Wednesday, October 28, 2020

SpaceX Starlink beta, phase two

According to an email, Starlink has moved into the second phase of it's beta program, nicknamed the “better than nothing beta,” which feels a bit like monopoly hubris to me. It may be better than nothing, but it is not as good as the initial beta which was free. Participants will pay $99 per month for the service and pay $499 for a terminal, including a tripod and WiFi router. I wonder what the difference is between these "beta testers" and "customers."

SpaceX warns that data speeds will vary from 50 to 150 Mb/s and latency from 20 to 40 ms and service may be intermittent at times, but performance will improve as more satellites are launched. I'm not sure of the service area, but I had applied to be informed when service would be available at a home at around 34.4 degrees north and I was not invited.

They have also created apps to guide users throught the process of plugging the terminal in and pointing it to the sky. As you see here, one must avoid trees or other obstructions which can be problematical in mountainous or forested areas. One downside to Starlink and other low-earth orbit constellations may be that they will discourage the deployment of fiber in wooded and mountain areas.

Finally, here is a link to the terms of service. In particular, pay attention to the Governing Law section. It foreshadows Starlink connectivity to a constellation of satellites orbiting the moon (and why not the International Space Station?) as well as establishing Mars as a free planet "that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over." I don't know that Elon Musk has the authority to make such a "law," but it foreshadows issues that will have to be dealt with in the future

Friday, October 23, 2020

SpaceX Starlink is on a roll

This is an impressive list of achievements, but bear in mind that we are still in the early days of a yet-unproven technology and market in a complex geopolitical environment.

Why Elon is smiling
The last two months have seen a flurry of Starlink activity, including the following:

Bill Gates has a history of interest in satellite Internet and in September, Microsoft announced their Azure Obrital ground station service, which enables satellite access to its Azure cloud services. SES, Viasat, and Intelsat were announced as initial partners and SpaceX just signed up. Starlink+Azure Orbital will compete with Amazon's satellite constellation and its ground-station service. (For more on Azure Orbital, check out this podcast interview and transcript of product manager Nora Zhan).

SpaceX did some good and got good publicity by providing seven user terminals to the Washington State Emergency Management Division for deployment in at least one region hit hard by summer wildfires. Richard Hall, the emergency telecommunications leader of the Washington State Military Department’s IT division said he had “never set up any tactical satellite equipment that has been as quick to set up, and anywhere near as reliable” as Starlink.

This month, SpaceX provided connectivity to the Hoh Indian tribe west of Seattle. I don't know how many terminals were provided or the speed and latency of the service, but the response and publicity have been positive.

SpaceX has been running beta tests in the US at latitudes between 44 and 52 degrees north. SpaceX reported that it has observed a median latency of approximately 30 ms and a 95th percentile latency of 42 ms in over a million observations.

The FCC will award up to $16 billion over ten years to support fixed broadband service in unserved rural areas. They were initially skeptical of satellite service providers, saying they had not proved that they could meet the requirement for the low-latency, under100 ms bidding tier, but this month, after considering beta test results, the FCC invited SpaceX to bid in the rural broadband funding auction.

After receiving over 700,000 expressions of interest from all 50 states, SpaceX requested an increase in the number of authorized user terminals from one million to five million. They also announced that they are able to manufacture 120 satellites per month, keeping up with their target launch rate.

The capital cities of 17 relatively affluent European nations fall between 44 and 52 degrees north and SpaceX has applied for 3 internet gateway ground stations in France and is said to be looking for roof space on European datacenter roofs.

While the current beta test is in the US, a number of European capitals are between 44 and 52 degrees north and SpaceX is able to serve them as well as the northern US.

SpaceX has begun the process of being able to offer service in Canada, but the final approval will not be considered for around 130 days.

SpaceX has registered 14 shell companies in 13 foreign nations (click here and enter entity number 10143028). I checked the street address of one and it seems to be a postal box rather than an office, but I have been assured that establishing shell companies is common practice. Eight of them are named "TIBRO" (orbit spelled backward) so I assume they are at an earlier stage of development than the others.

