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NBN says no immediate plans for internet service on planes

NBN has no immediate plans to offer a satellite-based Wi-Fi service, despite growing pressure on Australian airlines to offer internet access on flights. As well as having its satellite resources focussed on providing broadband access to remote and regional homes, the move would open up new regulatory issues, a spokesperson for the company confirmed.

A submission by Optus to a parliamentary inquiry into regulatory arrangements for the
NBN highlights the issue of new satellite services as an area of concern. Optus stated that NBN was established to specifically address a market failure relating to the provisions of last mile access for high speed broadband services – and told the enquiry that it should remain focused on that purpose.

However, pressure on Australian airlines to offer Wi-Fi services in the air is growing, according to Routehappy, a travel services company that does an annual survey on airline Wi-Fi. Its latest data shows that Wi-Fi has been rolled out on 71% of US aircraft but the market is only in the early stages outside of the US.

Jason Rabinowitz, data research manager at Routehappy, told CommsDay that once passengers realise that Wi-Fi is available on other routes, they will start to demand the services, particularly for long-haul flights from Qantas.

“As more of Qantas' international partners get on board with Wi-Fi, such as Emirates,
Qantas will be further pressured to offer it. A great example is the new joint venture between Qantas and American. American offers Wi-Fi on all flights they operate to Australia.

Once passengers realise that Wi-Fi now exists in those routes, it will become something Qantas will want to offer to match the services offered by its partner American,” Rabinowitz said.

He said in the case of domestic flights, an operator just needs to take the first step and
others will follow suit. However, there are no immediate signs of that happening.
US satellite provider ViaSat offers in-flight Wi-Fi in the US and has been in talks with
NBN to do the same here. NBN has also held preliminary talks with both Qantas and Virgin.

However, there will be both technical and regulatory challenges to getting a service up,
as well as the focus on residential broadband.

“The availability of two high capacity world-class NBN satellites dedicated solely to Australia clearly provides huge possibilities on a number of fronts,” an NBN spokesperson told CommsDay. “However, our immediate priority is to start bringing much needed high quality broadband services to remote and rural Australia.”

NBN said that it will shortly begin end-user trials on the Sky Muster service with commercial services launching around April.

In its submission to the parliamentary inquiry, Optus said that it objected to a proposed
amendment that would enable the current line of business restrictions on NBN to be relaxed through regulations so that it can expand its activities into other business activities. It said that it was unclear why the proposed change was required.

“NBN Co was established to specifically address a market failure relating to the provisions of last mile access for high speed broadband services; it should remain focused on that purpose. Optus does not believe that sufficient grounds have been advanced to support these proposed amendments,” the submission said
“We are also concerned that this change is being proposed at a time when NBN is already pushing the boundaries of its remit with reports that it is; seeking ACCC support to develop a POI backhaul service; considering new satellite services; and, is in discussions with airlines about developing inflight communications services,” Optus told the inquiry.
A final report is due on 22 February.
Geoff Long, Commsday