Tag Archives: Google

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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Another False Step for Mankind?

Image from NASA.

The Orion capsule was successfully tested last week. For those who don’t know, the Orion is NASA’s future crew capable capsule, which will hopefully be used to explore to the moon and beyond. The capsule was tested on December 5, 2014, lofted into space for a very short time and then reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to land just off of Baja California’s coast.

I’m glad it worked. I’m glad so many people who worked on the Orion test received the gratification of a successful test. For the work they’ve done, they deserve to celebrate. But what does it mean? We’ve done something like this before nearly 45 years ago. Then for the next few years after that we did it better, with humans inside capsules, with better funding, greater public motivation, and very competitive external political pressure.

This is why I see this test as a false start. The conditions in the late 60’s/early 70’s helped to fund NASA for a bit. But the conditions don’t exist now. One might say the opposite of those conditions exists now: desultory and low funding, a generally uninterested public, and no real external competition. So why would anyone think NASA will be able to keep Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) on track? Politics tends to get in the way of progress, sometimes, why should it be any different with space?

Look at it this way: NASA’s budget hasn’t really increased or decreased very much (page 10 of this slideshow), politicians still quibble about whether the program is even necessary (and some do believe so, a few for the wrong reasons), and I still don’t hear very many of the general public talking about the need for space exploration. I do hear plenty of worry about the U.S. economy, affordable care, ISIS, gasoline prices, education, and unemployment. But such issues are natural for us to worry about. They are more immediate, more tangible–even though many people in the U.S. use many products that would likely never have existed without a space program.

Those issues are why NASA will likely not achieve momentum to keep this current effort going. Social programs will ALWAYS outcompete NASA, and so NASA lives a bit like the brilliant, but spurned, step-child, getting crumbs from the adults’ budget table every now and then. As crass as it sounds, NASA’s programs like Orion are akin to the building of monuments to kings. It will probably always be like that, so long as space exploration lives at the sufferance of the very few: presidents, senators, and representatives. They are why NASA came into being. They are why NASA received money for Apollo. They are why NASA started living hand-to-mouth nearly 40 years ago. They will be NASA’s destroyers. They are why there was no real follow-up to Apollo. By the way, they are theoretically doing what we told them to do.

It’s not that it isn’t exciting to see something like the Orion capsule being tested. It’s not that it’s uninteresting. I want to see us as a species move out into the stars. It’s just that I must wonder what kind of start this is. NASA’s Administrator Bolden said this “Day One of the Mars era.” I’m not so sure. It might’ve been a good day for NASA, but what does that mean?

I know it sounds bleak, but there are good things happening with space. Small satellites seem to be interesting to more people and more companies. Some bigger internet companies are expanding on that interest, making very big plans for small satellites. These big plans with small satellites require more launch capability, which will hopefully be developed. It looks like that might happen, too.

Private launch companies–ones not beholden (yet) to military and government funding–are trying to come forward. A few are even talking about eventually using their spacecraft to travel to Mars. There are a few countries that are becoming more active in space as well. Some aren’t waiting to see what the U.S. will do. And who knows, between those countries and private companies, someone might do it for less money than NASA can. And not a single politician will be in control, money-wise.

Google Wants a Piece of Virgin

Google Shopping Spree

Another space announcement from Google and Virgin Galactic last week took many folks by surprise.  Google is supposed to be in talks with Virgin Galactic, and supposedly wants to buy a small stake in the sub-orbital flight company.  One telltale sign of the seriousness of the talks is the companies have signed up and registered the internet domain name Virgle, at least according to Sky News.

This might make sense, if Google is looking to support cheaper options for getting low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites into orbit.  And Virgin Galactic is touting LauncherOne as a way to get payloads into LEO quickly and inexpensively.  The only hitch to this right now is that Virgin Galactic hasn’t really started their initial business of flying passengers into space.  But maybe they’ll get there.

If LauncherOne works, then Google could inexpensively launch a few SkyBox satellites into LEO (they each weigh about 120 kg., or a little less than 265 lbs.).  LauncherOne is stated to have a payload capacity of 225 kg. (500 lbs.) for a “low inclination orbit“–an orbital path that crosses the equator at closer to a 0 degree angle rather than 45 or 90.  Or, if someone wants to put a satellite into LEO sun-synchronous (go here to see what that means), the payload capacity gets cut nearly in half:  100 kg. (225 lbs.).  The weight of the payload is cut because more fuel is required to get the satellite into an orbit which is more inclined.  So, if SkyBox and Google wish to start using Virgin Galactic to launch more SkySat satellites, they’ll need time to reduce the satellite weight a bit.

But since SkyBox signed an agreement with Orbital Sciences earlier this year to launch six more satellites in 2015, SkyBox might be able to get that done.  Then, the other 23 or so satellites SkyBox wants to get into orbit can be accomplished with Virgin Galactic perhaps more cheaply.  And, if something goes wrong with one of their satellites, they can quickly schedule a Virgin Galactic LauncherOne “launch,” and get a new, healthy replacement satellite into LEO quickly.

