Optus has struck a deal with Elon Musk’s Starlink company to provide broadband across Australia, circumventing the regional NBN network and following in the footsteps of Telstra, which signed a deal with Starlink last week.
However, while Telstra’s deal with Starlink will only cover fixed addresses, Optus’ deal will let users access the internet and make calls on their phones via Starlink’s satellites. It is expected to be up and running in late 2025.
Matt Williams, Optus’ managing director, marketing and revenue, said that while it already provided coverage to 98.5 per cent of Australia’s population, the country’s size posed problems.
“Australia’s vastness and terrain can make it difficult for any operator to provide mobile coverage everywhere it is needed – especially in remote or hard-to-reach locations,” he explained.
“Our work with SpaceX aims to bring the coverage capabilities of satellites direct to compatible mobile handsets without the need for customers to buy additional equipment. This partnership builds on our proud history of satellite innovation in Australia.
“This is a truly innovative model for Australia – connecting satellites to standard mobile phones – and a significant evolution beyond the services SpaceX has provided in Australia to date. It will create a unique experience for Optus customers.”
Together, the companies hope to expand mobile coverage to include 60 per cent of Australia’s land mass that currently has no mobile service.
However, the deal is clouded somewhat following corruption allegations levelled at Optus employees and a recent legal battle between Optus, Telstra and TPG Telecom.
Optus had threatened to leave regional Australia if a network-sharing deal between TPG and Telstra was given the green light by regulators. The ACCC blocked the deal last month but TPG has said that Optus’ threat to leave regional Australia was hollow.
“Optus … was simply scared of competing with a stronger TPG Telecom,” said the company’s general manager of external affairs, James Rickards. “This further demonstrates the … decision on our network sharing deal has only entrenched the mobile duopoly in regional Australia.”
The deal with Starlink would help Optus compete with Telstra’s superior regional tower network.
Optus’ deal would also see the company get into bed with Elon Musk who, lest we forget has had a catastrophic time controlling Twitter and has been flirting with some very unsavoury parts of the internet. In fact, Musk’s ownership of Twitter has been so catastrophic that a new lawsuit is claiming that ex-employees are owed around AU$735 million in unpaid severance deals.
Lizzie O’Shea, the chair of Digital Rights Watch, an online human rights advocacy group, said she hoped the company would emphasise the need for privacy and security. “I can understand why customers of Optus might be concerned,” she said.
However, Optus maintained that the company had not direct dealings with Muysk and that Starlink was “run by a group of very smart technologists, very serious business people,” and pointed to the company’s previous work with NASA.
Of course, with Australia’s two largest telcos now working with the Musk-owned company, it seems as though consumers will have little choice but to line the pockets of the South African billionaire.
How this will factor into both companies’ positive, upbeat marketing campaigns remains to be seen. Plus, with both relying on the same network in regional areas, claims of speed and availability in adverts will surely come under increased scrutiny.