SpaceX successfully tested a laser link between two satellites, but, as far as I know, did not reveal details like transmission rate or time to establish a connection. I assume that the links were between two satellites in the same plane. (They initially planned five lasers per satellite and are now committed to having four -- forward and backward in the same plane and two others linking to adjacent planes).

In an interview at the Mars Society Convention, Elon Musk spelled out a timetable for an unmanned Mars landing that included high volume Starship flights, each capable of launching up to 400 Starlink satellites, in 2022.

Perhaps as a result of the above, Morgan Stanley just raised its valuation of SpaceX from $52 billion in July to over $100 billion, and speculated that it might be as high as $200 billion.

The above is an impressive list of achievements, but bear in mind that we are still in the early days of a yet-unproven technology and market in a complex geopolitical environment. Furthermore, we lack the sort of regulation and harmonization that has evolved over the years to govern the seas, and global problems like space debris and collision avoidance remain unsolved.

Update 10/28/2020

SpaceX has opened a second beta test phase. Users will have to pay for both the service and their terminal and the speed, latency and even connectivity will vary at times, but will all improve as more satellites are launched and put in service. They also have created iPhone and Android apps to guide users through the installation process -- avoiding trees and other obstructions. The terms of service are forward looking implying a constellation around the moon and raising the question of Marian sovereignty.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Elon Musk interview -- management philosophy, rocket design, and a tentative timeline for an un-crewed Mars mission

Musk predicts high-volume, re-usable Starhip flights in 2022 -- each capable of launching 400 up to Starlink satellties.

Elon Musk was interviewed during the virtual convention of the Mars Society. The interview covered SpaceX technology and management and space travel. I'll summarize some of the former here and recommend taking the time to watch the full 55-minute interview.
Here are some of the key points Musk made:
Clear, ambitious objectives drive rapid innovation and his goal it to create a self-sustaining settlement on Mars as soon as possible.

Achieving that goal requires getting a lot of tonnage to Mars, so expendable rockets are a joke, a waste of time. Fairings too.

Scale matters -- large rockets are efficient. Avionics for a large rocket are no larger than for a small rocket and you gain gauge advantages with size -- you can afford thicker, more accurate castings and skins on a large rocket. (The same goes for trucks and ships).

Their current Falcon 9 is close to a local maximum for a kerosene-burning rocket which is limited to a 12-foot diameter because of road transport constraints and its length is constrained by the skin thickness required to avoid bending.

Methane is a better fuel than kerosene -- a rocket goes further if it shoots gas out the end faster and a bigger percentage of its mass is propellant. Furthermore, oxygen is cheap and you can go to a higher oxygen/propellant ratio with methane and you can make both oxygen and methane on Mars.

He gave some timetable guesses with the caveat that they assume exponential innovation:

  • 80-90% confident of reaching orbit with Starship next year.
  • 50-60% confident of ship and booster reuse next year.
  • High volume flights in 2022 -- each capable of launching up to 400 Starlink satellites.
  • Refuel in orbit in 2022.
  • Two or three years for a moon ship -- after refueling in orbit.
  • An un-crewed Mars mission in maybe four years (at the time of the second Mars transfer window from now).
(Note that they might not choose to launch 400 satellites at a time since a loss of 400 satellites or 28 booster rocket engines would be very costly and mixed-purpose launches are also possible).

The above assume a non-linear rate of innovation. When asked what makes SpaceX so innovative, Musk first said "I don't really know," but went on to credit having ambitious sub-goals like:

  • Full and rapid reuse.
  • Orbital refueling.
  • Propellent production on Mars.
He said SpaceX will not have competitors unless someone else is shooting for Mars.

His goal also requires a million people who want to go to Mars and can afford or find funding to do so -- you need the will and the way. He is working on the way.

When asked about SpaceX hiring criteria he said he looks for "evidence of exceptional ability" regardless of certification and worries that if Nikola Tesla applied to work at Tesla they might not even give him an interview.

