Qantas to sign trial satellite product with NBN for Wi-Fi

nbn co and Qantas set to begin a proof-of-concept agreement to test the delivery of a on-board Wi-Fi from February 2017

The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, has released its test agreement with Qantas allowing them to test a “Proof-of-Concept Aeronautical Mobile Satellite Service” on a Qantas test aircraft.

The proof-of-concept test is expected to help guide the development of nbn’s Satellite Mobility Product expected to launch in the third quarter of 2017.

Qantas has already begun preliminary engineering testing of its proposed on-board Wi-Fi product on a Boeing 737 aircraft (VH-XZB). The national carrier intends to partner with service provider ViaSat to deliver on-board Internet connectivity once the mobility product becomes available.

The trial product will be delivered over a Layer 3 VPN connection over the NBN Satellite Network. nbn will be responsible for the network between the Air Network Interface (ANI) located on the test aircraft’s Air Terminal and the Mobility Network-Network Interface (M-NNI) located at the NBN Point of Interconnect (POI).

As part of the trial, the network speed will be limited to 20 megabits per second for each aircraft on at most two aircrafts concurrently. The connection will also be limited to agreed flight corridors.

Earlier analysis by jxeeno blog has concluded that on-board Wi-Fi products are likely to have little or no impact on the congestion of beams given the short duration of time each aircraft spends under a single beam.

The proof-of-concept agreement is set to kick in from 1st February 2017 and is expected to run until 1st September 2017 unless terminated early or extended. However, Qantas is yet to officially announce its public launch date for the on-board Wi-Fi service.

Lightning Broadband: what is this shenanigans?

Is this supposedly magical wireless technology really going to supersede the NBN?

Over the recent weeks, a company branded as “Lightning Broadband” has been making waves in Australia.  It’s claiming that for $120 per month, it can deliver an unlimited 100 Mbps connection to residents using its wireless network.  But exactly how does the company plan to build its wireless network?

If you read the “technical explanation” on its website, you’ll realise that it doesn’t make sense.

The company is claiming that it uses fibre to connect to their DC.  It then says DC, in that case, means a DC-HSDPA (effectively 3G technology).  In the following paragraphs, it then goes on to explain that it doesn’t use HSDPA — but rather 24GHz microwave backhaul links followed by 802.11ac over the 5.8GHz band for the final hop to the customer.

However, if you read between the lines and interpret DC as its usual meaning of a data centre, it makes more sense.  The company is effectively using the fixed 5.8 GHz band to transmit a Wi-Fi signal to the end user.  This removes the need for hefty mobile spectrum licences that typical carriers like Telstra, Optus and Vodafone pay to secure their spectrum slice.

How much bandwidth does that give?

In Australia, the majority of the 5 GHz band can either only be used indoors or is subject DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection) as this band has potential to interfere with radar signals.  The 5.8 GHz slice (5745-5825 MHz) is the only band that doesn’t have these limitations and is what Lightning Broadband is claiming to use.  This effectively gives a single 80 MHz continuous band for the last mile transmission.

The leading data rates and speeds of the 802.11ac standard (256-QAM, MCS 9, Guard Interval of 800ms) gives a maximum theoretical throughput of 390 Mbps.

As for real world performance?  One of the leading “point-to-point” Wi-Fi hardware providers, Ubiquiti, claims its NanoStation M5 (5.8GHz) Wireless Bridge & WiFi AP can deliver 150 Mbps. With a beamwidth of anywhere between 42 and 60 degrees, you’ll have to share the same 150 Mbps bandwidth with everyone on the same sector as you.

Not exactly lightning speed as soon as you have a dozen or so people on the network during peak times — especially when you’re selling an “unlimited” plan.

Nonetheless…

Lightning Broadband has nothing to worry for now. It’s not intended to be a mass-market product, with large number of customers. The spectrum bandwidth simply won’t support it (because, physics). But kudos to them for the concept and to help consumers get connected while the NBN is still rolling out.

At the end of the day, it can only exist in very specific areas — outer metro areas with a tall building with a willing management who will let you install your equipment on the roof. But as soon as you have some other company else do exactly the same thing in your area, you’re screwed.

