NBN Co has moved to fight back against the increasing threat posed by Elon Musk-backed satellite broadband competitor Starlink, launching a trial that will see up to 10,000 regional Australians given unlimited monthly downloads and speeds of up to 100Mbps.

Set to run from March through May, the trial will allow participating customers of NBN Co’s Sky Muster Plus satellite broadband service to download as much data as they want – subject to fair use restrictions, NBN Co is quick to point out – at speeds four times faster than the current maximum.

The trial is the by-product of a $480 million grant that has helped NBN Co expand the footprint of its terrestrial fixed-wireless network – allowing it to migrate 120,000 premises from satellite services to fixed wireless broadband running at up to 325Mbps.

This change, in turn, is freeing up capacity on the satellite service that can be used to provide faster speeds to the smaller base of remaining customers.

The trial “is exciting news for Australians living in regional and remote communities,” Minister for Communications Michelle Rowland said as the trial was announced.

“This is the first time Sky Muster Plus customers will be able to access unmetered monthly data allowances, and if the trial is successful, could significantly boost broadband speeds in the bush.”

The trial is being run in conjunction with retail service provider (RSP) Activ8me, whose CEO Martin Camilleri welcomed the new unlimited, faster service as a welcome alternative to the existing service – which is capped at 150GB per month and 25Mbps speeds.

“We believe that a product like this will meet the needs of modern families,” Camilleri said. “We have been advocating for changes like this on behalf of our customers for some time, and we are happy to see NBN Co take this step.”

Musk has picked up NBN Co’s scent

The new trial is the latest in a series of changes that have seen the government investing significantly to improve service speeds across the NBN.

This includes a $2.4 billion Budget allotment that will increase fixed broadband speeds for 1.5 million premises – including 660,000 regional premises that are currently being serviced with fixed wireless or outdated fibre to the node (FttN) technology.

Shifting those customers to higher-capacity backbone networks will, in turn, reduce demand on Sky Muster and provide the extra bandwidth that will be repurposed for the new trial.

The trial is a hail-Mary pass for NBN Co, which faces a growing competitive threat from Starlink, the Elon Musk backed global satellite venture that recently announced that it has amassed more than 100,000 customers since launching in Australia in early 2021.

That makes Starlink a bigger operator in Australia than NBN Co, which will struggle to compete as its approximately 99,500 active customers shift to the faster alternative – with more than 2,000 Sky Muster customers already leaving the service this year alone.

NBN Co – which last year asked users to download video content during off-peak times to fight crippling peak congestion – is determined to learn from the trial, which is expected to lead to the launch of an ongoing service by year’s end.

The trial “represents the latest evolution” of the satellite service, Gavin Williams, NBN Co chief development officer for regional and remote, said as the trial was announced.

Sky Muster “is a vital part of the NBN network and connects even remote parts of our country,” Williams said – touting the service as “Australian-owned and secure” in a veiled jab at StarLink in which he also pointed out that, unlike the foreign-owned competitor, NBN Co offers Australia-based customer support, professional installation, and offers standard installations free of charge to RSPs.

“No one knows the unique needs, expectations and everyday online experience of regional and remote broadband users better than those very customers themselves,” Williams said, flagging the importance of “extremely valuable” feedback expected to be garnered from participants throughout the course of the trial.