AT&T and Connected Vehicles

AT&T just released a blog talking about their connected vehicle product. This blog paints a picture of where AT&T is at today and where they hope to be headed into the future in this market niche.

For a company like AT&T, the only reason to be excited about a new market niche is the creation of a new revenue stream. AT&T claims to have 24 million connected cars on its network as of the end of 3Q 2018. They also claim 3 million additional connected fleet vehicles. They also have over 1 million customers who are buying mobile WiFi hotspots from AT&T.

What does that look like as a revenue stream? AT&T has relationships with 29 global car manufacturers. Most new cars today come with some kind of connectivity plan that’s free to a car buyer for a short time, usually 3 to 6 months. When the free trial is over consumers must subscribe in order to retain the connectivity service.

As an example of how this works, all new Buicks and Fiats come with AT&T’s UConnect Access for a 6-month free trial period. This service provides unlimited broadband to the vehicle for streaming video or for feeding the on-board mapping system. After the trial customers must subscribe to the service at a monthly rate of $14.99 per month – or they can buy a la carte for connectivity at $9.99 per day or $34.99 per month.

In the blog AT&T touts a relationship with Subaru. The company provides a trial subscription to Starlink that provides on-board navigation on a screen plus safety features like the ability to call for roadside assistance or to locate a stolen vehicle. Subaru offers different plans for different vehicles that range from a Starlink trial of between 4-months and 3-years. Once the trial is over the cost of extending Starlink is $49 for the first year and then $99 per year to extend just the security package or $149 per year to extend the whole service. Starlink is not part of AT&T, so only some portion of this revenue goes to the carrier.

I wonder how many people extend these free trials and become paying customers? I have to think that the majority of the AT&T connected vehicles are under the Starlink relationship which has been around for many years. Families that drive a lot and watch a lot of video in a vehicle might find the UConnect Access to be a much better alternative than using cellular data plans. People who want the feature of locating their car if stolen might like the Starlink. However, most drivers probably don’t see a value in these plans. Most of the features offered in these packages are available as part of everybody’s cellular data plans using the Bluetooth connectivity in these vehicles.

The vehicle fleet business, however, is intriguing. Companies can use this connectivity to keep drivers connected to the home office and core software systems. This can also be done with cellphones, but I can think of several benefits to building this directly into the vehicle.

The second half of their blog discusses the possibility for 5G and automated cars. That’s the future revenue stream the company is banking on, and probably one of their biggest hopes for 5G. They have two hopes for 5G vehicle connectivity:

  • They hope to provide the connectivity between vehicles using 5G and the cloud. They believe that cars will be connected to the 5G network in order to ‘learn’ from other vehicle’s driving experience in the immediate vicinity.
  • They also hope to eventually provide broadband to driverless cars where passengers will be interested in being connected while traveling.

The first application of connecting nearby vehicles is no guarantee. It all depends on the technology path chosen to power driverless vehicles. There is one school of thought that says that the majority of the brains and decision making will be done by on-board computers, and if cars connect to nearby vehicles it will be through the use of on-board wireless communication. AT&T is hoping for the alternate approach where that connectivity is done in the cloud – but that’s going to require a massive investment in small cell sites everywhere. If the cloud solution is not the preferred technology then companies like AT&T will have no incentive to place 5G cell sites along the millions of miles of roads.

This is one of those chicken and egg situations. I liken it to smart city technology. A decade ago many predicted that cities would need mountains of fiber to support smart cities – but today most such applications are being done wirelessly. Any company banking on a fiber-based solution got left behind. At this point, nobody can predict the technology that will ultimately be used by smart cars. However, since the 5G technology needs the deployment of a massive ubiquitous cellular network, the simpler solution is to do it some other way.

Delays in Satellite Broadband

One of the big unknowns for rural broadband is if there will ever be a better satellite broadband option. The industry was surprised last year when Elon Musk announced that he planned to blanket the earth with over 4,000 satellites and operate as a worldwide ISP under the newly formed Starlink. These satellites would be launched by SpaceX, another Elon Musk company that that provides commercial rocket launches.

I’ve been following the financial news about the Elon Musk family of businesses, and about SpaceX and Starlink more specifically, since a successful launch of the business could provide another rural option for broadband.

There are several financial analysts predicting that Starlink is now largely on hold, due mostly to funding issues. They report that Starlink has stopped hiring the new employees needed to implement the business plan. Further, it appears that SpaceX needs up to $10 billion to fulfill its own business plan and that any money raised by the company is likely to go there first before Starlink is funded. At a minimum this probably means a major delay in satellite launches for Starlink.

These analysts warn that the SpaceX business plan is not yet solid. The commercial launch business is now seeing other major competitors. ULA, the existing major competitor to SpaceX has been stepping up their game. Boeing is behind Space Launch Systems, another newcomer to the field. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has started Blue Origin and has started construction on a spaceflight center in Florida. There is also a new competitor announced in Japan. The competition is going to drive down the cost of space launches and will also spread the launches among numerous parties, diluting any early advantage enjoyed by SpaceX.

SpaceX was counting on riding the coattails of other commercial launches to get the broadband satellites into space. The company is scheduled to complete 28 launches by the end of this year but is only scheduled so far for 18 launches in 2019. The company is also banking on making money from selling commercial space travel to rich tourists, but the analysts doubt that will be enough revenue to keep the company afloat.

Starlink had originally announced plans to have 40 million broadband subscribers generating $30 billion in annual revenues by 2025. That’s an average revenue per customer of $63 dollars per month. It now looks like the date for getting the company started will be significantly delayed. Starlink launched two test satellites earlier this year, but has not reported how they performed.

I’ve also wondered if Starlink would strongly pursue the residential broadband business in North America. While they will be a great alternative for rural America, they will be just another player in cities. Being an ISP makes a lot more sense in those parts of the world where the company could enjoy a near-monopoly.

In the US and Canada there is probably a lot more money to be made instead by serving the many proposed small cell sites if 5G turns out to be a relevant business plan. Starlink says they can deliver speeds of a gigabit or more to a given customer, but the math behind the bandwidth available at any given satellite means that would only be available to a relatively small number of customers rather than to the whole residential market. Speeds for residential broadband are likely to be at much lower speeds. However, gigabit satellite broadband could be the backhaul solution that 5G needs and might let it escape the bottleneck of needing fiber everywhere. I’ve never seen any discussion of such a partnership, but that’s probably because the satellite business is still somewhat theoretical and at a minimum, delayed from the original projected time line.

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.