Traditional Space Broadband and the Changing Reality

Dollar lunch

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

I’ll be the first to admit that people in other parts of the world are dealing with real issues, like survival. I do believe there’s a hierarchy of needs out there for people before they start developing into self-righteous Twitter trolls ready to argue why the original hue of Superman’s original costume is so much more vivid than Superman’s clothes today. So, it’s tempting to buy into some of the arguments brought up in this article:

But, in this case I can’t. First, the article’s tone is anti-technology (just look at the author’s description of Loon). It certainly is a written echo chamber.

Let’s skim over some of what traditional satellite providers do to provide broadcast service.

Traditional satellite broadcast companies go into debt to build those big satellites orbiting in Earth’s geostationary belt. It takes a lot of time, a lot of schedule juggling, shifting launch manifests, etc. That costs a lot of money. Some have fleets of these orbital money-shredders. Upshot: satellite broadcast operators are trying hard to recover these costs.

The good news for those companies is, one satellite in geostationary orbit can cover just one-third of the Earth’s surface. The bad news is, one satellite in geostationary orbit can cover JUST one-third of the Earth’s surface. That satellite is stuck there, for all intents and purposes. This means that the one satellite’s operator is at the mercy of whatever customer base is in its field of view.

This can be a problem for that operator if the customer base in that satellite’s field of view refuses to play ball with the satellite operator. And this happened for a few satellite broadcasting companies in 2017 ( 1.7 million people dropped from satellite broadcasting subscriptions that year. So how does a satellite broadcast company stave off dying on the vine?

One way is to have articles like the one in Wired written, forecasting doom and gloom for those interested in operating huge broadband satellite constellations. Have the article repeat the mantra current operators on old business models, which has been heard in other sectors: If we couldn’t make it work, they certainly won’t.

Then there’s the argument that people in these other countries couldn’t possibly desire broadband connectivity, based on the lack of business in those areas (I remember hearing the same thing about fiber and 4G speeds from incumbents in this country). Like I noted earlier, that could be plausible, because there are other priorities in life, but it’s more likely because the pricing is still too high.

There’s also the old trope about space junk caused by these new broadband satellites. That’s an oddly judgy thing to say. Aside from the odd red car, no one pays money to send junk up into orbit. And really, one person’s junk is another person’s spy satellite. Also, space is huge from the Earth’s surface to the geo-belt–it’s going to take more than 12,000 satellites to cause a problem.

The article also appears to conflate between TV signals broadcasted from satellites in geostationary orbit, and the broadband satellites Musk and company are talking about. Even when the article refers to internet service from satellites in those same orbits it’s not quite the same thing.

What is new, the thing that makes the upcoming satellite broadband operators sure they’ll get return on investment? More about that in the next post.


The Mission Readiness Review–Episode 2: It Will Be the BEST space force!

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

Hi folks! Here’s the second try at a podcast. It’s louder, I think, which addresses the main complaints. But now I’m noticing the heater going on in the background, one Google Home interruption, and my tendency to say “um”–a lot. I’ll work on it, I promise.

This episode: We turn it up to the 11, The President has the best idea, and ULA realizes there’s a commercial space launch industry.
Intro background music POD Dreams by Stefan Kartenberg (c) copyright 2017 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. Ft: Debbizo, Michael Bacich.
SSL/MDA deployer:
The Space Force:…ry-branches
The Mack Institute:…en-chang/
ULA commercial launch:…ial-launch-market/ Buran article:…e-a-russian-target
Bad joke of the Day:…/physicsjokes.html

You can find us on Podbean, SoundCloud and Google Play Music, too. Thanks for your listening time.

The BlackBerry Moment?

RIM Rocket

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

For the past few years it’s been difficult to watch the space launch industry in the United States and not draw parallels with the rise of the smartphone and Research in Motion’s (RIM’s) response. And then, when writes a story ( that United Launch Alliance (ULA) will now focus attention on the commercial market of the launch industry–well–it reminds me even more of RIM’s fall.

Before we get into the seeming parallels, I must wonder if it’s really that easy. Is it really so easy to turn on the “commercial space launch money spigot?” You just decide you’re going to focus on the commercial market, and business and money automatically flows into your pocket? That’s kind of what it sounds like, right? I wish it were that easy.

But back to the eerie similarities between RIM and ULA –and to be quite clear, the businesses are very different. But business decisions and responses, especially when defending one’s turf, can yield similar results across industries. Let’s review some RIM history and characteristics.

Before the coming of Apple’s iPhone and subsequent landslide of smartphone competitors, RIM’s BlackBerry was king. To own a BlackBerry meant your work was so important, you couldn’t leave it at work (by correlation, this made you “very important”). You could take it with you to dinners, home, on vacation, etc. I even heard the clicking of BlackBerry buttons from people doing business in the bathroom stalls, while doing their business (and if you said “Ewww!” in your head, that is the correct response). It’s strength was messaging, anywhere, anytime. And it touted the “strong” encryption inherent in its messaging system, even if countries like India could get the keys for it ( RIM’s share of the North American market was as high as 70% back in 2010 (

But while it was desirable by lonely people (or those soon to be alone) and government types, it was also a compromised product. The browser, wasn’t. There were no real apps. Importing files to and from it was a pain. It was expensive. The cell phone plans for it were pricey, but limited. The screen was too small for anything but short messages. What was this “copy and paste thing?” Who wants to listen to music on their phone? Why would we put a GPS chipset and updated maps on a phone? That’s what Navigon is for.

The BlackBerry was also associated with government business and therefore uncool. It had a form factor loved by engineers and bureaucrats–functional, but cheap, plastic. In fact, in spite of significant declines in its commercial business after smartphones gained traction, government contracts buoyed RIM ( Does this begin to sound familiar?

