Viasat

int_vsat_tm_rgb_grdIn 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.

Military Studying Satellite Constellations

darpa logoThe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has announced plans to launch 20 test satellites into low earth orbit. The program, called Blackjack, will test prototype spy satellites, aiming for the first 20 to be in orbit by 2021.

One goal of the program is to reduce costs of satellites, from approximately $1 billion for current geosynchronous satellites to about $6 million for individual low earth orbit satellites. A satellite constellation in theory will be both more effective and harder for adversaries to defeat.

The Blackjack program plans to award $117 million in contracts to aerospace companies developing satellite bus technologies. Future awards will be for other design aspects and launch services for the new networks.

New Details about SpaceX Starlink

maxresdefaultThe 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.

Update on Hate Speech in Myanmar

fFacebook has posted an update on efforts to control hate speech in Myanmar.

The company has been criticized for years for its slow response in Myanmar to hate speech targeting the Rohingya minority. According to the United Nations, Facebook played “a determining factor” in the genocide and forced migration last fall of 700,000 Rohingya to neighboring Bangladesh.

Facebook now elaborates on many steps it has taken to address hate speech in Myanmar, including:

  • hiring more Burmese language content editors
  • making reporting tools easier to use
  • improving AI systems to flag questionable content
  • better coordination with civil society groups
  • building digital literacy programs for users
  • updating content policies
  • banning a number of users
  • increasing the use of unicode-compliant fonts
  • hiring third party auditors

By Facebook’s own accounting, the company is catching much more hate content for prompt removal.

Given that Facebook’s efforts in Myanmar have been variously described by civil society groups there as insufficient and secretive, the company’s new blog post taking responsibility for its actions and citing specific steps it is taking is encouraging and commendable.

Simultaneously, however, Reuters has released a new, mostly scathing investigative report on Facebook’s efforts in Myanmar. The detailed analysis finds over 1000 posts, comments, and graphic images online targeting the Rohingya, some as old as six years.

Reuters researchers tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to report hateful content to Facebook. The Reuters analysis also pointed to many technical shortcomings of Facebook systems. In one glaring example of how the Burmese to English translation engine falls short, Reuters reports that a Burmese comment reading “Kill all the kalars you see in Myanmar; none of them should be left alive” is translated to English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”

So in competing reports, Facebook says it is doing a lot with respect to Myanmar and making solid progress. Reuters reports that Facebook is not doing nearly enough, and the situation is still very dangerous. Both views are undoubtedly true.

Airbus Solar Drone Sets Record

zephyrZephyr S, the solar-powered drone built by Airbus, has set a new flight-endurance record of nearly 26 days. Flying at an altitude of 21 km by day, the drone recharges batteries using solar panels, and uses two electric motors to stay aloft. At night the drone relies on battery power and also makes a slow descent to about 17 km.

Solar-powered drones may someday do at least some of the work of satellites, providing platforms for earth imaging, telecommunications, and scientific research. Drones cost only a fraction of the cost of satellites.

Airbus has built a launch facility in Western Australia which it plans to use for worldwide deployment of its aircraft, but the company says it can also establish regional launch facilities if necessary. Zephyr drones can traverse between one and two thousand kilometers per day.

Airbus is one of several companies pursuing solar drones — although that list does not now include Facebook, which dropped out of the race. Airbus soon will launch a larger version Zephyr T, used for bigger payloads.

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 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!

Facebook Ditches Aquila

aquilaFacebook recently announced that they will be stopping their Aquila drone initiative, instead relying on other companies to build high altitude aircraft. In a company blog post, Facebook said that they no longer plan to build their own equipment since the broader industry is now interested in the concept.

Facebook continues to support connectivity programs for the ~four billion people currently without internet access, including fiber programs, terragraph, and policy initiatives such as a proposal for 2019 World Radio Conference to get more spectrum for High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) systems. Facebook also is quietly investing in a next generation satellite program.

The Promise of Mobile Banking

mpesa_logoAround two billion people on the planet are “unbanked” — which is to say they have no access to financial services. Their transactions are all in cash. Any savings need to be hidden in their home. They are vulnerable to crime. They can’t earn interest. They can’t transfer money to others. They don’t qualify for loans.

Fortunately, new technologies are offering important opportunities, particularly through cell phones.

The best-known and most celebrated online financial service utilizing cell phones is M-Pesa, launched in Kenya in 2007. M-Pesa allows users to deposit cash into their M-Pesa accounts (usually via the ubiquitous cell phone agents that sell users minutes all across Kenya), store money, and transfer money to others. They can also pay bills, purchase air time, and in some cases buy products.

M-Pesa was launched when Safaricom, a leading mobile operator in Kenya, saw that new cell phone users were “banking” minutes on their phones. Apparently, if someone had some money, it was safer to buy and store minutes than to hold cash. When Safaricom allowed users to share minutes, they saw people start to make payments to one another in this new “currency”. So Safaricom decided to allow users to not only store and share minutes, but also money. M-Pesa was born.

The service spread quickly in Kenya, and currently includes over 25 million active users (which is about the entire adult population of the country). A study of M-Pesa by MIT and Georgetown researchers concluded that between 2008 and 2014, M-Pesa was responsible for lifting 200,000 families out of poverty (about 2% of total households).

M-Pesa has also been launched in Tanzania, South Africa, Afghanistan, India, and several Eastern European countries — to mixed success.

