SpaceX Links Remote Communities

Having launched over 900 Starlink satellites to date, SpaceX has started its “better than nothing beta” test of the Starlink service. Initial customers in the northern US and Canada are sent invitations for the new service, costing $499 for equipement and $99 per month.

As part of the Starlink rollout, SpaceX is offering free service to a number of underserved communities:

  • The Hoh Tribe, an indigenous Community in Washington State;
  • The Pikangikum First Nation, an indigenous Community in Canada;
  • The Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas.

These communities test the service in remote areas for free, and Spacex gets favorable press coverage.

As beta testing expands geographically, SpaceX will have excellent opportunities to test systems and make a big difference in communities across the planet. In order to maximize benefits, SpaceX should prioritize schools, probably in concert with GIGA.

Since the network is global, Starlink will see very rapid growth as the initial phase of 1440 satellites are deployed in 2021.

Why Starlink Needs a Schools Strategy

Growing companies benefit from public goodwill. When Google was expanding quickly, the combination of excellent services and a “don’t be evil” management motto built up a reservoir of public goodwill. Tesla, with a combination of excellent products and goal of reducing global fossil fuels, has a large reservoir of public goodwill.

SpaceX has goodwill — its engineering is amazing and its goal of making humans “multiplanetary” inspires some people. SpaceX’s Starlink program, however, which will provide satellite broadband globally, doesn’t yet share that same goodwill. Any news search on “Starlink” will generate a long list of articles about how Starlink is going to destroy astronomy, make asteroid catastrophes more likely, and lead to a runaway problem of space debris. None of these are likely true, but you wouldn’t know it from the press.

The irony is that Starlink might in fact represent Elon Musk’s greatest contribution to the planet. Linking four billion people currently without internet to the rest of the world is one of the epic stories of our generation. It can create opportunity, knowledge and wealth at a level heretofore impossible.

One straightforward way for Starlink to get ahead of the press and start building public goodwill would be to make a commitment to provide broadband to schools in developing countries. If Starlink launched a “100,000 schools” program, probably in coordination with the UN and ITU, that story would eclipse all the others.

Of course there is another reason for Starlink to commit to helping link 100,000 schools: it is the right thing to do.

Increased broadband in developing countries is going to create many problems — just ask Facebook about Myanmar. It will also create unbelievable opportunities. It is time Starlink started building up its reservoir of public goodwill. It will certainly need it down the road.

Update on Project Kuiper

Soon to link schools?

Project Kuiper is Amazon’s initiative to build a low-earth orbit satellite constellation to provide global broadband services. Announced in April 2019, Project Kuiper plans to deploy over 3,000 satellites.

Project Kuiper joins Starlink and OneWeb as one of the three most significant satellite broadband initiatives. Starlink has launched 360 satellites to date. OneWeb has launched 74 – although is rumored to be exploring bankruptcy protection. Project Kuiper to date has launched zero satellites, although given that Amazon and Jeff Bezos have significant resources, and that another of Bezos’ companies, Blue Origin, builds rockets, Project Kuiper is taken seriously.

It is also conceivable that if OneWeb enters bankruptcy, Amazon could purchase some or all of its assets. Amazon did hire previously the senior management from Starlink which had been let go in a SpaceX management shakeup.

Project Kuiper provides an interesting complement to other Amazon services. AWS already relies heavily on linking customers to Amazon servers. Amazon has programs supporting land-based broadband. Amazon also has multiple programs supporting schools, including Amazon Smile.

Blue Origin’s next generation rocket, called New Glenn, is scheduled to first launch in 2021.

Amazon is currently advertising 170 job openings for Project Kuiper, so the initiative is clearly a high priority for Amazon.

Innovative Funding

Extending the internet to schools worldwide takes resources (the Broadband Commission estimates internet extension just in Africa to be $109 billion over a decade).

Funding sources will be varied, involving governments, private industry, multilaterals, bilaterals, and philanthropies.

One organization exploring innovative funding models is UNESCO, which announced in 2019 a new cryptocurrency fund to receive, hold and distribute cryptocurrencies to partners. The fund received its first donation of Ethereum and Bitcoin valued at approximately $25,000 from the Ethereum Foundation. The funds reportedly will support Project Connect and internet connectivity for schools.

Connecting Africa Through Broadband

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The countries with lowest broadband penetration globally are in sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of millions of people across the continent have never heard of the internet.

The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development issued a landmark report in October 2019 titled “Connecting Africa Through Broadband. The report provides a roadmap of how to double broadband access by 2021 and achieve universal access by 2030.

The strategy includes a comprehensive approach involving policy, infrastructure, content, training, and other components.

The strategy is appropriately ambitious — and resource-intensive. Investment required by international, local, and private sector players is estimated at $109 billion over ten years.