This type of technology has been used for years by regional and rural folks to relay mobile broadband from a shed to get a decent mobile signal.

So no, this is not going to make the NBN redundant. But it’s a good interim solution to help a small number of users get connected while it’s still being rolled out.

Detailed analysis: How will Qantas’ on-board Wi-Fi impact NBN satellites?

Geospatial analysis of the daily Qantas flight paths and NBN satellite beam coverage shows how NBN’s satellite network could be affected.

Writer’s note: Qantas is a customer of ViaSat, not NBN Co. ViaSat intends to trial on-board internet using NBN Co’s satellites — however, they have indicated they intend to launch their own satellites (ViaSat-3) to deliver a long-term solution for on-board Wi-Fi globally. This Qantas-ViaSat-NBN Co deal is dependent on industry consultation being completed in June 2016.

Qantas has recently announced that it plans to offer a Wi-Fi service on board its A330 and Boeing 737 fleet from early 2017 by utilising capacity on NBN’s recently launched Sky Muster satellite.  However, many Australians living in rural and regional Australia have raised concerns that the Qantas service will cause further congestion on an already limited service.

The company responsible for building the National Broadband Network, nbn, had completed a review of satellite capacity in its Fixed Wireless and Satellite review where it identified 31 beams around Australia that would be oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed once a take-up rate of 65% is reached.  As a result, the company will introduce strict Fair Use policies to significantly limit the amount of data to 150 GB (priced at a premium) that can be used by each customer on a 4-week rolling average basis.

Consequently, the Qantas announcement has infuriated many who are within the satellite footprint.  Analysis of flight paths taken by Qantas’ domestic flights using their A330-200, A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 fleets show that all planes fly through at least one congested or severely congested satellite beam.

Key findings:

  • 334 Qantas domestic flights utilise the A330-200, A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 fleet on the day analysed.
  • Every flight flew under at least one oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed beam.
  • 58% of oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed beams will have minimal impact, with at most 2 planes flying under the beam at any given time.
  • The Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Gold Coast routes travel entirely within severely oversubscribed NBN Satellite beams (34, 29, 25, 20).
  • The Sydney-Melbourne, Melbourne-Canberra, Sydney-Canberra and Townsville-Brisbane routes travel entirely within oversubscribed OR severely oversubscribed NBN Satellite beams.

Analysis: by congested beams

Over half (58%) of congested beams are not affected or are minimally affected by Qantas planes.  Of the 31 beams considered oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed, 5 of them do not cover any current eligible Qantas flight paths.  7 beams will have at least one flight under the path at some point, and 6 beams will have up to 2 flights under it at the same time (within a 10 minute time frame).

Unsurprisingly however, the beams covering areas immediately surrounding capital cities will have the greatest number of flights under it at any given time:

  • Beam 42 (Sydney Beam) is the worst affected, with up to 7 Qantas flights within a 10 minute time frame travelling under it.
  • Beams 47 (Melbourne Beam) and 20 (Brisbane Beam) come in second, with up to 6 Qantas flights within a 10 minute time frame travelling directly under each of them.
  • Beam 37 (Adelaide Beam) comes in third, with up to 5 Qantas flights within a 10 minute time frame travelling directly under each of them.

It should be noted though, that for the day analysed — the Sydney and Brisbane beams only had the greatest number of flights under it for a single 10 minute time frame (between 8:50am – 9:00am and 7:30pm – 7:40pm respectively).

Finally, by considering the average number of Qantas planes under a beam over a 24 hour period — we see that Beam 47 (Melbourne) tops out at 1.94 planes with Beam 42 (Sydney), Beam 20 (Brisbane) and Beam 41 (Canberra) following closely behind at 1.52, 1.45 and 1.22 planes respectively.

