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.

Country-specific Communications Satellites

bangabandhuSpaceX, 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.

China to Launch Internet Satellite Network

rocketChina has announced plans to launch an internet satellite network, putting it in competition with SpaceX, OneWeb, O3b, and other internet satellite contenders.

The Chinese “Hongyun Project” plans to launch 300 satellites into low earth orbit starting in 2018, with the network operational in 2022 and complete by 2025.

Earlier this year China also successfully demonstrated “quantum encryption” communications by satellite, potentially representing an initial step towards a global quantum internet.

Why 5G Won’t Help Poor Regions

5gDeveloping countries often “leapfrog” technologies. Many regions, for example, can skip landlines and go straight to cellular. Many regions can skip the electrical grid and go straight to solar.

Will this “leapfrog” also happen direct to the latest cellular technology, 5G?


Previous standards — 2G, 3G, 4G — all placed equipment on cell towers typically spaced no closer than a mile apart (and often much farther — cellphones can reach towers tens of miles away). Even at this density, however, the economics for building out a network often don’t work for serving rural areas in developing countries (or even in developed countries in many cases).

5G, unlike its predecessors, requires much denser installation of cell stations — around 500 feet apart in urban regions. This is about 100 times denser than previous standards. The benefit is that 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, connect 100 times as many devices, and be five times quicker to connect.

By the way, placing hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions — of new cell stations in neighborhoods is unleashing many battles. These are on top of the raging technology battles already underway in defining the 5G standards.

While the poor half of the planet mostly has 2G, is converting to 3G, and aspires to 4G, new 5G standards are poorly suited poor, rural areas. This is another example of the barriers that cellular will have in serving the poorest — and a further reason that alternative connectivity through satellites, balloons, or other means will be necessary.

Satellite Broadband Today

sesSatellite broadband providers mostly fall into two categories: firms (such as Iridium) with satellites in geostationary orbit (thus service is expensive and slow), or new entrants (like OneWeb and SpaceX) promising thousands of satellites in low earth orbit (with service that is cheaper and fast — but doesn’t exist yet).

One firm, however, has already already implemented satellite broadband using a small and growing network of medium earth orbit satellites. O3b Networks (now part of SES) currently maintains 12 satellites at altitude of 8,000 km, which is about 1/4 the distance of geosynchronous competitors. This month O3b Networks plans to launch four more satellites from French Guiana aboard a Soyuz rocket from Arianespace. An additional four satellites are scheduled to be launched in 2019.

The network provides backhaul services to mobile providers as mobile 4G subscribers grow from 1.6 to 3.8 billion by 2020. The network also serves multiple niche markets such as emergency response and cruise ships.

The name “O3b” derives from “other three billion” — in reference to those on the planet currently without broadband.

Broadband First Adopters

etTotal broadband coverage of the planet will precede total broadband adoption by a number of years. Prices will need to drop and technologies will need to simplify before everyone is connected.

But total broadband coverage is still extremely significant, because there will always be first adopters that bring considerable benefits to a community even before most people can afford access themselves.

As I travel through developing countries, I see a lot of different categories of first adopters, even in the most resource-poor settings:

  • Aid workers: foreign aid workers invariably maintain internet access, generally through cellular connections that are too expensive for most in the community;
  • Health clinics: even remote clinics can often afford to pay higher costs associate with cell or microwave access;
  • Missionaries: In many regions, the first to arrive with smartphones are missionaries;
  • Peace Corps Volunteers: Over sixty countries host Peace Corps volunteers, many in extremely remote regions;
  • Tourists: Even remote eco-lodges these days figure out how to provide wifi to guests;
  • (And my favorite) Surfers: With their maniacal obsession for finding the next great wave, combined with their need to stay in touch, surfers support the arrival of wifi to even the most distant surf camps.

Fiber Optic and Africa

africa cableThe internet relies almost completely on fiber optic cable for long distance transmission (the other alternative is satellite — which represents only about 1% of overseas traffic).

In the case of Africa, the first fiber optic connection to the continent technically arrived in 2000 with the SEA-ME-WE3 cable which stretches from Germany, through the Red Sea, to India, Southeast Asia, and Australia. It only connected to Egypt and Djibouti in Africa, however.

Meaningful connections to Africa didn’t appear for another decade with first-time linkages to many countries. Since then, every year has seen logarithmic growth in capacity — continuing into 2018. For example, current capacity to all of the countries of East Africa is approximately 24 terabits per second (Tbs) over multiple cables, a figure in 2018 expected to grow to nearly 90 Tbs due to the completion of a major new cable (DARE). West Africa capacity is approximately 45 terabits per second — a figure in 2018 expected to grow to nearly 200 terabits per second due to the completion of three new major cables (SAIL, SACS, EllaLink).

New cables not only introduce capacity, they also introduce redundancy. Undersea cables are periodically damaged unintentionally, such as the outage in Somalia last year due to a commercial shipping incident. With a new “web” of connections, outages will be less prolonged and severe.

Simultaneously, hundreds of projects are laying cable across the continent itself.

Liquid Telecom, operator of the largest fiber network across Africa, has laid over 50,000 km of cable. Other international companies are also involved. For example, in 2017 Google laid about 1000 km of fiber in Uganda, and is currently laying 1000 km more in Ghana. Facebook plans nearly 1000 km of fiber itself in Uganda.

With added capacity comes added competition — and lower prices. Nic Rudnick, the chief executive of Liquid Telecom, estimates that the price of moving a megabit of data from London to Lagos has dropped over several years from $600 to $2.

Fiber optic cable represents only part of the broadband solution in Africa — it will likely never reach most rural areas, for example. But in terms of providing a capable, expanding backbone to broadband services across the continent, fiber optic infrastructure is growing quickly.

Moon to Get 4G Network

moonVodaphone, in partnership with Nokia, plans to provide a 4G network on the moon in 2019. The project is part of a larger mission to place a lander and two “Audi Quattro Rovers” on the lunar surface. The initiative, spurred by the Google Lunar X Prize (which ends in March with no winners), will launch in 2019 on a Falcon 9 rocket.

4G coverage will be enabled by a 1kg Nokia cellular station which will allow real-time HD video to be beamed from Rovers to the main Lander to mission control in Berlin.

Stratolaunch Getting Closer

stratPaul Allen’s Stratolaunch satellite launch system appears to be getting closer to testing. The world’s largest aircraft, which will fly to a high altitude before launching three rockets affixed to its wing, is currently undergoing ground testing at its home at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The Stratolaunch wingspan of 352 feet is nearly 150 greater than a 747.

It is estimated that the Stratolaunch will be able to launch a payload of 5,000-10,000 pounds to low earth orbit — or around a tenth of a Falcon 9 launch. It should be much cheaper and more flexible, however, for microsatellites at low orbits. And there are a lot of uses for small satellites at low orbits.

Stratolaunch management is also reportedly considering the design of a reusable space shuttle vehicle which could deploy satellites or visit the space station.

It’s anticipated that flight testing will begin later this year. No dates are set for full operations.