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.

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.

Low Earth Orbit and Steerable Antennas

satThe advantage of geosynchronous orbit is that satellites appears stationary. Satellite dishes or antennas tracking the satellite don’t need to move. Any orbits other than geosynchronous require antennas to move to track the satellite. Historically, this added a lot to the complexity and cost of the antenna (although the Soviets employed the “Molniya Orbit” for decades which required dishes to nod up and down from the horizon).

As companies contemplate placing thousands of satellites into low earth orbit, and all of the advantages that confers (less latency, smaller satellites, lower cost), a major challenge appears: How do you design an antenna to track satellites, including frequent handoffs from one satellite to another? And if the antenna is moving in a plane or car, how does that factor in?

Fortunately, there is great progress in a new generation of “steerable antennas”, also described as a “phased array antennas”. Researchers have essentially built the “steering” elements, until now managed through motors, onto a chip. Flat panel antennas are being designed which can track satellites, including through the frequent passing from one to another.

The technology is well-demonstrated, and a number of agreements are being signed between antenna technology firms and satellite companies, such as recent agreements between ALCAN and SES or between Phasor and LeoSat.

Technology firms are still wrestling with costs for steerable flat panel antennas, although with millions likely to be purchased for broadband access, companies are optimistic that prices will fall to a few hundred dollars.

Bridge International Academies

bridgeHundreds of millions of children have no school to attend. Hundreds of millions more attend schools with poor facilities, minimal supplies, and frequently absent teachers.

Because of this dire situation, a number of countries are experimenting with international private schools that focus on new technologies, broadband linkages, standardized curriculum, rigorous evaluation, and low cost.

The best known of these is probably Bridge International Academies, whose high profile is partly due to an august list of investors, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Omidyar Network, and World Bank. Bridge currently operates in five countries: Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, and India. Over 100,000 students attend one of more than 500 Bridge schools. Bridge aims to educate 10,000,000 pupils by 2025.

Bridge provides teachers with a tablet that includes all lesson plans in highly scripted formats. Bridge rigorously collects data about teacher and student progress. Administrative cost are kept low due to centralization of many tasks; each school requires just one administrator with a smartphone app. Costs for students depend on region and economic status. In Uganda, for example, parents pay about $66 per year, which is much cheaper than other private schools and roughly on par with “free” public schools that require a number of purchases.

Bridge points to studies which demonstrate that its students out-perform public school children.

Simultaneously, private school networks — and Bridge International Academies in particular — are lightening rods for an exceptionally high level of controversy. Bridge has had periodic conflict with ministries of education, teachers unions, and other organizations with strong opinions about education.

Location Services in Developing Countries

locationWhere am I?

Answering this most basic of questions can represent a major challenge in developing countries. In regions with no maps, no addresses, sometimes no names, it is difficult to know location. And without location, it is impossible to meaningfully engage with the rest of the planet.

New technologies offer powerful solutions regarding location services.

First, and most fundamental, is global mapping. Google Maps, ESRI, and other services offer detailed traditional and satellite view maps. When conventional maps don’t exist in a location, researchers can now easily add them. For example, vaccine researchers at the Gates Foundation  analyzed satellite images for regions not yet immunized — often because of inaccurate maps — in order to build accurate vaccination plans.

Second, new technologies can help define property rights. Over a billion households still live without property rights to their homes that are secure, registered, documented and tradable. These “hidden” rights are economically significant — likely exceeding $10 trillion in value. New registries are helping. The World Bank and others have invested in open cadastre systemsDrone technology can play a role. Even distributed blockchain technologies may become increasingly useful.

Finally, how does one describe their location if no addresses exist? By providing GPS coordinates of two nine digit numbers? A British firm called what3words has a clever solution. They divide the planet into a grid of 3 meters x 3 meters and have assigned each square a unique three word identifier (I’m currently writing, for example, from this beautiful corner of the planet: searching.colonialist.suggested).

Fake News is About to Get Way Worse

fakeVideos play a major role in fake news. Online video content can be repurposed from other tragedies to foment outrage (or even from video games). Fake videos can employ actors. In the US, tragedies are often followed by proliferating conspiracy videos.

Unfortunately, the fake video problem is about to get a lot worse.

New tools are allowing individuals to quickly, cheaply, and effectively substitute faces in videos in ways which are extremely believable. The videos, termed “deepfakes”, are popular in specialty communities on Reddit and elsewhere, but are about to become much more mainstream.

Those wishing to sow dissent or chaos now have a new, incredibly powerful tool at their disposal. What happens when an authentic appearing video appears of Donald Trump screaming for a nuclear attack?

Unfortunately, the tools to identify fake videos aren’t keeping up with the technology to produce them. Experts in identifying fakes still need to magnify images frame by frame to analyze shadow patterns, for example.

Educating people about the new technology will be necessary — although unfortunately this will have the side effect of questioning the veracity of all video.


zipExpanding broadband enables many new opportunities in health, including telemedicine, distance education, data collection, and others.

It can also assist in logistics. One California company, Zipline, combines sophisticated drone technology with expanded communications coverage in rural areas of Africa in order to deliver lifesaving medical supplies.

In 2016, Zipline launched its initial service in partnership with the Government of Rwanda. Distant clinics in hard to reach areas (of which there are many in Rwanda) can send by phone a request for blood, medicine, vaccines, surgical supplies, or other pressing needs. A drone is sent carrying up to 1.5 kg, and releases the payload by parachute to a pre-determined area. The drones, powered by electricity, can manage a round trip of up to 160 km.

Centralizing storage of key medical supplies allows for lower inventories, better security, and safer storage (often requiring refrigeration).

Since operations began, Zipline has completed over 1,400 flights and 100,000 km in Rwanda.

Zipline has announced a major expansion into Tanzania, including four delivery centers supporting 2,000 flights per day to over 1000 clinics across the country. Flights are beginning in early 2018.

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 probably doesn’t even know this is a possible 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 $1.25 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 extreme poverty — 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!

Aadhaar Basics

aadhaarAadhaar is the Indian government’s resident identification number system which has registered about 1.2 billion Indians — nearly the entire country. While Aadhaar doesn’t directly relate to internet communications, it is both dependent on and enabling of many online services.

Aadhaar is a random 12 digit number that links to biometric data, typically a photo, ten fingerprints and two iris scans. Soon Aadhaar will include facial recognition services as well.

Registration with Aadhaar is voluntary, but so many government and commercial services are now linked to Aadhaar (welfare programs, pensions, banking services, mobile phone accounts, etc.), Aadhaar is used by essentially everyone in India.

Like any powerful technology, Aadhaar brings both profound advantages and significant risks.

An Aadhaar identification number allows Indian citizens — including its poorest — ready access to information and services heretofore unavailable. It increases efficiency and decreases corruption.

On the other hand, identity services such as this can lead to data breaches, fraud, and abuse.

Many countries are developing or refining their own identification systems. Aadhaar is currently the largest, and in many ways, most impactful personal identification system on the planet.