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.
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.
Amazon has filed application documents with the FCC seeking permission to launch 3,236 satellites composing the Project Kuiper internet satellite network.
Amazon describes a satellite constellation at between 366 and 391 miles in altitude comprising 98 orbital planes of approximately 30 satellites per plane.
In addition to providing broadband services to over three billion people currently without internet, Amazon’s service also seeks to provide shopping, video streaming and Amazon Web Services access to existing and new customers.
Amazon claims that commercial services will begin once 578 satellites are in proper orbit (or about 18% of the full planned constellation).
Loon, the internet balloon company that spun out from (Google) X, has announced two major updates.
First, a Loon balloon has set a new flight record with 223 days aloft. Loon has worked hard to extend the flight times of its balloons, which in turn lowers costs. Loon’s previous flight time record was 198 days.
Second, Loon appears close to providing commercial service in rural Kenya. It has now received permission from Kenyan authorities for commercial testing. If Loon is able to demonstrate its business model with Telkom Kenya, other service providers in Kenya and in the region can quickly adopt the service. Loon can launch and manage additional balloons relatively inexpensively, so scaling services should be possible.
Kenyans living in rural areas may soon have 4G access brought to them by stratospheric balloon.
SpaceX 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.
- 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.
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.