The FCC has approved SpaceX’s latest application for an additional 7,518 satellites, bringing the total number of approved satellites to 11,943. Simultaneously the FCC approved hundreds of new satellites from communications firms Kepler, Telesat and Leosat.
SpaceX has received FCC permission to launch 4,425 Starlink communications satellites between 1,110 and 1,325 km in altitude. SpaceX in a new filing is now requesting that 1,584 of those satellites be allowed at lower orbits of 550 km. Satellites at that orbit are at the upper reaches of the atmosphere and have naturally decaying orbits over several years. Starlink satellites at that elevation would therefore be easier to decommission. Satellites that fail would also fall into the atmosphere naturally.
When SpaceX received initial FCC approval, the permission was contingent upon SpaceX providing updated satellite decommissioning plans. The FCC is concerned about space debris. This new orbital plan by SpaceX may address some FCC concerns.
SpaceX’s two current test satellites, TinTin A and B, were launched into the lower orbits but expected to be boosted to higher orbits. That boost hasn’t happened, leading some observers to question whether the satellites failed. In fact SpaceX may be studying the lower orbits in greater detail.
Lower orbits would represent faster communications speeds, with latencies as low as 15 ms. Satellites would also potentially cover less of the planets surface, which would require modifications to their design.
More detailed reporting of SpaceX’s updated FCC filing is provided by The Verge.
SpaceX has posted a number of new job openings that suggest it may be developing a classified satellite network. As reported in Teslarati, the new positions require technical skills involving low-cost satellite networks but also require top secret clearances.
One reasonable explanation for these new job openings would be that the US Government is exploring new approaches to satellite networks. DARPA has previously announced funding of up to $117 million for the Blackjack program, seeking to place 20 test satellites in orbit.
SpaceX has announced current plans to raise $750 million in debt financing to support next generation rocket development as well as the Starlink program. It appears SpaceX might have its eyes on additional Starlink funding from government sources.
Reuters is reporting that the SpaceX Starlink program, based in Redmond, Washington, underwent a major management shakeup in June with the goal of speeding the development process of a next generation of internet satellites. According to the report, seven senior managers were fired by Elon Musk with replacements provided by SpaceX headquarters in California.
Starlink, which is in heated competition with other internet satellite initiatives, seeks to launch its next round of satellites in mid-2019. Starlink is currently studying two test satellites in orbit which have proven their ability to stream high-definition video. Among other tests, engineers in Hawthorne, California have competed with engineers in Redmond playing “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” as the satellites pass overhead.
SpaceX seeks to grow the Starlink initiative in order to, among other things, help fund the next generation BFR rocket. The Satellite Industry Association estimates global broadband as a $128 billion annual market, compared to approximately $6 billion annual market for satellite launch services.
Starlink still aspires to launch 4,425 satellites into low earth orbit over the next several years.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides a suite of tools for manufacturers who are building Internet-enabled devices or appliances (the “Internet of Things”, or IoT). Devices connect to the cloud to send data, receive instructions, or coordinate with other devices.
The IoT generally connects over cellular networks. Unfortunately, 80% of the Earth lacks cellular coverage. For this reason, AWS has announced a partnership with Iridium to provide IoT cloud connectivity via satellite. The Iridium service, called Iridium CloudConnect, will allow devices not finding cellular coverage to connect to AWS via satellite.
Iridium is currently updating its satellite network. The final ten satellites (of 75) are scheduled for launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in November 2018. Iridium CloudConnect will be available in 2019.
At 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.
What 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.”
In 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.
The 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.
Elon 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!