Beam* Max concurrent
flights under beam
(over 10 min period)
%age of time with
at max plane
under beam
%age of time with
at least one plane
under beam
Avg. number of
planes under beam
over 24 hrs
47 (Melbourne) 6 2% 67% 1.94
42 (Sydney) 7 1% 63% 1.52
20 (Brisbane) 6 1% 63% 1.45
41 (Canberra) 4 5% 58% 1.22
37 (Adelaide) 5 1% 49% 0.86
24 (Armidale) 5 1% 53% 0.83
48 (Omeo) 4 1% 51% 0.76
66 (Perth) 3 1% 51% 0.63
34 (Newcastle) 3 3% 40% 0.57
33 (Bathurst) 4 1% 33% 0.48
25 (Grafton) 2 3% 33% 0.37
46 (Ararat) 3 1% 28% 0.36
3 (Townsville) 2 3% 28% 0.31
15 (Wondai) 3 1% 24% 0.30
29 (Port Macquarie) 2 1% 26% 0.27
36 (Yorketown) 3 1% 22% 0.26
35 (Port Lincoln) 2 2% 22% 0.24
7 (Mackay) 2 3% 19% 0.22
11 (Rockhampton) 2 2% 20% 0.22
31 (Whyalla) 1 15% 15% 0.15
44 (Kangaroo Island) 1 8% 8% 0.08
63 (Guilderton) 1 8% 8% 0.08
16 (Maryborough) 1 6% 6% 0.06
2 (Charters Towers) 1 3% 3% 0.03
1 (Cairns) 1 3% 3% 0.03
51 (Geelong) 1 2% 2% 0.02
49 (Bega) 0 0% 0% 0.00
52 (Inverloch) 0 0% 0% 0.00
54 (Burnie) 0 0% 0% 0.00
56 (Hobart) 0 0% 0% 0.00
68 (Bridgetown) 0 0% 0% 0.00

* Beam name is based on a suburb/town/city directly under the beam and may not be the official name used by nbn

Analysis: by flight

Each flight and its flight path were analysed to see which NBN Satellite beam it flies under. The results shows that every single Domestic Qantas A330 and B737 flight flies under at least one oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed satellite beam.

The most prominent are the Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Gold Coast routes, which flies entirely within severely oversubscribed beams (that’s beams 34, 29, 25, 20).  Sydney-Melbourne, Melbourne-Canberra, Sydney-Canberra and Townsville-Brisbane routes fly entirely through oversubscribed or severely oversubscribed beams.

For the full analysis output, click here!

Concluding thoughts…

I find the results of this analysis somewhat inconclusive. Firstly, unlike domestic US services — the number of Qantas flights expected to get the Wi-Fi service is quite small.

With under 350 flights spread out geographically and over a 24 hour period, I doubt the planes would have a material effect on congestion. Currently, the worst case scenario seems to be up 6-7 planes flying under a single beam at any given time. However, in the case of the 7-plane statistic, it happens only once in a 24 hour period. The speed at which planes travel also mean that they will typically fly in and out of narrow beams within 10-15 minutes, meaning any impact should be distributed across multiple beams as the plane flies through the airspace.

On the other hand, the bulk of the flights will fly under already oversubscribed areas. This is especially true for the beams serving the areas immediately surrounding the capital cities, which are all severely oversubscribed (bar-Darwin). These areas also have the greatest number of concurrent flights, represented by the “average number of planes over 24 hours” statistic.

So, no. I don’t think there’s an immediate threat to congestion. However, it does set a precedent. If more carriers get on board… and if international flights get added to the pool as well — things could well change in the future.

NBN Long Term Satellite beams
Diagram showing NBN Co satellite beams and risk of congestion as determined in the Fixed Wireless/Satellite Strategic Review (FWSat SR).

Assumptions made in this analysis:

  • The flight data analysed was from Wednesday, 23rd Feb 2016.
  • Qantas will only install the Satellite-powered Wi-Fi solution on their A330-200, A330-300 and Boeing 737-800 fleet.
  • In all cases where the plane transverses an area with both a wide and narrow beam, the congested, narrow beam is selected.
  • Plane locations are calculated in 10 minute intervals.
  • Congestion (oversubscribed beams) are based on results in the NBN Fixed Wireless and Satellite Review.