I really enjoyed the interview. I like Musk's humor and relaxed, off-the-cuff speaking style and admire the breadth of his knowledge, his focus on the very big picture, and his management style. He gets results.

If you like this interview, here are a few of my favorites Musk talks.

Friday, October 02, 2020

A new Chinese broadband satellite constellation

Can we afford the wasted capacity and idle investment of SpaceX satellites remaining dormant while flying above China and GW satellites remaining dormant while flying above the US?

In an earlier post, I described three Chinese low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations that seemed to be oriented toward broadband communication. 

  • Hongyun, which plans 864 satellites and will emphasize service in China's remote regions. 
  • Hongyan, which plans around 320 satellites, seems to be looking at applications like maritime, aviation, and mobile backhaul service. 
  • Galaxy Space seems to be focused on 5G backhaul and Internet of things applications. 

None of those companies seem to be pursuing the global consumer market that SpaceX and OneWeb hope to serve, but a new Chinese company code-named GW seems to plan on doing so. 

GW has filed a spectrum application with the International Telecommunication Union for two constellations with the cryptic names GW-A59 and GW-2. They requested permission to use the following frequencies:

  • 37.5-39.5 GHz (space-to-Earth)
  • 39.5-42.5 GHz (space-to-Earth) 
  • 47.2-50.2 GHz (Earth-to-space) 
  • 50.4-51.4 GHz (Earth-to-space) 
for communication with 12,992 satellites:

The size of the constellations implies an intention to compete in the end-user broadband service market. Where might they fit in that market segment?

In a recent podcast, consultant Blaine Curcio pointed out that a long history of government infrastructure investment has left China with a strong terrestrial network. Hongyan might be able to serve much of the remaining domestic market, but with 12,992 satellites in orbits ranging from 30 to 85 degrees inclination, GW seems to be interested in the global market where they would compete with SpaceX and OneWeb. (Telesat will also compete in these markets but is focusing on mobile backhaul and hotspots for education, telemedicine, and community access).

SpaceX, which is off to the fastest end-user start, is focusing initially on the lucrative markets of North America, followed perhaps by Europe. OneWeb would seem to have an advantage in the Asian and African nations where part-owner Bharti has a presence as well as the United Kingdom due to the government's stake in the company. GW would be in a strong position in the nations where China already has "Digital Silk Road" (DSR) projects, as shown below.

DSR IT infrastructure projects as of 12/2018 (source)

The DSR is part of China's ambitions Belt and Road initiative with infrastructure projects in around 70 nations. In late 2016 they added space infrastructure -- the Belt & Road spatial Information Corridor. While they are currently concentrated in Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, I've speculated that the DSR may extend to Latin America.

Over half the people in the world live in or near China and India. Many of those have no connectivity and some are paying very high rates for geosynchronous satellite service. If the LEO satellite business works out, there is room for GW, OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat, and others. 

I have painted a speculative picture of a politically bifurcated LEO Internet with GW serving one set of nations and SpaceX and OneWeb others, but I am certainly not endorsing that future. Satellite constellations are by definition global and we are facing massive global challenges today -- can we afford the wasted capacity and idle investment of SpaceX satellites remaining dormant while flying above China and GW satellites remaining dormant while flying above the US?

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What became of the ARCOS undersea cable connection to Cuba?

Will Trump kill the proposal before the election?

Proposed 56km link between the
ARCOS undersea Cable and Cuba
Cuba's primary connection to the global Internet is through the ALBA-1 undersea cable linking landing points on the south-east shore of the island to Venezuela and Jamaica; however, the bulk of Cuban traffic originates in Havana which is on the north-west coast. Traffic from Havana and other cities in the west travels over a backbone to reach the cable landing points. A landing point near Havana would reduce the load on the backbone, speeding connections, providing redundancy, and saving capital investment.

