Edging Closer to Satellite Broadband

A few weeks ago Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched two test satellites that are the first in a planned low-orbit satellite network that will blanket the earth with broadband. The eventual network, branded as Starlink, will consist of 4,425 satellites deployed at 700 miles above earth and another 7,518 deployed at around 210 miles of altitude.

Getting that many satellites into orbit is a daunting logistical task. To put this into perspective, the nearly 12,000 satellites needed are twice the number of satellites that have been launched in history. It’s going to take a lot of launches to get these into the sky. SpaceX’s workhorse rocket the Falcon 9 can carry about ten satellites at a time. They also have tested a Falcon Heavy system that could carry 20 or so satellites at a time. If they can make a weekly launch of the larger rocket that’s still 596 launches and would take 11.5 years. To put that number into perspective, the US led the world with 29 successful satellite launches last year, with Russia second with 21 and China with 16.

SpaceX is still touting this as a network that can make gigabit connections to customers. I’ve read the FCC filing for the proposed network several times and it looks to me like that kind of speed will require combining signals from multiple satellites to a single customer and I have to wonder if that’s practical when talking about deploying this networks to tens of millions of simultaneous subscribers. It’s likely that their standard bandwidth offering is going to be something significantly less.

There is also a big question to me about the capacity of the backhaul network that carry signal to and from the satellites. It’s going to take some major bandwidth to handle the volume of broadband users that SpaceX has in mind. We are seeing landline long-haul fiber networks today that are stressed and reaching capacity. The satellite network will face the same backhaul problems as everybody else and will have to find ways to cope with a world where broadband demand doubles every 3 years or so. If the satellite backhaul gets clogged or if the satellites get over-subscribed then the quality of broadband will degrade like with any other network.

Interestingly, SpaceX is not the only one chasing this business plan. For instance, billionaire Richard Branson wants to build a similar network that would put 720 low-orbit satellites over North America. Telesat has launched two different test satellites and also want to deploy a large satellite network. Boeing also announced intentions to launch a 1,000-satellite network over North America. It’s sounding like our skies are going to get pretty full!

SpaceX is still predicting that the network is going to cost roughly $10 billion to deploy. There’s been no talk of consumer prices yet, but the company obviously has a business plan – Musk want to use this business as the primary way to fund the colonization of Mars. But pricing is an issue for a number of reasons. The satellites will have some finite capacity for customer connections. In one of the many articles I read I saw the goal for the network is 40 million customers (and I don’t know if that’s the right number, but there is some number of simultaneous connections the network can handle). 40 million customers sounds huge, but with a current worldwide population of over 7.6 billion people it’s miniscule for a worldwide market.

There are those predicting that this will be the salvation for rural broadband. But I think that’s going to depend on pricing. If this is priced affordably then there will be millions in cities who would love to escape the cable company monopoly, and who could overwhelm the satellite network. There is also the issue of local demand. Only a limited number of satellites can see any given slice of geography. The network might easily accommodate everybody in Wyoming or Alaska, but won’t be able to do the same anywhere close to a big city.

Another issue is worldwide pricing. A price that might be right in the US might be ten times higher than what will be affordable in Africa or Asia. So there is bound to be pricing differences based upon regional incomes.

One of the stickier issues will be the reaction of governments that don’t want citizens using the network. There is no way China is going to let citizens bypass the great firewall of China by going through these satellites. Repressive regimes like North Kora will likely make it illegal to use the network. And even democratic countries like India might not like the idea – last year they turned down free Internet from Facebook because it wasn’t an ‘Indian’ solution.

Bottom line is that this is an intriguing idea. If the technology works as promised, and if Musk can find the money and can figure out the logistics to get this launched it’s going to be another new source of broadband. But satellite networks are not going to solve the world’s broadband problems because they are only going to be able to help some small limited percentage of the world’s population. But with that said, a remote farm in the US or a village in Africa is going to love this when it’s available.