Tag Archives: Broadband

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


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.


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.