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Will Low-Earth Orbit Satellite Internet Service Providers Succeed?

Larry Press

In 1990, Teledesic was formed to deliver satellite-based Internet service. Cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal were early investors and Boeing was both an investor and the prime contractor. Teledesic hoped to offer global Internet connectivity using a constellation of 840 satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 700 km. (The plan was scaled back to 288 satellites in 1997).

Teledesic failed.

Twenty seven years later three companies SpaceX, OneWeb and Boeing are trying to do what Teledesic could not do. Will they succeed?

Good news – a lot has changed since Teledesic tried and failed.

Launches have gotten cheaper — SpaceX has made landing a 549,054 kg rocket that is 70 feet long and only 3.66 meters in diameter and has reached an altitude of 247 km and fallen at a speed of up to Mach 7.9 within .7 m of the target on a drone barge at sea almost routine. They have had 18 successful soft landings and their next-generation rocket, the BFR is designed for reusability and will be able to launch many satellites per flight.

Satellites are now cheaper, smaller and lighter. OneWeb and their manufacturing partner Airbus say automation and re-design will enable them to manufacture three satellites per day at a cost of less than $1 million each and launch cost per satellite will be low since they are small and light. In a talk at the opening of the SpaceX satellite engineering office in 2015, CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk expressed confidence that they would be able to mass produce satellites and also pointed out that the failure of one or a few satellites in a constellation of thousands was relatively unimportant. If a satellite fails, the remaining satellites will route around it, and increased tolerance of failure reduces manufacturing cost.

Consumer ground-stations will also be small, cheap and easy to install "pizza boxes." Since the signals will be weak, the antennae will have to be outside, but end users will be able to install them because, unlike today's TV and Internet dishes, they will not have to be aimed precisely at a single, geostationary satellite. Modern phase-shift array antennae will follow a satellite as it moves and switch to another in microseconds or a few milliseconds when it goes out of site. Similarly, satellites will be able to transmit a beam that is fixed on one area on the ground as it moves over it.

Communication technology has improved dramatically. Today's radios are smart — rapidly changing power, frequency, modulation scheme, etc. under program control. Teledesic belonged to an era of dedicated spectrum allocation, but smart radios are ushering in an era of unlicensed spectrum and spectrum sharing. This is a fundamental shift — like the introduction of packet switching — and it will lead to efficient use of spectrum (on Earth and in space).

The terrestrial fiber network has grown exponentially since the time of Teledesic, making Internet gateways attractive targets. Satellites may compete favorably with long undersea and terrestrial cables. Elon Musk says SpaceX satellites will communicate optically among themselves, forming a low-latency, highly interconnected mesh that will carry the majority of our long-distance traffic. Google, a billion dollar SpaceX investor, might be their first long-haul customer.

The market for Internet connectivity is larger today than it was at the time of Teledesic because more people are aware of the Internet and many are trained to use it with mobile devices. Furthermore, applications are varied and powerful today. The Teledesic project was during the Web 1.0 era when the Web consisted of static sites with text and small, compressed images. Today, the U. S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) defines "broadband" as at least 25 Mbps download speed and some fortunate people have gigabit connections in their homes. The low latency of LEO satellites is well suited to interactive applications that require error checking.

While increasing numbers of people are online with mobile devices, the digital divide has widened. A slow connection using a phone is not the same as a fast connection that can support modern applications on a computer. I can consume content, make purchases and chat with friends using a mobile phone, but I could not have written this post or done the research that went into it without a laptop and a fast Internet connection. High-speed connectivity to homes, schools, libraries, clinics, etc. will be in demand and narrow the qualitative digital divide.

Today's satellite company executives have different backgrounds than Teledesic's. Bill Gates had built a software company, Craig McCaw a cellular phone company and Boeing had experience with the technology of the time. I know nothing about Boeing's people today, but they have the benefit of the lessons the company has learned since Teledesic. OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler created a successful satellite-based company, O3b, which provides Internet service using a constellation of 12 mid-Earth orbit satellites. (O3b is now owned by SES).

Given his track record, Elon Musk deserves special mention. For a start, he is CEO and Lead Designer at Tesla — actively involved in engineering decisions — Jobs and Wozniak in one package. He is also unfettered by outside investors, giving him more latitude and the ability to reassign personnel — relatively free of shareholder's pressure to pursue their applications or maximize short-run profit. (Of course, he needs to make money in order to continue his business and invest in journeys to the Moon and Mars). While I hope the market is large and varied enough to support others all, Tesla will succeed if anyone does.

