The Busy Skies

I was looking over the stated goals of the broadband satellite companies and was struck by the sheer numbers of satellites that are being planned. The table further down in the blog shows plans for nearly 15,000 new satellites.

To put this into perspective, consider the number of satellites ever shot into space. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (NOOSA) has been tracking space launches for decades. They report that there have been 8,378 objects put into space since the first Sputnik in 1957. As of the beginning of 2019, there were still 4,987 satellites still in orbit, although only 1,957 were still operational.

There was an average of 131 satellites launched per year between 1964 and 2012. Since 2012 we’ve seen 1,731 new satellites, with 2017 (453) and 2018 (382) seeing the most satellites put into space.

The logistics for getting this many new satellites into space is daunting. We’ve already seen OneWeb fall behind schedule. In addition to these satellites, there will continue to be numerous satellites launched for other purposes. I note that a few hundred of these are already in orbit. In the following table, “Current” means satellites that are planned for the next 3-4 years.

Current Future Total
SkyLink 4,425 7,528 11,953
OneWeb 650 1,260 1,910
Telesat 117 512 629
Samsung 4,600 4,600
Kuiper 3,326 3,326
Boeing 147 147
Kepler 140 140
LeoSat 78 30 108
Iridium Next 66 66
SES 03B 27 27
Facebook 1 1
 Total 5,192 9,300 14,492

While space is a big place, there are some interesting challenges from having this many new objects in orbit. One of the biggest concerns is space debris. Low earth satellites travel at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour to maintain orbit. When satellites collide at that speed, they create a large number of new pieces of space junk, also traveling at high speed. NASA estimates there are currently over 128 million pieces of orbiting debris smaller than 1 square centimeter and 900,000 objects between 1 and 10 square centimeters.

NASA scientist Donald Kessler described the dangers of space debris in 1978 in what’s now described as the Kessler syndrome. Every space collision creates more debris and eventually there will be a cloud of circling debris that will make it nearly impossible to maintain satellites in space. While scientists think that such a cloud is almost inevitable, some worry that a major collision between two large satellites, or malicious destruction by a bad actor government could accelerate the process and could quickly knock out all of the satellites in a given orbit. It would be ironic if the world solves the rural broadband problem using satellites, only to see those satellites disappear a cloud of debris.

Having so many satellites in orbit also concerns another group of scientists. The International Dark Sky Association has been fighting against light pollution that makes it hard to use earth-based telescopes. The group now also warns that a large number of new satellites will forever change our night sky. From any given spot on the Earth, the human eye can see roughly 1,300 visible stars. These satellites are all visible and once launched, mankind will never again see the natural sky that doesn’t contains numerous satellites at any given moment.

Satellite broadband is an exciting idea. The concept of bringing good broadband to remote people, to ships, and to airplanes is enticing. For example, the company Kepler listed above is today connecting to monitors for scientific purposes in places like lips of volcanos and on ocean buoys and is helping us to better understand our world. However, in launching huge numbers of satellites for broadband we’re possibly polluting space in a way that could make it unusable for future generations.

The Impact of Satellite Broadband

Recently I’ve had several people ask me about the expected impact of low-orbit satellite broadband. While significant competition from satellites is probably a number of years away, there are several major initiatives like StarLink (Elon Musk), Project Kuiper (Amazon), and OneWeb that have announced plans to launch swarms of satellites to provide broadband.

At this early stage, it’s nearly impossible to know what impact these companies might have. We don’t know anything about their download and speed capacity, their pricing strategy, or their targeted market so it’s impossible to begin to predict their impact. We don’t even know how long it’s going to take to get these satellites in space since these three companies alone have plans to launch over 10,000 new satellites – a tall task when compared to the 1,100 satellites currently active in space.

Even without knowing any of these key facts, BroadbandNow recently grabbed headlines around the industry by predicting that low-orbit satellites will bring an annual savings of $30 billion for US broadband customers. Being a numbers guy, I never let this kind of headline pass without doing some quick math.

They explain their method of calculation on their web site. They are making several major assumptions about the satellite industry. First, they assume the satellite providers will compete on price and will compete in every market in the country. Since the vast majority of American live in metro areas, BroadbandNow is assuming the satellite providers will become a major competitor in every city. They also assume that the satellites will be able to connect to a huge number of customers in the US which will force other ISPs to lower prices.

Those assumptions would have to be true to support the $30 billion in projected annual consumer savings. That is an extraordinary number and works out to be a savings of almost $20 per month for every household in the US. If you spread the $30 billion over only those households that buy broadband today, that would be a savings of over $23 per month. If your further factor out the folks who live in large apartments and don’t get a choice of their ISP, the savings jumps to $27 per household per month. The only way to realize savings of that magnitude would be from a no-holds-barred broadband price war where the satellite providers are chewing into market penetrations everywhere.

I foresee a different future for the satellite industry. Let’s start with a few facts we know. While 10,000 satellites is an impressive number, that’s a worldwide number and there will be fewer than 1,000 satellites over the US. Most of the satellites are tiny – these are not the same as the huge satellites launched by HughesNet. Starlink has described their satellites as varying in size between a football and a small dorm refrigerator. At those small sizes these satellites are probably the electronic equivalent of the OLT cabinets used as neighborhood nodes in a FTTH network – each satellite will likely support some limited and defined number of customers. OneWeb recently told the FCC in a spectrum docket that they are envisioning needing one million radio links, meaning their US satellites would be able to serve one million households. Let’s say that all of the satellite providers together will serve 3 – 5 million homes in the US – that’s an impressive number, but it’s not going to drive other ISPs into a pricing panic.

