Update on Satellite Broadband

It’s been a busy few weeks with announcements from the satellite broadband industry. The industry keeps moving us closer to a time when almost anybody in the world will potentially have access to broadband.

The first announcement came from OneWeb. The company successfully launched 36 new satellites with rockets supplied by NewSpace India Limited. This new rocket company was formed in 2019 and is a public sector undertaking sponsored by the Indian Government and an arm of the India Space Research Organization. This launch is a reminder that many parts of the world are now interested in the space business.

These new satellites bring the OneWeb fleet of satellites up to 462. The company says it will ultimately launch 648 satellites. OneWeb intends to soon open up the constellation to global coverage. OneWeb’s business plan is to reach the remotest places in the world. The company has also been hinting at using the satellites to bring broadband to remote cell towers and to remote outposts for governments and militaries around the world.

Project Kuiper, owned by Amazon and Jeff Bezos is finally ready to hit the skies and plans to launch its first two prototype satellites in early 2023. The company has an ultimate goal of launching a total of 3,236 satellites. The first launch will use rockets from the United Launch Alliance using the new Vulcan Centaur rockets. Project Kuiper has already secured 38 additional launches on the Vulcan Centaur rockets, but the majority of its satellites will be deployed using the ULA Atlas V rockets. The company is rumored to have secured as many as 92 rocket launches.

One of the most interesting pieces of news comes from subscribers of Starlink. The company recently added new language to the terms of service for both residential and business customers that introduces the idea of a data cap. The new terms of service say that customers will get a monthly limit of ‘priority access’, and once that limit is reached, the customer will no longer be prioritized over traffic generated by other customers.

This is interesting from several perspectives. First, Starlink said in the early days of the business that it would never put a cap on usage. And with this announcement, it still hasn’t done that since customers will be free to continue to use broadband for the remainder of the billing cycle.

This feels eerily reminiscent of plans offered by the high-orbit satellite companies where usage slows down after customers reach a monthly usage limit.

Numerous engineers have speculated that any satellite constellation will have a finite capacity to move data, and this announcement hints that that data limit is already foreseeable for Starlink. Of course, the company can continue to launch more satellites and has plans on the drawing board to have as many as 30,000 satellites in its constellation. But for now, with a little over 2,300 satellites, this announcement says that the constellation is probably already getting over-busy at times. The ability to slow down customers is a classic way to serve more customers than the capacity of a network. The technique has been used for years by cellular carriers, and the supposed unlimited cellular data plans are not really unlimited because user speeds get significantly slowed when a customer reaches the subscribed data limit.

Satellite providers face the same dilemma as all ISPs in that the average broadband data consumption by consumers continues to grow at a torrid pace. According to Ookla, the average monthly broadband usage in the US has grown from 215 gigabytes per month in early 2018 to 481 gigabytes in June of this year. This growth puts a strain on all networks, but it has to be more of a problem for a satellite constellation which is going to have more backhaul restrictions than a landline network fed by fiber.

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