The report includes relatively little discussion of broadband services provided by emerging LEO satellite networks, despite the fact that OneWeb is listed as an official consultative member. Neither SpaceX nor Starlink are mentioned anywhere in the report. Loon is also not mentioned, despite having initial programs underway in rural Kenya.

The report does talk extensively about the importance of connecting schools, bringing educational and training resources to new communities.

Broadband for Africa has been a dream for many years. The Broadband Commission report sensibly describes how to make that happen. New technologies may speed the process.

SpaceX Receives Permission for One Million Terminals

SpaceX Starlink program has launched 362 satellites to date. Starlink anticipates bi-monthly launches of 60 satellites each (at least before slowdowns due to the novel coronavirus). Elon Musk has claimed that initial services can begin in the US with 400 satellites, and global services with 800 satellites.

SpaceX has now received FCC approval to deploy up to one million user terminals to connect to the Starlink constellation. Individual terminals, about 19 inches wide, will resemble (according to Musk) at “UFO on a stick.” SpaceX intends to make the terminals “plug and play”.

The FCC application specifies that initial end users are anticipated to be individuals, libraries, schools, etc. “throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” 

Pricing for both the terminals and monthly service are still not disclosed.

SpaceX Launches First 60 Starlink Satellites

maxresdefaultSpaceX has successfully launched the first 60 Starlink satellites (following two initial test satellites last year). There is a lot of press covering this launch. The best review article I’ve seen is by Stephen Clark on SpaceflightNow.

Key points:

  • SpaceX has surprised the industry by launching 60 satellites. Most analysts were predicting a smaller number of satellites per launch. SpaceX is undoubtedly working to build even smaller, lighter, more powerful satellites, so the number of satellites per launch is likely to grow.
  • SpaceX reports it will launch between two and six more Starlink missions this year, depending on results from their initial launch. This suggests that hundreds more satellites could be in orbit by Christmas.
  • SpaceX claims an operational system requires 400 satellites, while a commercially viable system would require 800. SpaceX has the launch capability to meet those targets by 2020.
  • SpaceX used a booster that has flown twice previously (and has been paid for — twice — by other customers). The booster was recovered and will be assessed for future flights.
  • SpaceX landed the two fairing halves in the ocean and recovered them. The company appears to be exploring the reuse of fairings even if contaminated by sea water — which would allow SpaceX to drop efforts to catch fairings in a giant net.
  • OneWeb, SpaceX’s greatest competitor in satellite internet, is scheduled for up to 20 launches over the next two years. Each launch will carry up to 36 satellites.
  • Sixty satellites traversing the night sky prompted UFO alerts.
  • SpaceX launched a new Starlink website.

Satellite internet still has many technical, business and regulatory hurdles to overcome — but it just took a giant step closer to reality.


Phones as Medical Devices

africaThe proliferation of cheap, connected smartphones in developing countries has the potential of transforming healthcare.

New users have access to information, such as through services such as MomConnect.  Phones can support telemedicine. Smartphones can even be used as medical devices themselves.

One recent example is the use of smartphones to support inexpensive ultrasound devices in Uganda. Doctors there, armed with a phone linked to a $2,000 handheld scanner, can diagnose pneumonia, infections, cancers, and other conditions. The devices are built to be durable for use in remote regions. Images can be sent to radiologists in other cities (or countries) for review. Many users are now seeing their first medical device ever — and it is the extension of a phone.

OneWeb Raises $1.25 Billion

onewebOneWeb has announced closing of its latest round of financing at $1.25 billion. Investors include Softbank Group Corp., Qualcomm Technologies Inc., Grupo Salinas, and the Government of Rwanda.

OneWeb plans to use the funds to build out its constellation of 720 low earth orbit satellites. OneWeb has contracted with Arianespace for 20 launches using Soyuz rockets.

“This latest funding round makes OneWeb’s service inevitable and is a vote of confidence from our core investor base in our business model and the OneWeb value proposition,” said Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb, in a statement accompanying the announcement.

OneWeb plans to begin regional service in 2020 and full global service in 2021.

Single Purpose Internet Devices

fOne enormous challenge for first-time users of the internet in developing countries is knowing what the internet is and does. If you have always lived in a technology-free environment, how are you supposed to understand, say, the Android apps on Google Play?

One solution will be the design of single purpose internet devices. Imagine a smart speaker that only tells you the weather, or a tablet that only shows football matches.

A good example of a single purpose internet device is now rolling out in the US. Facebook has launched “Portal“, a videoconferencing system that only allows calling to other Facebook users. You plug it in, link to wifi, link to Facebook, and start requesting calls. The device is powered by complex technology, including Alexa, and has a number of sophisticated design features, such as tracking your movements around a room. It only has one purpose, however: videoconference with others on Facebook.

Does some of this raise privacy issues or other objections? Probably. But the device is easy to use, and that alone may drive its popularity. Simplicity of this sort will be a precondition for internet devices across much of the planet.