I also guess that the satellite providers will not offer cheap prices – they don’t need to. In fact, I expect them to charge more than urban ISPs. The satellite providers will have one huge market advantage – the ability to bring broadband where there isn’t landline competition. The satellite providers can likely use all of their capacity selling only in rural America at a premium price.

We still have no real idea about the speeds that will be available with low-orbit satellite broadband. We can ignore Elon Musk who claims he’ll be offering gigabit speeds. The engineering specs show that a satellite can probably make a gigabit connection, but each satellite is an ISP hub and will have a limited bandwidth capacity. Like with any ISP network, the operator can use that capacity to make a few connections at a high bandwidth speed or many more connections at slower speeds. Engineering common sense would predict against using the limited satellite bandwidth to sell gigabit residential products.

That doesn’t mean the satellite providers won’t be lured by big bandwidth customers. They might make more money selling gigabit links at a premium price to small cell sites and ignoring the residential market completely. It’s a much easier business plan, with drastically lower operating costs to sell their capacity to a handful of big cellular companies instead of selling to millions of households. That is going to be a really tempting market alternative.

I could be wrong and maybe the satellite guys will find a way to sell many tens of millions of residential links and compete in every market, in which case they would have an impact on urban broadband prices. But unless the satellites have the capacity to sell to almost everybody, and unless they decide to compete on price, I still can’t see a way to ever see a $30 billion national savings. I instead see them making good margins by selling where there’s no competition.

Can Satellites Solve the Rural Broadband Problem?

satelliteA few weeks ago Elon Musk announced that his SpaceX company is moving forward with attempting to launch low earth orbit (LEO) satellites to bring better satellite broadband to the world. His proposal to the FCC would put 4,425 satellites around the globe at altitudes between 715 and 823 miles. This contrasts significantly with the current HughesNet satellite network that is 22,000 miles above the earth. Each satellite would be roughly the size of a refrigerator and would be powered by a solar array.

This idea has been around a long time and I remember a proposal to do something similar twenty years ago. But like many technologies, this really hasn’t been commercially feasible in the past and it took improvements to the underlying technologies to make this possible. Twenty years ago they could not have packed enough processing power into a satellite to do what Musk is proposing. But Moore’s Law suggests that the chips and routers today are at least 500 times faster than two decades ago. And these satellites will also be power hungry and weren’t possible until modern solar power cells were created. This kind of network also requires the ability to make huge numbers of rocket launches – something that was impractical and incredibly expensive twenty years ago. But if this venture works it would provide lucrative revenue for SpaceX, and Elon Musk seems to be good at finding synergies between his companies.

Musk’s proposal has some major benefits over existing satellite broadband. By being significantly closer to the earth the data transmitted from satellites would have a latency of between 25 and 35 milliseconds. This is much better than the 600 milliseconds delays achieved by current satellites and would put the satellite broadband into the same range that is achieved by many ISPs. Current satellite broadband has too much latency to support VoIP, video streaming, or any other live Internet connections like Skype or distance learning.

The satellites would use frequencies between 10GHz and 30GHz, in the Ku and Ka bands. Musk says that SpaceX is designing every component from the satellites to earth gateways and customer receivers. For any of you that want to crawl through specifications, the FCC filing is intriguing.

The large number of satellites would provide broadband capability to a large number of customers, while also blanketing the globe and bringing broadband to many places that don’t have it today. The specifications say that each satellite will have an aggregate capacity of between 17 and 23 Gbps, meaning each satellite could theoretically process that much data at the same time.

The specifications say that the network could produce gigabit links to customers, although that would require making simultaneous connections from several satellites to one single customer. And while each satellite has a lot of capacity, using them to provide gigabit links would chew up the available bandwidth in a hurry and would mean serving far fewer customers. It’s more likely that the network will be used to provide speeds such as 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps.

But those speeds could be revolutionary for rural America. The FCC and their CAF II program is currently spending $9 billion to bring faster DSL or cellular service to rural America with speeds that must be at least 10/1 Mbps. Musk says this whole venture will cost about $10 billion and could bring faster Internet not only to the US, but to the world.

It’s an intriguing idea, and if it was offered by anybody else other than Elon Musk it might sound more like a pipedream than a serious idea. But Musk has shown the ability to launch cutting-edge ventures before. There is always a ways to go between concept and reality and like any new technology there will be bugs in the first version of the technology. But assuming that Musk can raise the money, and assuming that the technology really works as promised, this could change broadband around the world.

This technology would likely be the death knell of slower rural broadband technologies like LTE cellular, DSL, or poorly-deployed point-to-multipoint wireless systems. In today’s world the satellites would even compete well with current landline data products in more urban areas. But over a decade or two the ever-increasing speeds that customers will want will ultimately still be better served by landline connections. Yet for the near future this technology could be disruptive to numerous landline broadband providers.

It’s hard to envision the implications from providing fast broadband around the globe. For example, this would provide a connection to the web that is not filtered by a local government. It would also bring real broadband to any rural place that has available power. In the poorer nations of the world this would be transformational.  It’s hard to over-state the potential impacts that this technology could have around our planet if it’s deployed successfully.

Musk says he would like to launch his first satellite in 2019, so I guess we won’t have to wait too long to see if this can work.  I’ll be watching.