Category Archives: Communications satellites

Turning to Fiber to Move the Competition Along

Reticle

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!

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.

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Who Will (Want to) Pay for A Few Broadband Constellations?

Milpoor

Yes–some images from the Usual Gang of idiots.

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!

In the last post, I noted that the proposed, but preposterously large, low/medium Earth orbiting broadband constellations will be cheap.

Some technology and economies of scale will possibly play into that, but that’s not the kind of cost-savings I’m referring to. Let’s start with price estimates for creating the Starlink constellation from Mr. Musk: $10 to $15 billion (https://www.msn.com/en-us/finance/companies/elon-musk-dares-to-go-where-others-failed-with-internet-from-space/ar-AAvfNSu). Others have given much higher estimates for the constellation, as high as $40 billion. This is a lot of money, even for satellite operations. I could finally buy a Nintendo Switch with that kind of money. Maybe two.

But, those satellites will be in an orbit that takes them over nearly EVERY SINGLE SQUARE METER of the Earth’s surface. As noted in the previous posts, this means the satellites can transmit, receive, and relay information, very quickly, in the service of a potential global customer base. And while some of the messaging the entrepreneurs have been trotting out for these satellites implies they are for poor people in poor regions, those aren’t the ones who will fund it.

There are implications within this kind of space network–military and intelligence ones. Again, the following paragraphs are conjecture, based on some observations of what’s happened in the past and happening now.

This kind of constellation is very distributed. It’s very difficult for an adversary to disrupt physically. It would probably cost a troublemaker more to shoot a satellite down, than the cost of the satellite itself.  And a few thousand would probably need to be destroyed. So these broadband constellations almost fit the model for redundant military communications, worldwide (http://www.airuniversity.af.mil/Portals/10/ASPJ/journals/Volume-29_Issue-6/C-Wegner_Adang_Rhemann.pdf). They don’t even have the terrestrial broadband network’s downside of possibly having cables cut somewhere under the sea (Think that’s made up? Some folks are concerned-updated 31 Mar: http://time.com/5223237/russia-targeting-undersea-internet-cables/).

A few upsides for the military is not needing military “space operators” communications satellites, or needing to worry about leasing from certain geostationary communications satellite operators over certain areas of the Earth (http://spacenews.com/42261pentagon-report-says-commercial-bandwidth-is-four-times-more-expensive/). Just like the regular internet, a deployed soldier could theoretically have access to a very, very fast network, immediately. While it’s doubtful the military will be very trusting of commercial communications networks, they might stop needing very costly and specific military communications satellites for enemy target practice.

Heck, the USAF is used to paying billions for a single satellite, and tens of billions for satellite systems (http://spacenews.com/the-end-of-sbirs-air-force-says-its-time-to-move-on/). These proposed broadband constellations will be a bargain, not need a typically over his/her head DoD acquisitions officer, and will probably become operational closer to original scheduled dates than any government system ever has.

Signals intelligence satellites and organizations from various nations will have a field day trying to shadow these satellites to have a peek at the radio traffic going through them. But since these are broadband satellites, common internet security standards will generally separate the smart from the targets.

This sort of communications network could benefit space stations, like the International Space Station. It could aid with space situational awareness satellites. It could help relinquish some geographic dependencies for certain kinds of other constellations and ground networks. And this kind of data would be small potatoes compared to the day-to-day internet traffic we have on Earth today.

This is also a multi-way street, by the way–a traffic circle of Parisian proportions. Militaries from other nations, some who have never invested in space, will probably benefit from these broadband constellations. It’s likely governments will realize this, too. Some will attempt to build rival constellations, probably not as successfully, because other populaces in other nations may not trust those constellations.

Again, these constellations are worldwide. If the operators work these intelligently, they will be pure dumb pipes. And anyone willing to pay to access them, will be allowed access. Why wouldn’t the governments from many different nations invest money to help build it? Why wouldn’t they pay to use it? It’s much cheaper than the alternative. And they might end up subsidizing the very poor’s access to it.

But that’s still not what I meant by cheap. More about that later.

Examining a Potential Competitor to Traditional Space Broadband Operators

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Image from SpaceX. The Tintins were launched on this particular Falcon 9.

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!

At the end of my last post, I asked: What is new, the thing that makes the upcoming satellite broadband operators sure they’ll get return on investment?

Here are my guesses, and we’ll start by looking at SpaceX’s Starlink demonstration satellites, Tintin A and Tintin B. These satellites were launched a few weeks ago.

