Plans to launch thousands of satellites to provide internet services across the globe haven’t gotten much attention in the past. The ideas sounded utopian. Past satellite internet efforts had failed. The leading firms (like OneWeb) were mostly unknown. Elon Musk has lots of detractors.
But three recent events have moved the topic of satellite internet from “speculative” to “probable” in many people’s minds.
First, OneWeb raised $1.25 billion in its current round of funding, a number hard to ignore. OneWeb has raised $3.4 billion to date.
Second, Amazon announced plans to launch a constellation of 3,236 internet satellites. Amazon has the technical acumen, resources, and (relatively soon) launch resources to be taken very seriously.
Finally, SpaceX announced that its first launch of Starlink Satellites will include 60 prototypes – a number two or three times higher than most anticipated for a single launch. The satellites are stacked on top of each other like cassettes (see photo above). Gwynne Shotwell, CEO of SpaceX, says that there will be up to six additional Starlink launches just this year.
There is a major race underway to essentially rebuild the internet in space. Most attention to this point is focused on the technology and economics of the race. But what will be the secondary and tertiary effects of a new internet reaching billions of people for the first time?
Loon, the internet balloon company, has received a $125 million investment from HAPSMobile, an affiliate of SoftBank. HAPSMobile is developing stratospheric drones to be used as internet platforms. The drones, with a wingspan of 78 meters, plan to fly at altitude of 20 kilometers for six months at a time.
HAPSMobile and Loon seek to use compatible (or identical) communications equipment on their respective platforms. They also plan to coordinate on ground system equipment, as well as joint policy efforts with governments to allow balloon and drone communications platforms.
The two companies may also coordinate with OneWeb, the low earth orbit satellite company. In theory satellites could communicate with balloons or drones, which in turn can communications directly with consumers, obviating the need for specialized consumer antennas. OneWeb is in part funded by SoftBank.
Amazon has announced plans for a new internet satellite network. “Project Kuiper” will comprise 3,236 low earth orbit satellites providing broadband access across the planet.
Amazon’s entry into the internet satellite race is notable because of the company’s technical acumen, access to capital, and ties to Blue Origin, the rocket company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
The project will be in direct competition with industry leaders SpaceX and OneWeb.
Broadband in the next few years will be reaching the half of the planet’s population that doesn’t have it yet — and that changes everything.
Media organizations may be interested in a new paper I wrote as a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School titled Broadband Everywhere: Media Implications of Internet Access for the Next Three Billion.
Media markets are currently expanding faster than at any time in history. That offers many opportunities for media organizations who are prepared.
China has launched the first test satellite of its ambitious Hongyun internet satellite program. The Hongyun program foresees a network of 156 low earth orbit internet satellites by 2025. The goal of the program is to provide internet service to rural parts of China as well as to developing countries. The program is described as part of China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project involving dozens of developing countries.
The Chinese technology firm LinkSure Network has unveiled a new satellite designed to provide wifi across the planet. The service, to include 272 satellites in low earth orbit, will sell a number of communications services, but also aspires to provide free wifi to regions of the planet currently without coverage.
The firm plans to launch its first test satellite in 2019, followed by ten more satellites in 2020. The full network will be operational by 2026.
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.
One 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.