At one time, there seemed to be bipartisan support in the US for improving Cuban Internet access. During his second term, President Obama pursued detente with Cuba and much of that effort was focused on the role of the Internet and undersea cable connectivity was part of the plan. Daniel Sepulveda, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy, who led two US government delegations to Cuba during the Obama administration, said there were at least a half-dozen proposals — from US and non-US companies — to construct a north-south undersea cable between the US and Cuba. There had even been discussion of one day allowing Cuban access to the US cable at Guantanamo, GTMO-1.

At first, Trump seemed to agree -- consider the following timeline:

  • October 20, 2017, The State Department issued National Security Presidential Memorandum, NSPM-5, stating that it was our policy to "Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services" and directing government departments and agencies "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba."
  • January 22, 2018, The State Department established a Cuba Internet Task Force "to examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba." (Disclosure -- The Task Force formed two sub-committees and I was a member of both).
  • July 23, 2018, The consortium that owns the ARCOS cable applied to construct a branch from the cable to an ETECSA supplied cable landing spot in Cojimar, Cuba.
  • August 10, 2018, The FCC found the application "to be acceptable for filing and subject to the streamlined processing procedures" obligating them to take action "within forty-five (45) days" unless upon "further examination" the application is "deemed ineligible for streamlined processing."
Well, it seems the application must have been deemed ineligible since as far as I know nothing happened until earlier this month when The Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector (CAFPUSTSS), which Trump established in an executive order on April 4, 2020, notified the FCC that it is planning to conduct 120-day security reviews of the ARCOS application.
I reached out to the FCC and the attorney who filed the request for the cable branch to ask why the application had not been acted upon but got no reply. I can think of two possible explanations:
  • Trump changed his policy with respect to Cuban Internet connectivity without, as far as I know, telling anyone.
  • Trump held this application up in order to grab a Florida headline between now and the election when the CAFPUSTSS rejects the application showing how tough he is on Cuba in an effort to win Cuban and Venezuelan votes.
I'm unfamiliar with FCC procedures and workflow -- is there another explanation?
Finally, note that on March 15, 2018, Deep Blue Cable Inc. applied for a Caribbean cable with 19 landing points. While none of those were in Cuba, they planned a second phase with two Cuban landing points, but the Deep Blue application was withdrawn on November 11, 2019.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bill Gates has not forgotten Teledesic

Might we see another broadband LEO constellation?

Proposed Teledesic constellation:
12 planes of 24 LEO satellites
Teledesic was the first company to plan to offer broadband connectivity using a constellation of low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites. Craig McCaw, who had sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T, founded Teledesic in 1990 and it got a big visibility and credibility boost when Bill Gates made a small ($5 million) investment in the company. 

McCaw and Gates were able to attract capital -- $200 million from a Saudi Prince, $750 million from Motorola, and $100 million from Boeing, which signed on as the prime contractor. When Boeing and Teledesic finished the final design, the constellation had been reduced from the originally planned 840 to 288 satellites. (Later, Motorola replaced Boeing as prime contractor). The FCC approved Teledesic's Ka-band spectrum application in March 1997 and 37 counties submitted supporting proposals for the December 1997 World Radiocommunication Conference. Teledesic hoped to provide "fiber-like" connectivity to an "Internet in the sky," but was unable to deliver and gave up in 2002

I don't know what motivated Gates' investment in Teledesic, but today the Gates Foundation is devoted to fighting poverty and providing health care and education in developing nations. Nearly 20 years after the demise of Teledesic, satellite, launch, and communication technology are vastly improved, the entire world is aware of the Internet, we have applications that can utilize "fiber-like" speed and latency and Gates is clearly aware of the value (and downside) of connecting the unconnected.

Bill Gates might be thinking that it is time for another try.

Last September, Microsoft announced that customers of Viasat, Intelsat, and SES would be able to access Azure cloud services. Their focus is on government, enterprise, maritime, and airline applications and the announcement states that "each of the partners brings different strengths, for example, choices between Geostationary (GEO), Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and, in the future, Low Earth Orbit(LEO) satellites" so it seems they are talking with possible LEO partners. (Maybe not with Amazon given its recent challenge to Microsoft's JEDI defense contract).