Based on this FCC document, the Tintins are probably the Microsats mentioned within: https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=185534&x. The satellites described are very small, but not cubesat-sized. Each one is about 1 meter cubed, with a mass around 400kg. By comparison, the Hispasat communications satellite which was launched a little later weighed over 6000 kilograms and about 27X9X7 meters in size (http://licensing.fcc.gov/myibfs/download.do?attachment_key=1144453, pg 13).

The small size of the TinTins is significant. It means SpaceX can load up a Falcon 9 with at least 20 of these. Probably more, based on the LEO/GTO mass specifications of the Falcon 9: http://www.spacex.com/falcon9. SpaceX needs to load up many, many Falcon 9’s with these Microsats/Tintins to get 12,000 satellites into orbit (http://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-starlink-internet-satellite-launch-paz-youtube-2018-2). The company would also have to maintain a launch rate exceeding anything the company has achieved so far.

Even if the company used the Falcon Heavy instead of the Falcon 9, deploying 12,000 satellites might take a while. If the Big Falcon Rocket becomes a reality, then all bets are off. There likely is the benefit of using one’s own rocket fleet to launch one’s satellites.

Back to the satellites, and lots of conjecture.

The small size and mass of the satellites may mean the satellites are very, very inexpensive when compared with the costs of building geostationary satellites. The number of satellites means SpaceX may benefit from assembly line production of satellites not yet seen in the space industry (although I would bet that China could change this very, very quickly). Looking at what the company did with rockets, the satellites themselves are probably not anything special. We see some of that already on the FCC filing. When SpaceX constructed its rockets, it did not to introduce anything exotic and stuck with tried and true technologies. The company just made them better and used them differently. It helps the company that it also seems more willing than most to take risks.

But the satellites themselves probably aren’t the reason SpaceX and other companies building similar constellations are confident. The confidence may be more about the market, politics, and lack of choice.

In the United States, people generally have put up with very, very mediocre or worse broadband. Even paying more for broadband is no guarantee it will be fast or good. But the other side of this monopoly is there is no real alternative to the one cable provider–and DSL is not a cable competitor. This means, then, that at the very least, citizens in the U.S. might be very willing to jump the cable-monopoly ship with no hesitation, IF the other alternative is significantly better, with significantly better customer service, and is cheaper. Politically and mindshare-wise, cable companies are viewed with the sort of contempt and resentment reserved for tax collectors. It’s one of the reasons why trends like cord-cutting are growing annually (https://bgr.com/2018/03/20/best-home-internet-vs-cable-2018/).

Data communications is growing. Streaming television requirements may demand more bandwidth as images become higher resolution. People will probably have more than a smartphone with them (they may not even have a smartphone–but that’s a discussion for another time), which means more communications devices per person. This implies networked communications isn’t even close to becoming saturated, as devices that serve our needs become smaller, more efficient, and less obtrusive. These devices will be ubiquitous and reliable as people expect them to work, all the time, every time. Homes and cars will be extremely networked for energy efficiency reasons, safety, security, and convenience. And to think that other people around the world, in poorer countries, won’t want those things is to ignore history.

The silliness of bandwidth and speed caps will need to be left behind for this kind of future. Broadband will need to be more affordable. And broadband infrastructure needs to be ready to take this on, whether from space or on the Earth. In the U.S., at least, the terrestrial broadband companies don’t appear remotely ready, and even seem to be attempting to turn back the clock. Which may be why constellations like SpaceX’s are appealing to entrepreneurs and represent some ray of hope to potential consumers.

The kind of orbits these new satellites are in will allow access to broadband ANYWHERE on the globe. The orbits are so close to the Earth that these companies believe their versions of space broadband will be faster. This appeals to gaming nerds and might be perfect for Internet of Things devices. And SpaceX has noted this constellation might also be helpful in aiming communications out, towards, say, Mars. Which means the company does not necessarily need to rely on the rotation of the planet to bring ground stations into view of Mars. But 12,000 seems overkill for that purpose.

However, these satellites are capable of serving broadband customers who could potentially come from many different markets, not just somewhere on 1/3 of the Earth’s face. And, if these satellites are cheap, it may not cost much to deorbit an outdated one and send up an upgraded, more capable satellite–just like Planet and Spire have been doing with their cubesats. Upgrade-ability is desirable in the minds of these newer potential space operators, and longevity equates to irrelevance. And the price for the constellation is cheap (https://www.fool.com/investing/2016/11/19/spacex-wants-to-give-you-satellite-internet.aspx)!

Yes, I said cheap! Conjecture continues in the next post.

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 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.

New Space Satellites and Data

Another of my Clearancejobs.com posts.  This time it’s a bit about the opportunity for “New Space” companies to not only produce data, but also build up a robust infrastructure to shunt it around.  It might be an opportunity that will grow.  Read it here:  The New Space Data Challenge–An Opportunity for Growth?