M-Pesa also provides a financial platform for other services. For example, the Kenyan company M-Kopa sells personal solar systems for households that are lacking electricity. Payments for the system are made daily for a year through M-Pesa. If a payment is missed, the system is disabled until payments resume.

Online banking is convenient for those of us in developed countries. In developing countries, it is transformative.

Celebrating Fiber

fiber.jpgAs broadband expands throughout the globe, most communications are still carried by fiber optic cable. Can we take a minute to celebrate the marvel of this technology?

Scientists have known for 150 years that glass can be used to guide light. In the 1980s, manufacturers improved techniques to make highly transparent threads of glass the width of a human hair and over a hundred kilometers long. Simultaneously laser technology was getting cheaper and smaller, and digital data processing getting faster.

So why bother with fiber instead of traditional copper (the first undersea copper cable was laid across the Atlantic in 1858)?

For starters, fiber optic cables have an unbelievable capacity for carrying information. A single fiber, for example, can carry 3,000,000 simultaneous phone conversations. Since a cable can comprise over 1000 fibers, this means a single cable could support three billion conversations — or half the planet speaking with the other half, simultaneously.

Light travels efficiently with very low attenuation. Signals can maintain sufficient strength for over 100 kilometers before needing a boost.

Cables carrying information with pulses of light aren’t subject to electromagnetic interference the way typical copper cables are. The signals avoid corruption (and eavesdropping is much more difficult).

And one more important characteristic of fiber optic: the main ingredient in a cable is silica (aka sand). While copper cables around the world are highly prone to theft (copper can cost a few dollars a pound, and large cables will weigh tons), if thieves want silica, it’s a lot easier to pilfer the beach!

Defining Broadband

broadband.pngThe name of this blog uses “broadband”. Many of the posts discuss “broadband”. Perhaps we should define the term?

The term “broadband” typically refers to an internet connection that is always on and with high bandwidth.

In developed countries, our initial internet connections in the early 90s were typically by modem  and at slow speeds. Those connections allowed e-mail to be exchanged and a few other information services, but were quite restricted.

Broadband arrived in the late nineties, typically offered either over phone lines (DSL) or cable service. We then started connecting our broadband connections to local wifi, so our computers, and later our other mobile devices, were always connected to the internet at high speed.

Simultaneously the mobile phone providers started adding data capabilities, starting with snail-slow 2G, but then progressing through 3G, 4G, LTE, and now in some regions 5G. These mobile data connections became critical with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, which offered feature-rich mobile access to the internet. Since the iPhone, a slew of competitors have appeared, and we now take for granted that the device in our pocket is always connected.

Broadband (as opposed to intermittent access to the internet) is useful for consumers (think streaming video and nice web apps like Uber) — but is vital to businesses. Cloud-based services, distributed databases, remote access to resources, mobile apps — and pretty much everything else a business does these days demands reliable broadband connectivity. Broadband quickly evolved from a luxury to an absolute requirement for essentially all business and commerce in developed countries.

What percentage of the planet currently has affordable access to broadband?  According to the UN’s State of Broadband 2017, the best estimate is that as of now, 48% of the world’s population is online with reliable, affordable broadband access. Regions obviously vary greatly: Europe is 80% online, Africa only 22%.

The percentage of people with simple cell phone coverage that allows voice calls (but no date) is much higher. Simple cell phones (also referred to as “feature phones”) have reached the low cost and sufficient access that most regions on the planet are now connected by phone. There currently are now about 7 billion cellphones on the planet, about the same number as the global population (although penetration obviously varies greatly — from 240 phones per 100 people in Hong Kong to less than 10 in many regions of Africa). According to a recent Facebook study of 75 countries, 94% of the overall population had access to 2G networks (which are sufficient for voice and texting), while only 76% had access to 3G (data) networks or better — and many of those networks are still very expensive to use.

So simple cell phones are very widespread. This is a remarkable achievement, representing arguably the first truly universal global technology.

It also represents the leading edge of the internet — once people have simple phones, it is really only an issue of cost to start moving into fuller feature smartphones. And the transition to smartphones, which about half the planet is now going through, is the true game changer. It’s convenient to be able to call and speak with somebody, but having full access to information and services as afforded by smartphones represents a major opportunity.

The biggest current challenge confronting the expansion of global broadband is that most of the regions not yet covered are rural and poor. It is prohibitively expensive to lay fiber optic cable (or any cable) to rural regions. Cell tower coverage is easier — but even then, there needs to be a critical mass of paying customers to make the economics viable. Cell towers are generally placed 1-2 miles apart (at the least). The fixed costs of cellular infrastructure impose economic limits on regions cellular networks can serve. The expansion of cellular coverage is slowing down, because the places that are left are rural and poor.

To complicate things further, the next generation of cellular technology that is currently being designed and deployed by telecommunications firms is 5G — which is really optimized for rich cities. It allows a huge number of high speed connections (in anticipation of the “Internet of Things” — where everything is hooked to the internet), but is very expensive to deploy. Gartner estimates that 20 million “things” will be connected by 2020 (and growing quickly). Just the bandwidth needs for self-driving cars alone will be enormous. So no longer will just consumers be paying for access: 20 million items will as well.

That’s all great for rich countries, but 5G isn’t designed at all for poor, rural regions. It’s too expensive.

So for now, the bad news is that there remain major obstacles to smartphone use and increased broadband coverage in developing countries. The good news is that most of the planet has simple phones — and that in itself is a very good thing.