Satellite broadband users should download the movies and shows they want to watch in advance rather than streaming them, NBN Co has advised after adjusting its peak hours to offer its largely rural customer base unmetered broadband for 16 hours every day.

Customers of the company’s Sky Muster Plus satellite service can now access virtual private network (VPN) and video streaming services between midnight and 4pm without it counting towards their monthly data allowance, the company announced.

In a nod to its earlier investments in deep packet inspection (DPI) technology, NBN Co can differentiate VPN and streaming services from “essential” activities – such as email, internet banking, online shopping, and audio and video calls – that remain unmetered throughout the entire day.

Gavin Williams, NBN Co chief development officer for regional and remote, positioned the latest move as a response to “extensive consultation with customers, communities and stakeholders who all said they wanted more data.”

Customers conscious of their peak-hour broadband usage should plan ahead, the company said, by downloading content before 4pm to watch later, adjusting playback settings on video streaming services (for example by disabling 4K streaming), and turning off autoplay settings for websites with embedded streaming content.

By shifting periods of intense bandwidth demand away from the most congested hours, NBN Co is aiming to more evenly spread usage that has created congestion during many parts of the day.

In late 2020, a survey of regional broadband users found that two-thirds of regional NBN users were having speed issues, with many having to travel to the nearest town to get usable broadband.

Such delays are potentially disastrous for remote students studying from home, disenfranchised residents that rely on the services to maintain connections with family and carers, and businesses that can’t get a reliable internet service.

Satellite services were “unsuited” for regular business demands, many residents held, and service congestion got so bad during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic that NBN Co considered blocking 4K TV streaming for users to reduce congestion in regional areas.

The new usage tiers “make managing data simpler and give customer freedom and peace of mind to do more with their data,” Williams said, promising to “continue to listen to customers and stakeholders and evolve our service as their needs change.”

Orbiting the competition

Yet NBN Co’s latest moves are about more than just customer feedback: the company has rapidly come under increasing competitive pressure from rival services such as the Elon Musk-backed SpaceX Starlink network, which formally entered the Australian market a year ago and is now the region’s fastest satellite broadband provider.

Starlink delivered average downloads of 124.31Mbps and upload speeds of 11.71Mbps during the first quarter of this year, according to recently released figures from Speedtest maker Ookla.

Ookla didn’t share Sky Muster’s real-world performance, however the company did say that average speeds for “all providers combined” reduced average download speeds down to 50.87Mbps.

NBN Co currently offers plans providing between 25GB and 150GB of data per month, with download speeds of 25Mbps or 12Mbps.

Regional broadband advocate Kristy Sparrow, co-founder of Better Internet for Regional Rural and Remote Australia, said the group was “pleased that [its] advocacy has resulted in better plans for small business, health, and education in the bush.”

The new peak-hour structure, she said, “will help transform regional users’ ability to access connectivity that meets their needs and keeps up with current data demands.”

The overhaul is part of a $750m government investment that will expand NBN Co’s fixed-wireless network into many areas currently reliant on Sky Muster, reducing demand on the overloaded satellite service.

With Starlink encircling the globe and a growing number of satellite broadband options taking to increasingly crowded skies – including Internet of Things (IoT) networks from the likes of Kepler Communications and Astrocast – the satellite industry this month united to raise concerns about the increasingly congested radiofrequency spectrum on which it relies.

Industry body Communications Alliance recently launched a new position paper from its 23-member Satellite Services Working Group (SSWG), which outlines a proposed band-by-band spectrum strategy to minimise congestion and interference, ensuring the growing number of services can co-exist for the long term.