SpaceX and Other Satellite Broadband Services

maxresdefaultSpaceX executive Patricia Cooper recently testified to the Senate on SpaceX plans to build a satellite-based broadband mesh network covering the globe. Key points from her testimony include:

  • SpaceX plans for a network of 4,425 satellites operating between 1,110 and 1,325 km in altitude. The first satellites will be tested in 2017 and early 2018. The full system will be deployed between 2019 and 2024.
  • The system will have latency of approximately 25ms (current satellite broadband is ~600ms). They anticipate “fiber speeds” — although users will be able to buy different data rates at different prices.
  • Users will receive a small, laptop-size base station for communications
  • SpaceX is also planning another 9,000 satellite program at lower altitudes.

SpaceX is not alone in designing and deploying low earth orbit (LEO) broadband systems. OneWeb plans to launch 648 satellites in 2019-2020. LeoSat has ambitions for 108 satellites. Boeing is also interested.

Facebook has also been working on satellite programs to support broadband in rural Africa. Unfortunately its first satellite blew up on the SpaceX launchpad in August 2016. Facebook hasn’t announced further satellite launches at this point.

There have been many false starts with satellite internet and data companies (Iridium, Globalstar, Teledesic…) — yet today technological progress and lower launch costs are ushering in new and consequential opportunities.

When will Cellular Service Reach Everyone?

Quick answer: Never

Cellular service is quickly expanding across the planet. There are currently around 7 billion phones in use worldwide — which is about the same as number of people on the planet.  Cellular penetration rates, however, vary widely by country. Hong Kong has 240 phones in use per 100 population. Many countries in Africa, there are only a handful of phones in use per 100 population. The United Nations Broadband Commission estimates that 57% of the world’s population is mostly offline due to access or cost.

Penetration in Sub-Sarahan Africa is particularly limited. Around 55% of the population has a phone, a figure growing by a few percent per year. However most of rural Africa has no cellular coverage.


There are two strong reasons why global cellular coverage will never reach 100%:

First, coverage is easiest where there is high population density and a prosperous population. Cell towers are generally placed 1-2 miles apart (at the least). The fixed costs of cellular infrastructure impose economic limits on regions cellular networks can serve.

Second, competing technologies (drones, balloons, satellites) will soon more cost-effectively reach remote regions than cellular networks. Since new networks will reach everywhere on the planet with no regard to geography, poor, rural areas for the first time will benefit.

So the bad news is that while cellular networks have revolutionized the lives of the majority of people on the planet, they have limits. The poorest people in rural areas will never have affordable cellular coverage. Fortunately, new technologies will address this shortcoming in the next few years.

Precision Global Development

Hint: look to Precision Medicine as a model for progress.

pexels-photo-131017For years, the medical profession treated all patients as if they were the same. If someone presented with a certain array of symptoms, they would receive an established treatment.

But as medical technologies have improved, particularly around molecular diagnostics, so have the opportunities to customize treatments to the individual. Precision Medicine is revolutionizing medical practice by employing technologies to provide patient-specific interventions.

Similarly, global development programs historically have treated all members of a community the same. In recent years, however, a number of countries are building registries of all citizens in poverty, and working to design individualized assistance programs. The leader in this effort is China, with their dibao program aiming to eliminate poverty by 2020. Other countries, such as Mexico and the Philippines, employ smaller efforts. As poverty decreases, the requirement for customized efforts increases, since many of the last are mentally or physically disabled. The programs also suffer from technical challenges due to limited bandwidth and multiple databases.

But now, with the increasing arrival of broadband and improved data management systems, it is easier to tailor assistance to the individual (or to put it a bit coarsely, development becomes less of a delivery problem and more of a data problem). Precision Global Development is revolutionizing international development programs by allowing custom programs, but also by allowing individuals more opportunities to tailor their own assistance (an extreme example being through unconditional cash transfers). Precision Global Development is just one of many implications of Broadband Everywhere.