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.

Amazon Joins the Broadband Space Race

I wrote a blog just a few weeks ago talking about how OneWeb had fully leaped into the race to place broadband satellites by launching a few test satellites and also by raising a few more billion dollars to fund the venture.

It’s been rumored for several years that Amazon was also interested in the idea, but their plans have been under wraps. It just came to light that Amazon has taken the first public steps and had the FCC file paperwork with the International Telecommunications Union to make notice of Amazon’s intent to launch satellites.

Amazon filed with the FCC under the name of Kuiper Systems LLC. Space fans will recognize the corporate name as a reference to the Kuiper belt, which is the area of the solar system past Neptune that is believed to contain numerous comets, asteroids and other small objects made largely of ice.

Amazon has big plans and the ITU filing said the company wants to launch a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low earth orbit. That’s 784 satellites in orbit at 367 miles above the earth, 1,296 in orbit at 379 miles, and 1,156 in orbit at 391 miles. Added to the other companies that are talking about getting into the business that’s now more than 10,000 planned satellites.

We know that Jeff Bezos is serious about space. He owns a rocket business, Blue Origins, that is developing an orbital-class rocket called the New Glenn. That company already has some future contracts to make private launches for OneWeb and Telesat. Amazon also recently launched a cloud computing service knows as AWS Ground Station that is intended to provide communications data links between earth and object in outer space. We also found out recently that Bezos kept 100% control of Blue Origins as part of his divorce settlement.

None of the low-orbit satellite ventures have talked about broadband speeds, prices or customer penetration goals. The only one making any announcement was SpaceX who said that his Starlink satellites would be capable of making a gigabit connection to earth. But that’s a far cry from a realistic estimate of a broadband product and is the satellite version of the Sprint cellphone test that showed that millimeter wave spectrum could deliver gigabit speeds to a cellphone. It can be done but is incredibly hard and would involve synching big data pipes from multiple satellites to a single customer.

We got another clue recently when OneWeb asked the FCC for permission to eventually create 1 million links to earth-based receivers, meaning customers. That puts some perspective on the satellites and shows that they are not trying to bring broadband to every rural customer. But still, one million satellite connections would represent about 10% of the rural homes in the US that don’t have broadband today. If that’s their US goal it automatically tells me that prices will likely be high.

NASA and others in charge of space policy have also started talking recently about the potential dangers from so many objects in orbit. We don’t know the size of the Amazon satellites yet. But Elon Musk said his satellites would range in size from a refrigerator down to some that are not larger than a football. NASA is worried about collisions between manned space flights with satellites and space debris.

Amazon is still early in the process. They haven’t yet filed a formal proposal to the FCC discussing their technology and plans. They are several years behind OneWeb and Starlink in terms of getting a test satellite into orbit. But an Amazon space venture has the built-in advantage of being able to advertise a satellite broadband product on the Amazon website where the vast majority of Americans routinely shop. I can envision Amazon measuring the broadband speed of a customer connected to the Amazon website and popping up an offer to buy faster broadband.

It’s absolutely impossible to predict the impact these various satellite companies will have on US broadband. A lot of their impact is going to depend upon the speeds and prices they offer. A lot of rural America is starting to see some decent speeds offered by WISPs with newer radios. Every year some pockets of of rural America are getting fiber and gigabit speeds. Where might the satellites fall into that mix? We can’t forget that the need for broadband is still doubling every three years, and one has to consider the speeds that homes will want a decade from now – not the speeds households want today. We’re at least a few years from seeing any low-orbit broadband connections and many years away from seeing the swarm of over 10,000 satellites that are planned for broadband delivery.

My Take on the Internet of Things

I think there might be as many different predictions about the Internet of Things as there are bloggers and pundits. So I thought I would join the fray and give my take as well. The Internet of Things is that it is going to involve a new set of technologies that will enable us to get feedback from our local environment. That is going to allow for the introduction of a new set of tools and toys, some frivolous and some revolutionary.

I have read scores of articles talking about how this is going to change daily life for households. The day may come when our households resemble the Jetsons and where we have robots with more common sense than most of us running our households, but we are many years away from that.

