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Important Developments on Low-Earth Orbit Satellite Internet Service (2017 Review)

Larry Press

The internet is unavailable and/or unaffordable by about 50% of the world's population. The situation is worse in, but not confined to, developing nations where the service is typically sub-standard when it is available.

Geostationary satellite connectivity is available globally, but it is slow and expensive because the satellites are high above the Earth. Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites can deliver speeds comparable to terrestrial links, but constellations of many satellites would be needed to serve the entire planet.

The first project to attempt a LEO constellation failed in the 1990s, but rocket, electronic and communication technologies have made great strides since that time. Today, five LEO satellite-Internet projects that hope to provide global, affordable, high-speed Internet are underway. If they succeed, we will see early LEO connectivity in some places (like Alaska) in 2020 and by the middle of the next decade homes, schools, libraries, businesses, ships at sea, Internet-connected devices, etc. will be online. While mobile connectivity is growing rapidly in developing nations, high-speed fixed connectivity would enable the use of personal computers, a qualitative improvement for content creators.

The following are annotated links to blog posts written in 2017 with each having been updated several times since publication. The posts are illustrated with several images and include videos of important talks and events. When appropriate the posts link to other posts within the collection, resulting in a set that can be read sequentially or as a hypertext. Regardless, I would suggest starting with the most recent post. There are also numerous links to external sources.

* * *

An Example of Effective Government Support for New Communication Technology (November 2017) – From the Morse telegraph through the Internet, government and industry have collaborated on the development and deployment of communication technology. A recent hearing by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee continued that cooperation by seeking suggestions for helpful legislation from four satellite industry representatives. The constructive, non-partisan tone of that hearing stands out in the current era of polarized, dysfunctional government. For more on the testimony of witnesses from SpaceX and OneWeb, see: SpaceX and OneWeb

Telesat, a Fourth Satellite Internet Competitor (November 2017) – Telesat hopes to achieve global coverage rapidly and at low cost by deploying a small, hybrid constellation with both polar and inclined-orbit satellites connecting to the terrestrial Internet via ground stations they already own in the far north. Like OneWeb, they are working with outside vendors for launch services, satellite and antenna design and manufacture. This and the size of their constellation will keep initial capital costs relatively low.

Will Low-Earth Orbit Satellite Internet Service Providers Succeed? (October 2017) – There is good news and uncertainty/bad news. Teledesic failed as a satellite ISP, but since that time we have seen vastly improved technology and changes in the terrestrial Internet industry, market and executive experience. These changes are generally positive, but the new satellite companies also face unique technical, political and business roadblocks and unknowns. The future is uncertain, but increased Internet service competition would benefit us all.

The Role of the BFR in SpaceX's Satellite Internet Service (October 2017) – This post is based primarily on a talk (with an excellent slide deck) that Elon Musk gave on their forthcoming Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). He outlined its specifications, for example, ten times the payload capacity of the current Falcon 9, and the ways it will be used for inserting satellites in orbit and establishing a base on Mars. The Falcon 9 will be used to launch SpaceX's first two prototype Internet-service satellites early next year, but in 2019, when they begin launching operational satellites, their next rocket, the Falcon Heavy, will be available. The BFR will be available before their first Internet constellation is complete in 2024. Musk suggested that, in addition to launching terrestrial satellites and travel to Mars, the BFR would be used to retrieve spent satellites and second stages and for long-distant terrestrial travel.

Inevitability of Global Standards for Non-Terrestrial Spectrum Sharing (October 2017) – Satellites and terrestrial Internet service providers rely on radio communication and must avoid interference when transmitting near each other at a given frequency. Historically, this has been achieved by granting exclusive licenses to use specific frequency bands, but this is not practical or efficient with thousands of satellites at different altitudes and in different orbits. Fortunately, modern communication technology opens the possibility of dynamically sharing frequencies among many providers — terrestrial and satellite — but cooperation and standards are needed. The satellite Intenet companies embrace frequency sharing and are willing to cooperate.

Can Constellations of Internet Routing Satellites Compete With Long-Distance Terrestrial Cables? (September 2017) – Packets on routes between distant points are relayed through multiple routers and each inter-router "hop" takes time. Generally speaking, satellites, which can see far over the horizon and make straight-line connections to other satellites, require fewer router hops than fiber links between distant points. Furthermore, laser transmission in space is faster than in fiber. For these reasons, Elon Musk has set a goal of having "the majority of long-distance traffic go over this (satellite) network" and Leosat is focusing on high-end fast, point-point links.

