Tracing the Tangled Web

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In a previous post, I asked a question that might help point to other trends, technologies, and politics that could play a role in figuring out a general direction for the space industry. And that considering those, rather than just focusing on the space industry, might be extremely instructive.

What is going on, and how might it all apply to the Space Industry?

We’ll use current trends in the U.S. to illustrate a few things.

Terrestrial Internet Service Providers’ in the U.S. have a stranglehold, a monopoly, on broadband service (and saying DSL is a viable competitor to cable and fiber is a lie). Because of this, ISP’s charge an arm and a leg for subpar speeds and someday service. But people in the U.S. are relying on these networks more and more. There are some promising technologies out there,including 5G wireless broadband, but since cellular providers will be responsible for rolling it out, it will probably be hobbled and expensive.

Politically, the U.S. government’s broadband communications policy is naively idiotic at best, or just maliciously callous and all in with traditional broadband providers, ignoring certain realities about America’s networks. Civil servants have proven adept at removing rules meant to protect free speech and unhindered online access, while keeping in place old telecommunications rules that ensure the former will never occur. Result, the majority of the U.S. citizenry would love it if someone just did an end-run around these broadband bandits and their sock puppets in government.

People rely on these broadband networks, generating and increasing data use. However, drivers are not just the activities of people, but “internet-of-things” (IoT) objects like doorbells, cars, electric assistants, etc. This in turn makes us more reliant on the network. It’s a cycle we don’t want to turn away from because life is generally nicer when people and their things are connected. Result, people will be using more data. And connected machines will be generating more data than people.

This is one reason why Microsoft is working something called “Azure Sphere.” We see some proto-IoT devices on private networks, such as the ship-tracking Automatic Identification System (AIS) and aircraft-tracking Automatic Dependent Surveillance-broadcasting (ADS-b) services, which, by the way, rely on space infrastructure to be effective. Other examples of IoT expansion in the public domain: Makers.

There’s this little thing called an Arduino. Effectively, it’s a microcontroller and very inexpensive. Makers have been playing with the Arduino for a long time. The controller can be programmed to do all sorts of things. It can light up LEDs, in different colors and patterns, and even for certain times. It can be used to control water pumps. It can control relays, which means I can hook it into the old relay panel to control all my house lighting. It can be automated. And, most importantly, it can be networked. It’s this last part that companies get really excited about.

One company, Swarm Technologies, tried to forge ahead with its own IoT plans–but without the blessing of a particular U.S. government agency. While the ramifications of this defiance/courage is unclear for the company, it’s very clear the company thinks IoT communications relayed by orbiting satellites is important enough to take a chance on the defiance. And other companies are also voicing IoT plans for space. They might be spurred on to get involved before large broadband constellations actually become a reality, as those might dominate IoT communications.

Constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink sound expensive at $10-15 billion. But it’s not as expensive as wiring just the continental U.S. Plus, these constellations provide very enticing opportunities for investors, while established GEO broadband satellite operators do not. Neither do terrestrial ISP’s. Result: like it or not, there will probably be investors ready for space-based broadband from orbits not geosynchronous. U.S. customers are very ready.

And so on…you get the idea.

It all sounds like a sort of random train of thought, right? But how does all of it hint at the direction of the space industry?

Trying to answer that question is why it may be worth revisiting the bullet points at the end of my first post in this series, “Which is the ‘Good’ Future?” Let’s bring those bullet points here as a refresher.

+ SpaceX’s Falcon 9 1st stage landing attempts were all successful during 2017.

+ SpaceX uses “drone” ships to act as ocean landing pads for returning stages.

+ SpaceX aims for quick-turnaround times between rocket landings and launches.

+ SpaceX launched two broadband test satellites. The company plans to orbit thousands around the Earth, and a few around Mars too.

+ SpaceX automated the flight termination system for its rockets during launch.

To be quite clear, SpaceX is probably a part of the space industry’s near future, but that’s more because of what and how it’s doing things. More about that in the next post in this series. I think I might be able to wrap it up. We’ll see.

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