Unknowns and possible glitches

The above changes improve the outlook for today's satellite projects, but there is still uncertainty. For example, it is hard to know what the true capacity of these systems will be — the number of users and the user mix they will support. They speak of serving individual users, local area networks like schools, libraries or public-access hotspots, Internet gateways, cell phone backhaul, ships, airplanes, automobiles, Internet of things (IoT) devices, etc. One can even imagine a space-based content-delivery network using solid-state drives.

An Internet gateway requires more bandwidth than an IoT sensor that is read every hour and, during the day, a school needs more bandwidth than a home. Will the companies end up with different customer mixes? For example, SpaceX has singled out long-haul Internet exchanges and home connectivity as target applications and, given Elon Musk's other interests, we can imagine him targeting autonomous vehicles and power distribution. OneWeb is also going after homes and buildings, but a key investor, Softbank, is focused on the Internet of things. OneWeb CEO Doug Wyler's first satellite service, O3b, serves mobile network operators, ship lines, governments, and enterprises. Perhaps OneWeb will focus on large customers.

A related question — how will these companies handle sales and service? Will they have online sales, global offices, dealers, partner with ISPs and mobile companies, etc.? (OneWeb backer Softbank tried to merge with Intelsat, but the merger, which would have provided OneWeb with global offices, failed).

There are regulatory as well as technical challenges. The FCC has delayed acting on SpaceX's launch application pending negotiations on spectrum-sharing techniques between them and other satellite companies using the same range of radio frequencies. These will be global networks, and they will have to satisfy the spectrum regulators of all nations they wish to serve as well as the International Telecommunication Union. At the very least, that means dealing with a lot of bureaucracy.

Standards also come to mind. SpaceX, OneWeb, Boeing, and others are working on methods of spectrum sharing. The Ethernet standard grew out of joint work by Intel, DEC and Xerox — will SpaceX, OneWeb and Boeing create satellite spectrum standards one day?

Regulators also worry about falling debris. These satellites have a useful life of about five years after which they are de-orbited and burn up in the atmosphere. SpaceX hopes to launch over 4,000 satellites in their first constellation and they are in discussion with the FCC over the likelihood of human injury from falling debris. SpaceX eventually hopes to be able to economically recapture spent satellites using the BFR.

There are also political and cultural barriers. Will nations like China or North Korea allow citizens to install home ground stations and connect to the Internet? Will Saudi Arabia tolerate access to pornography? Cuba will not allow citizens to connect to expensive, slow geostationary satellites — allowing connections to fast, cheap Internet satellites would require a political shift.

(That being said, Cuba would be a prime candidate for this service if the government would allow it. They have very little infrastructure, an educated population and since it is an island, the constellation "footprint" would not be densely populated).

There may also be a need for international anti-trust and consumer-protection regulation. What if one or all three of these companies succeed in establishing global networks that become monopolies or oligopolies in some nations or regions — for example in central Africa. That could have significant consumer protection and political implications.

Teledesic planned to offer service through local service providers, but OneWeb and SpaceX plan to sell services and easily installed ground-stations directly to consumers. Will terrestrial Internet service providers fight them by lobbying governments and in court the way they have fought publicly-owned terrestrial Internet service providers?

Manufacturing, launching and operating these constellations seems like an immense engineering task. It is hard to imagine an organization capable of such a feat, but let's put these efforts in perspective. If humans can manufacture, launch, deploy and operate the James Webb Space Telescope or the flood-control and water-distribution system in ancient Petra, a constellation of "low-tech" satellites in low-Earth orbit seems like a piece of cake — the question is whether the business model will work out.

Will these companies succeed? Sorry to disappoint, but I don't know enough about their coverage and business models to say "yes" with certainty, but I am hopeful because smart, experienced business people, entrepreneurs, and investors are betting they will succeed.

More remarkable — last year, Tom Wheeler, President Obama's FCC chairman, summed up a talk on the impact of improving technology, saying:

The pace of innovation is accelerating, and with new technological advances, satellites now have the opportunity to play a much more important role in bringing broadband to underserved and unserved areas around the world.

This year, Trump's FCC chairman Ajit Pai stated:

Today, the FCC updates the framework that will govern non-geostationary-satellite orbit satellite systems. And it's high time: It's been over a decade since we first adopted rules for these types of constellations. In the years since, innovation has brought exciting potential to connect consumers across the nation, especially in rural, remote, and tribal areas. The rules we adopt will promote the next generation of non-geostationary satellite systems, which could expand broadband access where it's needed most.

Do Obama and Trump's appointees agree on anything other than this? Let's hope all three projects succeed, and we have some decent competition.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University
Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Wireless
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Promoted Post

Buying or Selling IPv4 Addresses?

Watch this video to discover how ACCELR/8, a transformative trading platform developed by industry veterans Marc Lindsey and Janine Goodman, enables organizations to buy or sell IPv4 blocks as small as /20s.