Earlier this month, the FCC authorized Microsoft to establish a proof-of-concept connection between two ground stations in Washington and DEIMOS-2, a Spanish imaging satellite. If successful, the test will demonstrate satellite connectivity to Microsoft's Azure cloud services as well as the rest of the Internet. They plan to run the demonstrations before, during, and after the Ignite conference, which starts on Sept. 22, and if the demonstration results in significant market interest, they will apply for regular ground-station authority which would put them in direct competition with Amazon's ground-station service. (Microsoft may have a fear of missing out on space).

Terminals with electronically steerable antennas are a critical LEO broadband component. High-end fixed and mobile users will be able to justify relatively expensive terminals, but success in the consumer market will require user-installed, reliable, low-cost terminals. It turns out that Bill Gates was the lead investor in electronically-steerable antenna manufacturer Kymeta at the time of its launch in 2012 and he is now leading a new $85 million investment round in support of a new high-end mobile service using Kymeta's new LEO-ready U8 terminal. The expensive U8 is sold for high-end fixed and mobile applications today, but they will surely be able to produce a low-cost fixed-service terminal in the future.

If the LEO broadband business case turns out to be viable, these are early days and there is room for competitors. The Gates Foundation endowment is nearly $50 billion, Bill Gate's net worth is $115 billion and Microsoft is on a roll. Might we see another broadband LEO constellation? 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The TikTok ban in context

The TikTok affair is unimportant when compared to Trump's general tariffs and high-cost trade war against Huawei.What is our long-run goal with respect to China?

Donald Trump recently issued an executive order banning TikTok on the grounds that it was necessary to deal with the national emergency he had declared in an earlier executive order. He says he is concerned that TikTok might turn user's "information such as location data and browsing and search histories" over to the Chinese government.

Trump does not site evidence of TikTok having shared data with China and TikTok says they have never shared user data with the Chinese government or censored content at its request. Furthermore, Kevin Meyer, CEO of TikTok and COO of its parent company Byte Dance, is an American, and TikTok US user data is not stored in China.

TikTok publishes a transparency report on government information requests and the report ending the second half of 2019 shows that the US government made 100 requests for information on 107 accounts, and 82% of those resulted in the transfer of data. Only India, with 302 requests on 408 accounts 90% of which made data transfers, requested more than the US. (Facebook received 51,121 US requests during the same period).

The format of the data TikTok reports to the police is shown below and its terms of service note that the company may also send law enforcement logs of a user's videos, comments, and interactions (source) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security actively monitored TikTok for signs of unrest during the George Floyd protests. It seems they are cooperating with the US government.

This background and Trump's track record convince me that the TikTok ban was politically motivated -- he wants to seem "tough" on China and get revenge for the way TikTok users tricked his campaign into projecting huge crowds for his disastrous Tulsa campaign rally.

Regardless, let's zoom out.

The TikTok affair is unimportant when compared to Trump's general tariffs and high-cost trade war against Huawei. What is his goal for US-China relations in general and for the Internet in particular? Is he seeking total self-sufficiency and independence from China? A bifurcated Internet?

When one considers the cost of reciprocal tariffs, the supply chains for manufactured goods, and the Chinese market for US goods like iPhones, it is clear that financial and industrial disengagement from China would be an economic disaster for both China and the US. 

The Internet is already bifurcating.  China already has more Internet users than the US, Russia, Mexico, Germany, UK, France, and Canada combined, and the US trade war on Chinese technology has accelerated its push toward self-reliance. China is also innovating --  Huawei, Tencent, and Xiaomi are among Derwent's  top 100 innovators and China has passed the US as the top scientific publishing nation in the world.

The Internet was conceived of and has served as a tool for collaboration, and existential global threats of economic inequality, climate change, pandemics and biological and other weapons require global collaboration. We need them and they need us.

Let me be clear -- there are no good guys here. China bans Facebook and Twitter, plays dirty tricks on the Internet, and imprisons and surveils citizens, but we seem to be caught in a prisoner's dilemma game in which both sides have defected and that could be fatal. 

