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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 Wired.com article: https://www.wired.com/story/maybe-nobody-wants-your-space-internet/.
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 (https://bgr.com/2018/03/19/best-streaming-service-vs-cable-2018/): 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 of 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.