Facebook has reportedly registered a new subsidiary to build low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, competing with SpaceX, OneWeb, and others. The subsidiary, called PointView Tech, plans to launch a demonstration satellite in 2019 to investigate using the E-band spectrum for communications. E-band promises much higher data connection speeds than those planned by rivals, but needs to overcome challenges, including absorption by rain or other particles. E-band is also used by the Facebook drone project called Aquila.
For the Facebook satellite constellation to work, there would need to be thousands of satellites, similar to SpaceX and OneWeb.
The PointView Tech initiative puts Facebook in direct competition with SpaceX. There doesn’t appear to be much love lost between Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. They have engaged in a public feud around AI. Musk recently deleted all Tesla accounts from Facebook. The relationship also wasn’t helped when Facebook’s last satellite project, AMOS-6, blew up on launch of a SpaceX rocket in August 2016.
While SpaceX, OneWeb, O3B and other multi-billion dollar satellite constellations garner most of the press, other lower cost initiatives demonstrate a different and potentially consequential approach.
Sky and Space Global, for example, plans to launch 200 nano-satellites (under 10 kg each) into low earth orbit in order to provide telecommunications services in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. The satellites, which adhere to CubeSat standards, will be deployed in near-equatorial planes, reaching 15 degrees north and south of the equator.
Satellites will be launched aboard LauncherOne, the air-launched rocket from Virgin Orbit. Satellites will communicate with ground antennas which provide wifi hotspots, or potentially with a new generation of $20 Android phone capable of direct communications with the satellites.
Sky and Space Global aims to build and launch the entire constellation of 200 satellites for $200 million, a fraction of the cost of even one geosynchronous communications satellite.
Coca-Cola is planning to build wifi hotspots across sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. In partnership with Intelsat, Coca-Cola is launching its “Ekocenter” program to promote local development and community. Each Ekocenter will provide local wifi, as well as power and clean water.
The program initially is targeting sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Future expansion will include Latin America.
When possible, Ekocenters will be run by women, consistent with Coca-Cola’s 5×20 goal of empowering 5 million women by 2020.
The FCC has given conditional approval to the SpaceX Starlink satellite network, the first “mega-constellation” to receive government approval. The Starlink program proposes to launch 4,425 satellites into low earth orbit to provide global broadband services. Service will begin with the first 800 satellites in place, sometime in 2020. SpaceX recently launched two trial satellites that are currently undergoing tests.
The FCC approval was conditional on SpaceX providing updated deorbiting plans for satellites taken out of operations.
Gwynne Shotwell, COO of SpaceX, comments “Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking, this is an important step toward SpaceX building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected.”
FCC press release and approval documentation are available online.
While the global reach of the internet is increasing through wireless, satellite, and other technologies, the local usage of the internet is often spurred by government programs. Regional efforts can target underserved communities and provide training and content development for new users.
In Mexico, for example, where access to the internet is enshrined in the constitution, Mexico Conectado is a government program providing connectivity through parks and public building in order to bridge the digital divide and provide better government services.
A similar government program in Colombia, Vive Digital, has promoted millions of new internet connections through expansion of broadband and distribution of computers.
In Australia, nbn has built a wholesale local access broadband network with government support to serve disadvantaged communities.
Many countries have prepare forward-looking internet plans. A key component is often direct government support for connectivity and training.
When broadband arrives, apps follow. Many initial uses of cellphones are for personal enjoyment (79% of time spent in India is on entertainment, search social and messaging). With time, however, other useful services involving health, education, finance and government services become popular.
As one example of this progression, the education technology (“edtech”) sector in India is now booming. The firm Byju’s, for example, has released an education app already downloaded over 14 million times (with 900,000 paid users). Byju’s uses innovative curriculum, such as a Bollywood dance troupe rhythmically moving to demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem. If students don’t have a sufficient internet connection to download materials, Byju’s will send them a memory card with appropriate resources.
Byju’s boasts prominent investors including Sequoia Capital and Tencent and a valuation of $800 million.
India faces profound challenges in education: over half of fifth graders, for example, can’t read at a second grade level. The edtech sector is hoping to help.
In the rush to expand broadband, companies are developing satellites, drones, balloons — and even outfitting LandCruisers.
One group, however, is taking a sensible-sounding approach utilizing a resource that is already airborne: commercial aircraft. The Airborne Wireless Network proposes to outfit hundreds (eventually thousands) of aircraft with telecommunications equipment capable to communicating with both ground stations and other aircraft. The “mini-satellites” would form a mesh network serving worldwide data and communications service providers.
The firm has tested initial prototypes using two aircraft, and plans a 20 aircraft test in early 2018. The anticipated global rollout is scheduled for 2021.
70% of Australia lacks cell coverage. Even remote areas, however, do boast lots of Toyota LandCruisers crisscrossing the terrain.
Flinders University, along with Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi Australia have proposed outfitting LandCruisers with communications hubs capable of “store and forward” messaging. Each “mobile hotspot” would include wifi, UHF and mesh networking capabilities with a range of 25 km. Messages would be passed from vehicle to vehicle until reaching an internet-connected base station.
The LandCruiser Emergency Network wouldn’t provide true broadband, but would offer messaging services, especially useful during emergencies.
The advantage of geosynchronous orbit is that satellites appears stationary. Satellite dishes or antennas tracking the satellite don’t need to move. Any orbits other than geosynchronous require antennas to move to track the satellite. Historically, this added a lot to the complexity and cost of the antenna (although the Soviets employed the “Molniya Orbit” for decades which required dishes to nod up and down from the horizon).
As companies contemplate placing thousands of satellites into low earth orbit, and all of the advantages that confers (less latency, smaller satellites, lower cost), a major challenge appears: How do you design an antenna to track satellites, including frequent handoffs from one satellite to another? And if the antenna is moving in a plane or car, how does that factor in?
Fortunately, there is great progress in a new generation of “steerable antennas”, also described as a “phased array antennas”. Researchers have essentially built the “steering” elements, until now managed through motors, onto a chip. Flat panel antennas are being designed which can track satellites, including through the frequent passing from one to another.
The technology is well-demonstrated, and a number of agreements are being signed between antenna technology firms and satellite companies, such as recent agreements between ALCAN and SES or between Phasor and LeoSat.
Technology firms are still wrestling with costs for steerable flat panel antennas, although with millions likely to be purchased for broadband access, companies are optimistic that prices will fall to a few hundred dollars.
SpaceX, OneWeb, O3b, and other satellite network companies get a lot of attention for their plans to launch dozens (or perhaps thousands) of communications satellites in coming years.
Relatively less attention is paid to country-specific satellite launches that also have significant impact on expanding broadband.
For example, in early April, SpaceX is scheduled to launch Bangabandhu-1, a communications satellite for the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission. The $250 million satellite will provide broadcasting and telecommunications services to rural areas in Bangladesh from geostationary orbit.
Later in April, the Chinese are launching Apstar 6C, and the Russians are launching Blagovest 12L, both providing (among other things) telecommunications and mobile broadband services to rural areas in China and Russia.
As is always true with satellites in geostationary orbit, both latency and costs tend to be high. That said, each of these satellites (and other country-specific satellites scheduled for launch later this year) play an important role in the expansion of global broadband.