There may not be a way out of our dilemma, but our recent relations with Cuba suggest a strategy worth considering. President Obama published a new Cuba policy and began rapprochement negotiations. He visited Cuba and made several Internet-related announcements, but the response was disappointing while Raúl Castro was in charge. His successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is a pro-Internet engineer and there may have been an opportunity for change when he replaced Castro if Trump had continued President Obama's policy, but that did not happen. Trump has made no substantive Internet-related policy changes regarding Cuba, but his politically-motivated rhetoric and Cuba Internet Task Force have assured continued hostility. 

We will never know how Díaz-Canel would have reacted had Trump continued President Obama's policy, but the outcome could not have been worse for the Cuban people or better for the expansion of China's Digital Silk Road

Whether we try the sort of engagement Obama tried with Cuba or something else, we cannot do it alone -- we must work with like-minded allies, which is surely not Trump's way. 

It's time for a change.

Update 8/26/2020

TikTok has answered Trump's executive ban and filed a law suit challenging it on the grounds that they were denied due process. They say they have never shared data with the Chinese, opened their publishing algorithm to show there has been no censorship, employ many Americans, provide a platform that is used by Americans for expression and income, and more.

While the suit asserts that TikTok was banned without due process -- claiming that the Administration has "ignored their extensive efforts to address its concerns," I wonder about the First Amendement guarantee of press freedom. TikTok is a publisher. What is the essential difference between banning TikTok without presenting evidence that it posed a threat to national security and banning the Washington Post because it had publishhed or might one day publish fake news that undermined national security?

In another twist, it turns out that Microsoft had been negotiating to purchase TikTok, and shortly before issuing the ban, Trump said the U.S. Treasury should collect a “very substantial” portion of the sale price. That sounds like a mob shakedown -- if you don't sell your company and give me cut I will shut it down leaving you with nothing. I can see the tweet -- "I got the Chinese to sell their company to Microsoft, created THOUSANDS of American jobs, stopped espionage and got a cut for the taxpayers as well."

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Trump wants to change the Communications Decency Act

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), says that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

The law was passed in 1996 in order to shield ISPs that transported content or platforms that hosted it from lability. Bloggers were not responsible for comments on their posts, YouTube and Facebook were not responsible for things users posted, etc. However, ISPs and content hosts have the right to set their own acceptable-use policies and can label or censor material that violates those policies.

For example, when Donald Trump posted unsubstantiated claims about mail-in ballots on Twitter, they added a fact-checking link reading "Get the facts about mail-in ballots" to the post:

(Note that Trump has tweeted the same claim about mail-in ballots on other occasions and those were not marked).

Trump's response to Twitter's labeling of his tweet was to file a petition requesting that the Federal Communications Commission clarify that the CDA "does not permit social media companies that alter or editorialize users’ speech to escape civil liability." Trump evidently wants to be able to sue Twitter for appending a fact-check link to his post.

This is a familiar Trump tactic, as made clear in the book "Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits" by former federal prosecutor James D. Zirin, a Republican. Click here for an American Bar Association review of the book.

Trump, the most powerful victim on the planet, tweeted the following, presumably to justfy his action:

I am not a lawyer or an Attorney General, but it seems clear to me that Twitter and others have the right to publish fact-checking material on their Web sites and I doubt that this petition will prevail if challenged.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

OneWeb rises from the ashes -- maybe

A consortium of the UK Government and Bharti Enterprises bought bankrupt OneWeb, a company that had raised $3.2 billion and had acquired valuable spectrum rights, for $1 billion. That is a good start, but a BBC article says experts believe that at least $3 billion is needed to complete the OneWeb constellation.

Will they make it?

The UK government will be a source of further funding. OneWeb's primary goal is closing the digital divide by bringing broadband connectivity to rural areas around the world including, of course, the UK. That is obvious, but the UK government has other hopes for OneWeb. One frequently mentioned application is global positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT).