Just how well the US Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program will compete, pricewise, with this (especially considering Virgin Galactic passengers are paying a mere $200,000–so the satellite launch will be cheaper, too, perhaps)?  And will that program be at least as responsive as Virgin Galactic might be?  Doubtful–but it’s an exciting time for space operators and fans.

 

Imagery Unchained (Finally!)

DigitalGlobe Free

Back in September 2013 I wrote an opinion about why the US government’s laws regarding imagery resolution were very onerous.  The rules just didn’t make sense in a world of cheap picture drones.  That opinion was based on a story about DigitalGlobe attempting to get imagery restrictions relaxed so they could compete better in the satellite imagery market.

Now, that has all changed.  According to this Marketwired.com article, and DigitalGlobe’s subsequent announcement, the US Department of Commerce has relaxed those satellite imagery restrictions.  From Marketwired.com:

“Effective immediately, DigitalGlobe will be permitted to offer customers the highest resolution available from their current constellation.”

There’s also a bit about allowing specifically finer resolutions to be made available from DigitalGlobe’s Worldview-3 low earth orbiting satellite, about six months after it’s launched in August.  Marketwired.com also has a nice chart comparing most of DigitalGlobe’s satellites and their capabilities, if you’re curious.

Good news for DigitalGlobe and its customers.  Now, does SkyBox have to go through the same thing?  Especially now that Google is trying to buy them?  A lot of action going on in the satellite imagery world.

Googs in Space?

Googs

Google’s maybe getting into space?  This is an interesting TechCrunch article about the possible acquisition of satellite imagery company SkyBox by advertising aggregator Google.  Theoretically, SkyBox is Google’s only target, but TechCrunch does float Planet Labs and RapidEye as possible targets, too.  Except, SkyBox is the ONLY satellite company offering real-time streaming of High Definition video.  Which might be one of the reasons why Google might want to buy SkyBox.

It seems to me, though, there should be some serious questions about why Google is buying an imagery company like SkyBox.  As far as we know, Google has been fairly satisfied with using imagery from satellite operators like DigitalGlobe.  So why think about buying an actual satellite imagery operator like SkyBox (aside from the cool factor)?  What would this do for Google that’s not happening right now?

What instantly leaps to mind is maybe Google is perhaps not getting the best imagery its money can buy.  US-based companies like DigitalGlobe are only allowed to sell their highest resolution imagery to US government customers.  They can’t, under current laws, sell it to anyone else.  I am not a lawyer, but what can you do with the imagery if you are the owner of the imagery?  And, what if you’re literally just giving it away on a platform such as Google Maps or Google Earth?  I don’t think lawmakers ever foresaw a multi-billion-dollar company giving away imagery in a networked world.  In some ways, Google is using better imagery from airplanes, too, and they’re not prevented from using those for their maps.

So perhaps Google is tired of not getting the best (although, arguably, SkyBox’s camera resolution won’t supply the 25 centimeter resolution that DigitalGlobe’s birds can).  But if Google supplies the money, SkyBox can up this part of the game, eventually.  Right now they’re operating only one satellite, with a second hopefully on the books for them in the next few months.  Of course, this is not really a complete answer to why Google might want to buy SkyBox.

There’s the HD video portion that makes SkyBox unique.  What on Earth could Google do with that information?  Sure, some of the video might be useful for a Google Doodle, but I bet there’s more on their minds for SkyBox.  Theoretically, the satellite’s video camera might be able to give real-time visual information of traffic.  It could also provide information about weather.  It could be used to tie in to a Google Glass type of device or your cell phone.  Frighteningly, it could also be used to track a particular device with great accuracy (of course, they’re kind of doing that already).  More useful applications would be for helping fire-fighters determine “hot-spots” real-time–something that can’t really be done with a DigitalGlobe-type constellation.

But it would all only be useful if SkyBox can get more satellites in orbit than the single satellite they are using right now.  Then things can get really interesting.  If there was a full constellation, Google could accomplish a “sideways” move.  Think about the projects they’ve worked on in the past:  Project LoonGoogle Fiber, and their activities in the spectrum auctions.  Google has done a lot to promote internet communications.  It would make sense to put a secondary or tertiary communications payload on these satellites.  Payloads dedicated to supplying internet service, that are able to interlink with other satellites.  Admittedly, that gets more complicated than just supplying imagery to the world.

Such a system, if used, might be a way for Google to skirt country boundaries and laws.  Unless there was a requirement for a “government monitoring device” to be installed in a ground station, Google would be able to give the world internet access.  The way to get around the ground station bottleneck might be just to have devices generally available that can talk back and forth to the satellites from the ground (kind of like Iridium, but with less government sponsorship and smaller phones, perhaps).  Or perhaps use a converted barge as a floating ground station in international waters.  Of course, this is all conjecture, but it’s fun to do.

Does all of this mean Google gets my trust back?  Well, let’s see:  this basically increases surveillance ability and Google has no obligation to transparency.  They still, somehow, get ads through to me with no context, except through words misinterpreted by their fairly lame algorithm.  They still feel obligated to share information with the government without too much of a fight.  So, nope.  Watch the skies, then, and smile–you’re on Google Kamera.