Boeing's Satellite Internet Project (August 2017) – Boeing has been in the satellite business for many years — they were the prime contractor for Teledesic's failed attempt at LEO satellite Internet in the late 1990s. They have applied for a license to launch 1,396 satellites within six years and another 1,560 within 12 years, but have kept a relatively low profile. They recently shortened the timetable on their Mars exploration project so the large Space Launch System rocket they are developing for Mars voyages may become available for launching Internet satellites. They may also be working toward collaboration with OneWeb

OneWeb Satellite Internet Project Status Update (August 2017) – This post outlines OneWeb founder Greg Wyler's background in the terrestrial and satellite Internet service business and presents the current status of their Internet project. Softbank is a leading partner and investor and Wyler gave a talk at the 2017 Softbank World conference in which he discussed their technology, major partnerships, anticipated timeline, goals and the advantages they enjoy. They plan to launch their first satellites in March 2018 and begin offering service in Alaska in 2019. They hope to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020 and have 1 billion subscribers by 2025. Their prices will vary with regional incomes, so they hope to eliminate the global digital divide by 2027. The post includes a video of Wyler's talk at the Softbank conference and his testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

SpaceX Satellite Internet Project Status Update (August 2017) – Patricia Cooper, SpaceX Vice President, Satellite Government Affairs, testified at a productive hearing by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. She outlined SpaceX's plans and gave a rough timetable for two constellations — one in low-Earth orbit and a larger constellation in very-low Earth orbit, which may position them to compete with terrestrial ISPs in densely populated urban areas and serve the so-called "Internet of things." (Tesla cars and solar roofs would be likely things to connect). Elon Musk has given a talk outlining the SpaceX timetable for establishing early settlements on Mars and giving some details on their future booster rockets, the Falcon Heavy and the Big Falcon Rocket (the BFR). The first Falcon Heavy is expected to be launched in January 2018 (the payload will be a Tesla Roadster). Musk did not say when the BFR will be ready, but it will be before their first Internet-satellite constellation is complete. He also said the BFR might be used to retrieve spent satellites. SpaceX has also trademarked "Starlink" as the name of their satellite Internet service.

Cool images and video of the latest, increasingly routine SpaceX soft landing (May 2017) 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. Recovering and reusing boosters and eventually, second-stage rockets and satellites will dramatically reduce cost and downtime. This post documents early failures and eventual success.

Two Approaches to Routers in Space: SpaceX and OneWeb (February, 2017) – SpaceX and OneWeb have the same goal, but their organizations are dissimilar. SpaceX is integrated — building the rockets, satellites and ground stations themselves — while OneWeb has a number of collaborators and investors, including Bharti Enterprises, Coca-Cola, Intelsat, Hughes, Totalplay Telecommunications, Virgin Galactic and Softbank. OneWeb attempted a merger with Intelsat, which would have given them international offices and access to geostationary satellites, but the merger failed.

Satellite Internet update - Airbus will make satellites for OneWeb (June 2015) Airbus will make satellites for OneWeb in a joint-venture factory in Florida and Softbank has invested $1 billion. This post features an in-depth interview of Brian Holz, OneWeb's Director of Space Systems, who speaks about the reasons for producing the satellites in the US and the factors in choosing a factory location, the cost of the satellites ($4-500,000 each), the need to have global participation in a global project, launch services, satellite reliability and plans for eventually deorbiting them, financing and the business case, the search for manufacturers of millions of user terminals and antennas, etc.

SpaceX is ready to test Internet service satellites (June 2015) SpaceX filed an application to launch two identical test satellites to validate the design of their broadband antenna communications platform using three broadband array test ground stations along the western coast of the US. OneWeb seems to be moving faster.

Greg Wyler reports OneWeb progress (March 2015) OneWeb has found major partner/investors and is developing a $250, user-installable ground station that will serve as a WiFi hotspot and a 2G, 3G or LTE cell station. Consider the possibility of a WiFi network with a low-latency, 50 Mbps back-haul link to the Internet in every school or rural clinic in the world.

LeoSat Satellite Internet Project (March 2015 / Updated 2017) – Leosat will focus on the high-end market, providing low-latency, high-speed, secure connectivity to government and business — maritime applications, oil and gas exploration and production, telecom back-haul and trunking, large enterprises, etc.

Regulation of global satellite Internet service providers (January 2015) Would global Internet service providers require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?

Elon Musk and Greg Wyler's plans for global satellite connectivity (November 2014) Greg Wyler first tried to bring fiber connectivity to Rwanda, but, when that proved difficult he turned to satellite, founding O3b, a medium-Earth orbit Internet satellite company with the goal of connecting "other three billion." Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, Tesla and other companies needs no introduction. (I am a Musk fan). Google invested in O3b and Wyler worked there for a while, then contemplated a low-Earth orbit constellation in partnership with Musk, but eventually formed his own company, OneWeb. This post covers the visions and early efforts of Musk at SpaceX and Wyler at OneWeb.

Can Google connect the "other three billion" in developing nations and rural areas? (June, 2014) A survey of Google's early work with high-altitude platforms (Project Loon), low-Earth orbit satellites, medium-Earth orbit satellites and geostationary satellites

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.comVisit Page
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