‘This is rocket science’: micrometeorite collision blamed for NBN satellite internet outage

A micrometeorite slamming into a satellite was the likely cause of a seven-hour outage for NBN Co internet users in December, a Senate hearing has been told.

About 46,500 of NBN Co’s 112,000 satellite users in regional and remote parts of Australia were left without internet between 8.30pm on 21 December and 3.20am the following morning due to the incident.

NBN Co’s chief development officer for regional and remote Australia, Gavin Williams, told a Senate estimates hearing on Tuesday that after an investigation involving the company’s satellite operation partners, the most likely cause of the outage was determined to be a micrometeorite.

“It cannot be 100% characterised as this but all the evidence points to a micrometeorite that impacted the satellite,” he said. “It effectively makes [the] satellite’s body rotate while it remains in its orbit. So the satellite is no longer pointing at the appropriate spot on Earth [and] the payload – the transmission system on that satellite – is effectively switched off for that period.”

He said the satellite was able to recover itself.

“Now that impacted about 46,500 customers. The satellite was able to find Earth again. You know you say ‘it’s not rocket science’, senator? This is rocket science.”

The testing to restart the service took around seven hours, meaning customers were left without internet for that period. Williams said that 573 of these customers, however, went two weeks without internet after the incident.

He said the NBN boxes in their homes were missing parameters in the configuration file, meaning they could not reconnect to the network, but it took NBN Co a long time to realise the issue.

“So it meant that and, frankly, it took us you know, there was a course of action three times a day updates … but it took quite a long time actually to delve into what was wrong and how you could recover,” Williams said.

The company had considered pulling staff away from annual leave to go out to each of the nearly 600 premises in regional and remote parts of Australia to try to fix it, but ultimately NBN Co was able to fix the issue remotely.

Williams said those customers who endured two weeks without internet services would be eligible for rebates, and the company had developed emergency patches to rapidly identify and recover services should the issue happen again.

He admitted it was “not our finest hour” but said it was the first time such an event had occurred.

“This kind of outage deserves the classification of being unprecedented,” he said.

The NBN Co CEO, Stephen Rue, said the company would begin offering full fibre upgrades to fibre-to-the-node and fibre-to-the-curb customers in March and May respectively, but admitted the timing of the launch may be affected depending on when the election is called, and what the company’s obligations are during caretaker mode.

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