Satellite TV for African Villages

startimes_logoAt the end of 2015 Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a cooperative China – Africa plan descriptively titled “Access to Satellite TV for 10,000 African Villages.”

The plan proposes to offer 10,000 villages across 25 countries a package of free services to enable satellite TV. Each village will receive two projector TVs, a 32 inch digital TV, and 20 additional satellite dish systems allowing access. The projectors and digital TV are to be set up in public spaces in the village. To address power shortages, each will also have solar panels and batteries allowing six hours of viewing with no power.

While this initiative doesn’t address internet or broadband issues, it is another example of communications and media extending into resource-poor environments.

The plan is progressing, with completion scheduled for 2019. The implementing firm is StarTimes, a Chinese multimedia company with extensive experience in Africa.

Jio is Conquering India

Reliance-JioPhone-2What happens when the country with the world’s largest population of people without internet access offers free phones and almost free unlimited data?

We’re finding out in India.

In 2016 Reliance Industries, the petrochemical consortium and India’s largest publicly traded company, launched Jio, a telecommunications initiative. Jio is the brainchild of Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, who seeks to provide internet access to everyone in India at affordable prices.

Reliance has spent the last few years constructing 200,000 new cell towers and laying 150,000 miles of fiber optic cable to provide fast 4G connectivity across the country, spending $35 billion.

Jio launched its service at the end of 2016, offering free calling, free texting, and six months of free data, after which data charges were about 1/4 industry average. Usage skyrocketed, both in terms of subscribers, now over 200 million, and data usage, now the highest in the world for any company.

In 2017 Jio introduced the “JioPhone”, a hybrid feature phone / smart phone that takes advantage of 4G data speeds. Among other features the phone comes preloaded with 500 streaming TV channels and music in 17 languages. The phone is essentially free: it requires a $23 deposit which is returned with the return of the phone.

Josh Woodward of Google, who has led teams building new web services in India, says that thanks to Jio and the JioPhone, “hundreds of millions of users are now going to come online faster than all the models projected.”

Ambani relates a story that a few years ago he was at home (“home” — 27 stories of rooms complete with helipad) when his daughter came home for break from Yale. “Dad, the internet in our house sucks” she complained. That apparently set in motion the largest, fastest cellular expansion in history.

Ambani’s ambitions apparently haven’t slowed. In July he claimed his network was still only at 20% capacity and that “We are determined to connect everyone and everything, everywhere.”

Viasat

int_vsat_tm_rgb_grdIn the rush towards low earth orbit satellite constellations by SpaceX and others, some traditional satellite broadband providers are receiving limited attention. This may be an oversight. Viasat, which provides broadband services in North America and some other regions, has plans to launch three high capacity geosynchronous satellites between 2019 and 2021 which will bathe the globe in broadband. In their own words, Viasat will “likely become the world’s first global broadband provider.”

The three ViaSat-3 satellites each will have the network capacity comparable to the total of “the approximately 400 commercial communications satellites in space today”.

Viasat hasn’t revealed prices for future services, including in developing countries. Current US broadband services range from $70 to $150 per month depending on bandwidth.

New Details about SpaceX Starlink

maxresdefaultThe SpaceX Starlink program seeks to launch over 4,000 low earth orbit satellites to provide broadband coverage across the planet. The project is relatively secretive, so analysts review whatever information comes available.

Earlier this month, a Starlink patent application was published online describing a new low-cost, easy to manufacture approach to phased array antennas. The antenna technology for the network will be critical in allowing fast-moving satellites to communicate effective with ground stations and with each other.

The technical filing also reportedly details a new integrated circuit design used for processing on board communications.

In June Elon Musk tweeted that latency of the two test satellites currently in orbit is a respectable 25 ms. He also said that one more set of revised test satellites will be required before ramping up production.

Will Elon Musk Eliminate Global Poverty?

muskElon Musk aims high with the companies he founds. He intends to combat global warming through electrification of society (Tesla, Solar City), reinvent transportation through use of tunnels (The Boring Company, Hyperloop), save society from abuses of Artificial Intelligence (OpenAI), recast how humans communicate with computers (Neuralink), and safeguard humanity’s future through colonization of Mars (SpaceX).

His greatest legacy, however, may be none of these. His greatest legacy may be the elimination of global poverty. He himself possibly doesn’t even know this may be an outcome of his efforts.

Bear with me here.

The planet has made great progress in the reduction of global poverty. Since 2000, the percentage of people living under $1.90 per day (the World Bank’s current definition of “extreme poverty”) has dropped from 35% to less than half that today (thanks mostly to great progress in India, and especially China). The UN has established as one of its “Sustainable Development Goals” the elimination of extreme poverty by 2030.

The challenge is that the remaining populations living in extreme poverty are the hardest to reach and assist. They are almost all rural (or remote), most in Africa, and most with little connection to government or international programs of assistance. Most have no electricity and no internet connection.

Which is where Elon Musk comes in.

With respect to electricity, poorest communities have given up on trying to link to a national electric grid (which is much too expensive) and are jumping straight to household “microgrids”. For example, India has launched a program to give by the end of 2018 all households with no electricity a microgrid comprising a solar panel, battery, five lights, fan, and cell charger. Microgrids have gotten much cheaper and better, in great part thanks to improvements in battery technology. Battery technology is being driven mostly by the popularity of electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are becoming more popular due in great part to Tesla and Elon Musk.

And with respect to internet connections, Elon Musk’s role is even more direct. SpaceX has an ambitious, relatively secretive effort to launch nearly 12,000 satellites into low earth orbit to bathe the planet in broadband. The system will be initially operational in 2020 and fully operational by 2025. This means that those places that are too difficult or expensive to reach with traditional internet connections will suddenly be online. Since less than half the planet currently has usable, affordable access to the internet, this is a really big deal.

If a household has electricity and it has internet, it can link to information services, education resources, health guidance, government programs and other services. It may be simplistic to say that extreme poverty is incompatible with global broadband — but for many reasons that is probably true.

So Elon — please keep at the global warming / transport / safe computing / saving humanity tasks — we appreciate it. And while you’re at it, you may also eliminate global poverty. Thank you in advance!

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.