Liberals complain rural kids can’t play on NBN satellites as users jump ship to Musk’s Starlink

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Coalition senators have complained that their children are unable to use NBN satellite broadband for gaming, as the company admits 10,000 users have switched from the service, including to Elon Musk’s Starlink.

Starlink has been available across Australia since early November last year, with some areas able to access the low-orbit satellite service up to a year earlier.

The company has not said how many people have signed up in Australia but in regional parts of the country it is being seen as a reasonable alternative to the lackluster speeds of the NBN Sky Muster satellite service.

In Senate estimates on Tuesday night, NBN Co regional and remote development manager Gavin Williams said Starlink had a “minor” impact on Sky Muster. He indicated that the number of active users had fallen from a peak of around 120,000 to 110,000, but he did not say that this was all the result of Starlink.

Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes said she was “surprised” only 10,000 had abandoned the satellite service.

“I lived on a property 80km west of Moree, and we had three internet services so we could open emails,” she said.

“My kids never had access to a video game … because Sky Muster didn’t provide [band]breadth in anything other than basic, very basic access.”

Related: NBN losses to reach $25bn by 2040, report finds

Hughes said this was the experience for many in regional parts of Australia.

“People who have moved to Starlink have huge plans, like huge plans [band]width, speed. I’m surprised you’ve only lost 10,000 people.”

Williams said the company was making significant improvements to the satellite service, including offering speeds between 25Mbps and 50Mbps, and providing unlimited video streaming between midnight and 4pm.

He said that gaming would always be something that NBN cannot compete with Starlink, because the latency is partly due to the satellites being 36,000 kilometers from Earth, although Starlink’s low-orbit satellites are closer.

“Does your child like to gamble? By the time you press the shoot-em-up button on Sky Muster it takes half a second to come up and down from space,” he said. “That means for those time-sensitive games, it’s not ideal.”

Williams said he welcomed the advances in technology that Starlink now allows but said Sky Muster offers its service at a lower price. The initial cost of Starlink technology is now $450 (marked down from $924) with a monthly fee of $139. There’s no upfront fee for the satellite NBN, and although it’s capped at 300GB per month the plans are less than half the price.

NBN Co chief executive Stephen Rue said part of the company’s strategy to improve the satellite service was to move more customers to the fixed wireless service. Planned 5G upgrades will allow the company to transition one in four satellite customers to the technology. He said it will be available at a higher speed than Starlink for those on wireless, and an improved service for those on satellite.

Rue said the Sky Muster satellites would eventually run out of fuel, meaning they would need to be replaced, but for now it “continues to provide real benefits to many people in rural and regional Australia”.

Starlink has been contacted for comment.

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