RIM responded to the smartphone threat, but very, very ineffectively. The company’s own initial “Jesus Phone” response to the iPhone was late. And while 1 million people bought the BlackBerry Storm (, the most successful BlackBerry for RIM at that time, the company just wasn’t ready to pump out that many. It was still too expensive, did not have BlackBerry or iPhone reliability (it was very buggy), and still had a lot of the drawbacks of regular BlackBerry phones. A year later, nearly all Storms had to be replaced. RIM’s failure to recognize just how much the market had changed, and even more importantly, why, is how the Storm came to be and why it failed.

Again, some of these responses should sound familiar to those watching the space industry closely. If you want to learn more of the how’s and why’s surrounding RIM’s inability to adapt, I recommend reading Amy Webb’s “The Signals are Talking.”

Relating this story to space.

Not that long ago, one U.S. space launch service provider was pretty much the only one in the nation able to launch heavy payloads into orbit: ULA. It’s service was expensive. It took a long time to build up to a launch. It primarily relied on government contracts for income. The only other potential competitors it had were Orbital Sciences and the government’s space shuttle.

The slow launch rate and high launch costs of the shuttle, and Orbital’s focus on small payload launches (also at high cost) meant ULA had no national competitors to worry about. Like BlackBerry, ULA was the only game in town. If someone wanted to launch a big satellite from the U.S. into orbit, ULA was the one to do it. And normally that someone was the U.S. government, which loved ULA’s mission assurance focus. Unsexiness all around, then. Also, ULA started getting a reputation for charging A LOT for launches–because it could (stories like this don’t help, either:

But now there’s another competitor: SpaceX. This company has managed to build and launch three different types of rockets, with a fourth reportedly in the works. One of the company’s rockets, the Falcon 9, is constantly being improved, including the addition of landing legs, cooler fuels, etc. And it’s advertised launch service is very, very cheap ( SpaceX’s share of the U.S. launch market grew significantly in 2017, getting more than half of the nation’s launches that year. ULA didn’t do badly, but it also didn’t capture half of the nation’s launches in 2017.

ULA’s response, initially, is to build it’s own BlackBerry Storm, the Vulcan. Like the Storm, it will be more expensive than the competition. It’s reliability will be an unknown, although ULA will likely play up its history with its other, more established, rockets. The Vulcan, without more information from ULA, appears to retain many of the same drawbacks of older systems. It’s doubtful the Vulcan will keep to ULA’s schedule of launching in 2020 ( And when it does roll off the assembly line, its competitor will, based on recent information and now conjecture, already have a newer, more capable launch system up and running, which might even be cheaper (

In some ways, ULA is in a more precarious position than RIM. The company is a 50/50 split between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. If one of the joint venture decides enough is enough, that could be it for ULA. Even if the Vulcan is successful, there’s a lesson to be learned from RIM’s BlackBerry Storm about the dangers of success.

When you look at both ULA and SpaceX, it’s apparent each one has a different vision of the future. But we may have seen this play before, between RIM and Apple and Google. RIM’s not selling smartphones anymore. Is there a BlackBerry moment in the U.S. launch service industry?



An Embarrassment of Rich Space History?


Image from Go there to see more. I’m sure they would appreciate it.

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

Over four years ago, I had fun writing about the Buran, the Soviet Union’s (now Russia) answer to the U.S. Space Shuttle. You can read about it here:

The reason why I’m bringing this up is because posted an article (here: about a week ago. It’s a story about a reporter who managed to sneak into places at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. These are places Westerners typically are not allowed to visit. In this instance, the reporter not only snuck in, but took quite a few photos.

The photos were of the Buran–two Burans, actually. He also captured a few photos of the Energia booster, which would have lifted one the Burans into orbit. The story focuses on the reporter’s efforts to get to these buildings, and what happened when he returned to show off the photos of what sat within. Apparently some Russians have been embarrassed by this. It’s probably almost as embarrassing as a teenager flying a Cessna 100’s of miles through very secure airspace and then landing in Red Square (true story:

But it’s also sad. The Russians were very good at building awesome space technology. The launch vehicles used today in Roscosmos launches are a testament to the engineering and design prowess of the Russians (albeit flagging lately). The shape of their Soyuz launch vehicle is about as iconic as V-2 based rocket designs, and perhaps better-looking. But in those images lay some of the Soviet space program’s more interesting projects, covered in bird droppings and hidden away from history, in buildings that sound like they are on the verge of collapse.

Whether the Soviets dropped the Burans because they realized operations would be too expensive for such as a system, money issues generally, or were concerned about possible safety issues because of the system’s complexity, I am not sure (I’ll have to find a book about it). But there they sit, a history snapshot.

I’d love to see them in person one day.

The Test Demo of “The Mission Readiness Review”

This site contains my opinions and ideas only, not the opinions or ideas of any organization I work for. It’s my idea playground, and I’m inviting you in. Welcome!

And the little caveat above applies double for the podcast link below.

Yes, a podcast. An audio podcast (for now). I figured we would give this a shot. I’m calling it “The Mission Readiness Review.” It’s Episode 1: On orbit BEES, Earthly troubles.

Here’s how it’s described: The Mission Readiness Review is a weekly update of space industry activities we find interesting. It may well be the only MRR you’ll ever want to listen to.

So, this is the demo. It’s the beginning of a weekly thing. We hope you like it. I had fun making it. Pretty sure my wife did, too.

P.S–it’s 19 minutes long

P.P.S–not really new information about the SpaceBees on today: Still just conjecture with no one coming forward.