There will be lots of new toys and gadgets that will sometimes make our daily lives easier. For instance food we buy may have little sensors put into packaging that will tell you when your produce is getting ready to go bad so that you won’t forget to eat it. There will be better robots that can vacuum the floors and maybe even do laundry and walk the dog. But I don’t see these as revolutionary and probably not affordable for the general populace for some time. For a long time the Internet of Things is going to create toys that wealthy people or tech geeks will play with, and it will take years to get these technologies to make it into everybody’s homes. Very little of what I have been reading for household use sounds revolutionary.

The biggest revolutionary change that will directly affect the average person is medical monitoring. Within a decade or two it will be routine to have sensors always tracking your vitals so that they will know there is something wrong with you before you do. There will be little sensors in your bloodstream looking for things like cancer cells, which is going to mean that we won’t have to worry about curing cancer, we’ll head it off before it gets started. This will revolutionize healthcare to be proactive and preventative and will eventually be affordable to all.

English: A technology roadmap of the Internet ...

English: A technology roadmap of the Internet of Things. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think the most immediate big benefactor of the Internet of Things is going to be at the industrial level. For instance, it is not hard to envision soil sensors that will tell the farmer the conditions of each part of his fields so that his smart tractor can fertilize or weed each section only as appropriate. There is already work going on to produce mini-sensors that can be sent underground into oil fields to give oil geologists the most accurate picture they have ever had of the underground topology. This will make it possible to extract a lot more oil and to do so more efficiently.

Small sensors will also make it a lot easier to manufacturer complex objects or complicated molecules. This could lead to the production of new polymers and materials that will be cheaper stronger and biodegradable. It will mean that medicines can be modified to interact with your specific DNA to avoid side effects. It means 3D printing that will feel like Star Trek replicators that will be able to combine complex molecules to make food and other objects. NASA has already undertaken a project to be able to print pizza as the first step towards being able to print food in space to enable long flights to Mars.

And a lot of what the Internet of Things might mean is a bit scary. Some high-end department stores already track customers with active cell phones to see exactly how they shop. But this is going to get far more personal and with face recognition software stores are going to know everything about how you shop. They will not just know what you buy, but what you looked at and thought about buying. And they will offer you instant on-site specials to get you to buy – ads that are aimed just at you, right where you are standing.

I remember reading a science fiction book once where the ads on the street changed for each person who walked by, and we are not that far away from that reality. There are already billboards in Japan that look at the demographics in front of them and which change the ads appropriately. Add facial recognition into that equation and they will move beyond showing ads aimed at middle-aged men and instead show an ad aimed directly at you. The Internet of Things is going to create a whole new set of attacks on privacy and as a society we will need to develop strategies and policies to protect ourselves against the onslaught of billions of sensors.

Probably one of the biggest uses of new sensors will be in energy management. And this will be done on the demand end rather than the supply end. Today we all have devices that use electricity continuously even when we aren’t using them. It may not seem like a lot of power to have lights on in an empty room or to have the water warm all of the time in an automatic coffee pot, but multiply these energy uses by millions and billions and it adds up to a lot of wasted power. You read today about the smart grid, which is an effort to be more efficient with electricity mostly on the demand side. But the real efficiencies will be gained when the devices in our life can act independently to minimize power usage.

Sensor technologies will be the heart of the Internet of Things and will be able to work on tasks that nobody wants to do. For instance, small nanobots that can metabolize or bind oil could be dispatched to an oil spill to quickly minimize environmental damage. The thousands of toxic waste dumps we have created on the planet can be restored by nanobots. Harvard has been working on developing a robot bee and it is not hard to envision little flying robots that could be monitoring and protecting endangered species in the wild. We will eventually use these technologies to eat the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and to terraform Mars with an oxygen atmosphere and water.

Many of the technologies involved will be revolutionary and they will spark new debates in areas like privacy and data security. Mistakes will be made and there will be horror stories of little sensors gone awry. Some of the security monitoring will be put to bad uses by repressive regimes. But the positive things that can come out of the Internet of Things make me very excited about the next few decades.

Of course there will be a lot of bandwidth needed. The amount of raw data we will be gathering will be swamp current bandwidth needs. We are going to need bandwidth everywhere from the City to the factory to the farm, and areas without bandwidth are going to be locked out of a lot more than just not being able to stream NetFlix. The kind of bandwidth we are going to need is going to require fiber and we need to keep pushing fiber out to where people play and work.