available for under $100 per month.

The comparison for NBN Fixed Wireless also tends to favour NBN's solution at a straight-up monetary level, with unlimited data plans available for well under $100, albeit not at the same speeds as their fixed-line NBN counterparts.

What about NBN Sky Muster?

Here the comparison is more mixed, but Starlink does compare nicely.

NBN Sky Muster plans do not hit anywhere near Starlink's claimed speeds, and they all come with data caps, although Sky Muster Plus plans do remove data counting for certain specified online activities.

That being said, if you're on a tight budget, NBN Sky Muster plans can be considerably cheaper.

View NBN Sky Muster plans

If you're wondering, the reason why Sky Muster has data caps is to ensure that it's able to serve data to all its users in a relatively equitable fashion, rather than having one user with the ideal conditions hogging all the bandwidth.

That bandwidth equation must also apply to Starlink, but the larger number of satellites should allow it more breathing room. That's also probably why the company is using a "first come first served" approach, because instead of limiting data, it'll limit users instead – in theory.

The other catch here is that Starlink's pricing could change, and so could its data inclusions. That's true for NBN plans as well, of course, but being a government entity there's considerably more pressure to keep prices low and data flowing than there is for a privately held entity.

Starlink vs NBN: Reliability comparison

Again I'm going to lean towards Sky Muster NBN, because for fixed line comparisons, while there is something of a "squeaky wheel" issue with the NBN – and it's certainly not flawless here – it's going to be considerably easier for a technician to check cabling and connections in this case.

It's also the case that any broadcast broadband medium, such as satellite Internet, is going to be inherently susceptible to interference factors beyond the carrier's control. That's also part of why Sky Muster limits data quotas, because it makes it an easier network juggling job.

For Starlink's part, it's already somewhat covering itself for any outages, noting for its speed coverage that:

During beta, users can expect to see data speeds vary from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms in most locations over the next several months as we enhance the Starlink system. There will also be brief periods of no connectivity at all. As we launch more satellites, install more ground stations and improve our networking software, data speed, latency and uptime will improve dramatically.

So it should get better, but you may have periods where your Starlink connection drops entirely. One interesting aspect here is that this might not pass Australian Consumer Law, which states that goods have to be fit for purpose; if you continually experience dropouts, this will be an issue, especially considering the relatively high cost of both the install kit and ongoing service provision.

If Starlink keeps improving, won't it make the NBN obsolete anyway?

It's highly unlikely, to put it politely. There's definitely benefit for Australians in remote and regional areas who can't get higher speeds and can cover the costs to have a competing service, but the majority of Australians live in larger communities served by physical infrastructure that's easier to service, can deliver better latency and throughput and, as the NBN continues its slow and often-grinding journey to a nearly-full-fibre future, considerably faster speeds for most Australians.

Musk's SpaceX certainly has plenty of cash to burn, and it's not as though it's only launching in Australia. The whole point of a global satellite mesh is global coverage, after all. As such, it's a competitor to the NBN, but not one that's going to crush it any time soon.

View NBN Sky Muster plans

Image: Getty Images

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