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Bound for Bourke: Visiting a Sky Muster™ ground station

If the red sand, blow flies and impossibly blue sky weren’t a dead giveaway our Bourke Satellite ground station is an Australian facility, the two emus who dropped by for a look left no doubt. 

Lazily loping in from the scrubby outback vista stretching off into the distance on all sides of the compound, the inquisitive pair was savvy enough not to get too close to the electric fence that rings it (don’t worry, it’s just a deterrent and not designed to be strong enough to do lasting damage to the local wildlife).

While the unmanned complex itself is devoid of life most of the time, the same can’t be said for the surrounding area.

Visitors are warned to beware of a menagerie of native wildlife that, along with emus, includes kangaroos, kamikaze goats known to dart in front of vehicles, hawks and eagles feasting on road-kill, wild boars, and snakes (no open toed shoes or shorts out here).

As if all this wasn’t enough of a deterrent, summer temperatures can reach 49 degrees. Extreme weather ranging from dense fog to dust storms is not uncommon and the facility is scrutinised via CCTV cameras monitored by eagle-eyed security staff 984km away in Melbourne.

While not exactly the most hospitable place on the planet, there’s good reason why it is home to one of the string of satellite ground stations in our Australia-wide network, says nbn Manager, satellite Service Operations Michael Beckford.

“We chose nine gateways located around Australia and they are put in places where there is good access to the transit network and are away from major cities because we don’t want them in people’s back yards,” he says.

“We also had to have somewhere that was dry, because at 30GHz rain can interfere with the RF signal and impact performance. And as you can see, Bourke is a very dry place – not much chance of rainfall around here!”

We joined Michael for the long trek out to the remote Bourke facility located 10km by dirt road outside the western NSW town of Bourke, three and a half hours drive from Dubbo, to get a sneak peek at what makes this crucial part of our Sky Muster™ infrastructure tick.

Bourke was the first of our satellite ground stations completed in early 2014.

The pair of enormous satellite dishes stand in stark contrast to the featureless surrounds of the Australian outback. Towering side by side, pointing toward the heavens, these impressive structures are impossible to ignore as you approach the compound.

More than 13.5 metres in diameter, the dual KA Band antennas connect to our Sky Muster™ Satellite service orbiting 36,000km overhead.

One of them transmits data to Sky Muster™ I, launched last October and now delivering commercial services on our network. The second antenna will connect to the Sky Muster™ II Satellite when it’s launched later this year.

While not perceptible to the naked eye, the massive antennas are always in motion.

“They look like they’re still, but they are actually constantly moving because as the Earth wobbles slightly on its axis, the satellite in the sky is wobbling also,” says Michael.

To compensate for this, the antenna’s readjust their position down to 1000th of a degree. While the shifts don’t sound like much, what may only be a tiny realignment at Bourke could equal 20km out in space.

“The reason they do that is because capacity is crucial. So by aligning everything perfectly, we are maximising our throughput and offering the best performance to our end users,” says Michael.

Our nine gateways (the tenth is a back-up) combine to create 101 spot beams covering Australia like giant torch lights, each one delivering satellite services to customers.

“The reason we have nine gateways is so we can reuse that RF over and over again,” says Michael.

“It’s like a sequence of mobile phone ground stations. By recycling the frequencies over and over again we can get the capacity we need.” 

“It looks really random, but it’s carefully co-ordinated so we can offer the largest amount of capacity per user and carefully balanced so we don’t have gateways and beams interfering with each other,” says Michael.

Apart from the size of the antennas, the other thing impossible to ignore at Bourke is the noise.

Outside, the air conditioning unit cooling the main building, and rain blower designed to constantly sweep the two giant satellite dishes clean of debris, both combine into a single background hum.

Step inside the main building and you are overwhelmed by the cacophony of noise produced by racks of powerful fans needed to cool the row upon row of servers that manage internet traffic between our Point of Interconnect (POI) at Eastern Creek in Sydney and the Sky Muster™ ground station.

It’s here the data that flows in via fibre from the outside is converted into high frequency RF (30GHz).

“It’s amplified like a stereo out through the middle of the antenna and shot out into space,” says Michael.

The Sky Muster™ Satellite then receives it and breaks it down into 11 beams that are delivered to different parts of Australia.

With so much at stake, it’s perhaps not surprising that redundancy planning is evident everywhere.

“Computer cards, power cables, everything is redundant. If one fails, another one kicks in,” says Michael.

Because the facility is designed to be unmanned, everything is also constantly monitored; from the CCTV security cameras watched 24/7 by staff in Melbourne to the network elements monitored by the Ericsson Network Operations Centre in Sydney.

“The Central Facilities Group in Melbourne can even remotely flush the toilets once a week,” says Michael. 

The row of pest control options ranging from Mortein to Aerogard lining a shelf of the main office above the nbn service manuals, however, are testament to the challenges faced by the occasional human visitor.

While technicians are occasionally required to perform maintenance or swap out equipment, Michael says our facility at Bourke is the cutting edge of satellite broadband delivery worldwide.

“Other satellite providers are looking on in envy at the systems we have,” he says.

“They are absolutely state of the art.” 

For more information on the nbn™ Sky Muster™ Satellite service, check out our Sky Muster™ home page for updates about the launch, and other content about our satellite services.

Last updated on 05 October 2016

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