With Brexit, the UK lost access to the secure, encrypted Public Regulated Service (PRS) of the European global navigation system, Galileo and the possibility of equipping OneWeb satellites for secure, encrypted PNT has been suggested as an immediate application. Tyler Reid and his colleagues showed that OneWeb satellites could provide excellent PNT performance if they reset relatively cheap atomic clocks once per orbit using the precise clocks of a civilian global navigation system and, while PRS is reserved for European Union governments and defense users, the UK retains access to Galilieo's public civilian service. (Reid is co-founder of Xona Space Systems which plans to offer precision PNT service using a constellation of small satellites).

The UK expects OneWeb to be profitable. Science, research and innovation minister Amanda Solloway said “This investment is likely to make an economic return, with due diligence showing a strong commercial basis for investment" and she added that "The deal contributes to the government’s plan to join the first rank of space nations, and signals the government’s ambition for the UK to be a pioneer in the research, development, manufacturing, and exploitation of novel satellite technologies enabling enhanced broadband through the ownership of a fleet of low-Earth orbit satellites.” Perhaps the OneWeb investment will encourage efforts like this potential ground-station service.

What about Bharti? Bharti Airtel is India’s second-biggest telecommunications firm, holding about a third of its market with 320 million customers and they are Africa's second-biggest mobile operator with more than 100 million subscribers across 14 countries. They also offer Internet service in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Channel Islands. They obviously bring marketing and operating experience and a distribution channel with terrestrial Internet partners and government regulatory bodies in underserved nations to the new OneWeb consortium.

They also bring deep pockets. Bharti Enterprises is a global conglomerate with interests in telecom, insurance, real estate, education, malls, hospitality, agriculture, food and other ventures. Their ISP business in India faces fierce competitor and they obviously believe in diversification. (They were previously an investor in OneWeb).

When they filed for bankruptcy, OneWeb attributed their failure to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the handwriting was on the wall before that. In Senate testimony on October 25, 2017, OneWeb's Greg Wyler said they would launch their first ten satellites in May 2018, offer service throughout Alaska by 2019 and cover the entire US in 2020. While they had 74 satellites in orbit by the time of their bankruptcy and had signed an ISP distributor for Alaska and Hawaii, they were not offering service in Alaska or anywhere else let alone covering the entire US and were having problems with Russian launch and distribution partners. Furthermore, SpaceX was launching more satellites each month than OneWeb had in orbit and their launch cost was significantly lower. OneWeb was in serious trouble and having trouble raising capital with or without COVID-19.

Now OneWeb has the backing of a government and a strong developing-nations partner and I assume their deals in Alaska and Hawaii and other previous arrangements with maritime companies, airlines, and other nations remain in place. On the other hand, they need to launch satellites quickly and they face stiff competition. SpaceX has a clear launch advantage, Amazon and China have deep pockets, and Telesat has a geostationary-satellite base as well as assets in the north.

I don't know if they will make it, but I hope they do. Billions of people remain to be connected to the Internet, so there is room for all of these companies and competition is healthy.

Monday, July 06, 2020

Amazon Aerospace and Satellite Solutions -- integrating satellites and terrestrial services

At this time, Musk has a clear lead in launch technology and Bezos has superior terrestrial resources and is building the infrastructure to connect them to space.

Since its founding, Amazon has reinvested profit in building infrastructure. They began with retail sales and distribution infrastructure and later added Amazon Web Services (AWS) providing data center and hosting infrastructure. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos also established Blue Origin, a company to provide satellite launch service and eventually to support space travel, and last year Amazon filed an application for a 3,236-satellite constellation of low-earth orbit Internet service satellites -- Project Kuiper.

Soon after filing the Project Kuiper application, AWS announced a new satellite ground station service, establishing a link between the two companies and now they have announced the formation of AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions. Aerospace and Satellite Solutions (I can’t bring myself to type “AWS ASS”) does not add new physical infrastructure but will be marketing and assisting on the design and implementation of complex space/terrestrial systems.

