Facebook Ditches Aquila

aquilaFacebook recently announced that they will be stopping their Aquila drone initiative, instead relying on other companies to build high altitude aircraft. In a company blog post, Facebook said that they no longer plan to build their own equipment since the broader industry is now interested in the concept.

Facebook continues to support connectivity programs for the ~four billion people currently without internet access, including fiber programs, terragraph, and policy initiatives such as a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) systems. Facebook also is quietly investing in a next generation satellite program.

Defining Broadband

broadband.pngThe name of this blog uses “broadband”. Many of the posts discuss “broadband”. Perhaps we should define the term?

The term “broadband” typically refers to an internet connection that is always on and with high bandwidth.

In developed countries, our initial internet connections in the early 90s were typically by modem  and at slow speeds. Those connections allowed e-mail to be exchanged and a few other information services, but were quite restricted.

Broadband arrived in the late nineties, typically offered either over phone lines (DSL) or cable service. We then started connecting our broadband connections to local wifi, so our computers, and later our other mobile devices, were always connected to the internet at high speed.

Simultaneously the mobile phone providers started adding data capabilities, starting with snail-slow 2G, but then progressing through 3G, 4G, LTE, and now in some regions 5G. These mobile data connections became critical with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, which offered feature-rich mobile access to the internet. Since the iPhone, a slew of competitors have appeared, and we now take for granted that the device in our pocket is always connected.

Broadband (as opposed to intermittent access to the internet) is useful for consumers (think streaming video and nice web apps like Uber) — but is vital to businesses. Cloud-based services, distributed databases, remote access to resources, mobile apps — and pretty much everything else a business does these days demands reliable broadband connectivity. Broadband quickly evolved from a luxury to an absolute requirement for essentially all business and commerce in developed countries.

What percentage of the planet currently has affordable access to broadband?  According to the UN’s State of Broadband 2017, the best estimate is that as of now, 48% of the world’s population is online with reliable, affordable broadband access. Regions obviously vary greatly: Europe is 80% online, Africa only 22%.

The percentage of people with simple cell phone coverage that allows voice calls (but no date) is much higher. Simple cell phones (also referred to as “feature phones”) have reached the low cost and sufficient access that most regions on the planet are now connected by phone. There currently are now about 7 billion cellphones on the planet, about the same number as the global population (although penetration obviously varies greatly — from 240 phones per 100 people in Hong Kong to less than 10 in many regions of Africa). According to a recent Facebook study of 75 countries, 94% of the overall population had access to 2G networks (which are sufficient for voice and texting), while only 76% had access to 3G (data) networks or better — and many of those networks are still very expensive to use.

So simple cell phones are very widespread. This is a remarkable achievement, representing arguably the first truly universal global technology.

It also represents the leading edge of the internet — once people have simple phones, it is really only an issue of cost to start moving into fuller feature smartphones. And the transition to smartphones, which about half the planet is now going through, is the true game changer. It’s convenient to be able to call and speak with somebody, but having full access to information and services as afforded by smartphones represents a major opportunity.

The biggest current challenge confronting the expansion of global broadband is that most of the regions not yet covered are rural and poor. It is prohibitively expensive to lay fiber optic cable (or any cable) to rural regions. Cell tower coverage is easier — but even then, there needs to be a critical mass of paying customers to make the economics viable. 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. The expansion of cellular coverage is slowing down, because the places that are left are rural and poor.

To complicate things further, the next generation of cellular technology that is currently being designed and deployed by telecommunications firms is 5G — which is really optimized for rich cities. It allows a huge number of high speed connections (in anticipation of the “Internet of Things” — where everything is hooked to the internet), but is very expensive to deploy. Gartner estimates that 20 million “things” will be connected by 2020 (and growing quickly). Just the bandwidth needs for self-driving cars alone will be enormous. So no longer will just consumers be paying for access: 20 million items will as well.

That’s all great for rich countries, but 5G isn’t designed at all for poor, rural regions. It’s too expensive.

So for now, the bad news is that there remain major obstacles to smartphone use and increased broadband coverage in developing countries. The good news is that most of the planet has simple phones — and that in itself is a very good thing.

Update on CubeSats

cubesatCubeSats are miniaturized satellites which comply with agreed to standards, including component cube dimensions of 10 cm on a side and less than 1.3 kg of weight per unit. Imagine a container with a liter of water — that is about the size and weight of a CubeSat.

Because they are so small and primarily use commercial off-the-shelf components (mostly designed for cell phones), CubeSats are fast and cheap to design and deploy. Historically they have been launched as secondary payloads with larger launches. Over 800 CubeSats have been deployed to date, and at least 1200 more are planned for orbit. A new industry of launch services targeting CubeSats (and other small satellites) is taking shape.

The simplicity and low costs of CubeSats means many groups can now become involved in space science. Universities, high schools, and individuals have all designed and launched CubeSats. Some have even been funded by KickStarter campaigns.

Developing countries are also involved. For example, Kenya recently designed the CubeSat 1KUNS-PF which was carried to the International Space Station by a SpaceX resupply mission, and from there launched into orbit. Over 18 months it will assist with mapping of Kenya, monitoring the coastline, and identification of illegal logging. To date, an impressive 80 countries have launched CubeSats.

So to summarize, 800 CubeSats have been launched by 80 countries, with 1200 more already scheduled to go!

Exploring the Frontiers of Broadband

IMG_2277I’ve been fortunate to spend much of the last six months traveling in developing countries, learning about the progress and consequences of the extension of broadband into resource-poor environments.

I’ll be writing more on this topic in coming months, but here are a few pictures of communities I’ve visited where I’ve enjoyed conversations with locals.

Rural Nicaragua has increasing cellular coverage — if people can afford it. Notice that these homes have electricity, but no antennas signaling television. People at this economic level may own a feature phone but not a smartphone. This image is taken outside of Tipitapa.

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In rural Malawi, I would see some signs of the use of solar power, including mobile panels that villagers could move around to optimize the sun. This image is from Mulanje District, a poor region in the south of the country.

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In Soweto, South Africa, most homes have no electricity, but some connect (generally illegally) to power poles on the periphery of the settlement. This allows residents to occasionally have lights and charge cell phones.

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Most of the planet at this point is connected by feature phone, and about half the planet by smartphone — a percentage that will grow greatly in the next few years.

Facebook Gets Into the Satellite Business

fFacebook 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.

Low Cost Satellite Networks

cubeWhile 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 to Provide Wifi Hotspots

ekocenterCoca-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.

FCC Approves Starlink

sxThe 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.

Airborne Wireless Network

airborneIn 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.

LandCruiser Emergency Network Project

cruise70% 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.