In the last post (here), I wrote a few guesses about who might want to pay for something like SpaceX’s Starlink or O3b’s broadband constellations. The upshot of that whole exercise was to find out that perhaps the world’s poor probably won’t be the funders of these constellations.
Even if these constellations might be cheap.
This might seem a little obvious, but cheap is relative. When Elon Musk talks about the billions of dollars likely needed for SpaceX’s constellation (https://www.msn.com/en-us/finance/companies/elon-musk-dares-to-go-where-others-failed-with-internet-from-space/ar-AAvfNSu), it’s really expensive–for a communications satellite constellation. Especially for companies operating satellite communications/broadcast constellations now. I wrote a little about their operations and costs earlier: https://themadspaceball.com/2018/03/21/traditional-space-broadband-and-the-changing-reality/.
So how are these proposed broadband constellations considered cheap if the current operators are shaking their heads about the costs and complexity? Broaden the scope. Consider that, in essence, a constellation like Starlink is broadband infrastructure, but it’s in space, around Earth. These constellations aren’t competing with the operators of geosynchronous satellites. Geosynchronous satellites are handicapped by huge distances, cost lots of money to lift to their perches, make juicy and fairly easy targets, cover at most 1/3 of Earth’s surface, etc. Instead, the proposed constellations are competing with existing infrastructures back on Earth.
For those of us living in the U.S. for the past decade, there was a time when we hoped that Google, the search/advertising company, would help accelerate broadband development while reducing costs. The company started in with Google Fiber in Kansas city. Many cities envied this development. Why? Existing broadband monopolies believed customers didn’t need any connection faster than what they offered, but still expected people to pay high prices (a new Google Fiber story is here: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/zmwkdx/eight-years-later-google-fiber-is-a-faint-echo-of-the-disruption-we-were-promised). I referenced this situation in another previous article (https://themadspaceball.com/2018/03/23/examining-a-potential-competitor-to-traditional-space-broadband-operators/), but American readers probably don’t need the reminder of the situation our lawmakers have created for us with broadband.
But back to Google and Google Fiber. Google went on to wire up Austin, Texas. But progress has been slow for its deployment through the rest of the nation. One possible reason is money, but another definite reason is just installing the infrastructure in these cities. A 2012 article noted a Goldman Sachs analyst did some math and figured out it would cost $140 billion to wire up all of U.S. households with fiber (http://www.businessinsider.com/how-much-it-would-cost-google-to-build-a-cable-network-2012-12). That same analyst estimated Verizon paid $15 billion to wire up only 17 million homes.
Isn’t $15 billion the upper limit of Musk’s estimate for deploying his company’s Starlink constellation?
Wiring up 17 million people with faster internet access for $15 billion makes Verizon’s, and other broadband monopolists’, reticence to wire up the rest of us unlucky schmucks a little understandable. They know they can’t do it, and keep subscription prices low. But if those companies had the ability to “fiber up” half the world for $15 billion, that might be enough incentive to rush in and do so. A whole world of potential broadband customers for that price–maybe even double–why wouldn’t investors be interested?
And people are interested. It’s one of the reasons why stories regarding these proposed broadband constellations surface regularly. Governments and militaries, once they figure out the advantages of such a constellation, will likely also be interested–if they aren’t already. Combine this interest with obvious increases in data-demand not just by consumers, as well as the necessity for growing on-orbit spacecraft to deliver real-time observations of the Earth and its citizens.
Which is full circle to how this series began. A nonsensical assumption in a Wired article (whose editors really should have just let lie on the clipping floor) that people of the world don’t want these digital connections. In spite of examples in very recent history showing rapid adoption of networked technology in countries where the infrastructure and markets are conducive to such adoption.
Will these poorest of the connected bear the brunt of paying for these constellations? No, because there are too many other possible interested parties for such broadband constellations, with little risk to them. The timing seems right. The price to implement these constellations seems doable. The political landscape over broadband seems right. The data demands are growing, with evidence of the world’s populations gaining more advantages than disadvantages through using this data.
Whether the “other 3 billion” want internet from space or not, the Magic 8-Ball’s “the signs point to yes” answer seems appropriate in these circumstances.
We will see.