Organizations from space startups to government agencies like NASA and DOD should be able to save time and cost by building their applications on top of this integrated infrastructure. Recognizing the lucrative government market, Amazon has hired retired U.S. Air Force Major General Clinton Crosier, who was most recently the Director of Space Force Planning, to head the AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions. (Hiring General Crosier might also help Amazon in their battle with Microsoft over a ten-billion dollar Pentagon cloud services contract).

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos share a common goal -- making homo sapiens a space-faring, multi-planet species. Bezos stated that goal in his high-school valedictorian speech and believes that it is imperative that we do so because humanity is growing too fast and using too much energy to be sustainable in the long run and the SpaceX Web site states that "SpaceX’s family of launch vehicles and spacecraft were designed from the beginning to take humans to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond."

They both also have plans for an interim step of establishing broadband Internet-service constellations -- Musk's Starlink and Bezos' Project Kuiper. At this point in time, Musk has a clear lead in launch technology and Bezos has superior terrestrial resources and is building the infrastructure to connect them to space. Bezos and Musk could move faster toward their shared goal by collaborating, with SpaceX launching Project Kuiper satellites and Starlink satellites using AWS's terrestrial services. I don't know about Bezos, but Musk seems to be willing to share a market in pursuit of a long-range goal.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Questions on the impact of trees on SpaceX Starlink

The Starlink Web site says "Starlink is targeting service in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020, rapidly expanding to near-global coverage of the populated world by 2021," but the rollout will not be uniform. The initial coverage will be centered around 53 degrees latitude and locations with unobstructed views of the sky will have an advantage. Like many folks, I am wondering about coverage at my particular location which is in a wooded mountain area at 34.8462° N latitude.

Elon Musk says Starlink setup will be simple -- plug it in and point it to the sky and motors will find the optimal orientation for the antenna. That will work well if you are in the desert with a clear view of the sky, but as you see my house is surrounded by trees. I will have a clear view of satellites when they are directly overhead, but they will disappear over the irregular "tree horizon" as they orbit the Earth.

When might I have uninterrupted connectivity at my house and how fast will it be?

In the most recent publication of which I am aware (plans change), Spacex says that in the very early phases of constellation deployment, when they wish to expand coverage at the expense of capacity, satellites will be able to communicate with terminals at an elevation angle as low as 25 degrees and, as more satellites are launched, they will increase that to 40 degrees, as shown below.

Steerable service range at full deployment (left) and initial launch (right). Source.

A casual glance around my house and consideration of the coverage shown in Serge Eagleson's simulation late last year convinces me that I will not have continuous coverage at 25-degree elevation and quite possibly will not until well into the 40-degree phase. I can't say exactly when I will have coverage because there are too many variables and questions I don't have answers to, like:
  • How quickly will satellite density increase at my latitude?
  • How rapidly will the 10.7-14.5 GHz signals attenuate near the tree-top horizon?
  • Will the satellites dynamically adjust transmit power or is it fixed?
  • When the signal begins to weaken, will the satellite simply drop the link or will it maintain connectivity at reduced speed by retransmission of error packets or changing the modulation algorithm?
  • Will the terminal motors dynamically re-orient the dish while tracking a satellite? (That sounds too expensive).
  • Will the terminal motors automatically re-orient the dish when the constellation configuration changes? (That sounds reasonable).
The impact of trees is not just my personal concern. The economic viability of Starlink will depend upon revenue during the startup years and Elon Musk has stated that Starlink's greatest challenge is the "fully considered" cost of the user terminal -- the cost of hardware, setup and maintenance, and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell agrees, saying "hopefully we don't have to hire a million people running around in little white vans fixing or installing user terminals on folkses house."

I don't know what proportion of potential Starlink customers are in forested areas but if SpaceX wants to get us online soon, they might consider offering a mast-mount or rooftop alternative to the plug-and-play terminal -- something along the lines of this OneWeb prototype:

Update 6/26/2020

A reader asked about the effect of rain on Ku-band propagation from a satellite and I found this project, that concluded that "as air temperature, relative humidity, air pressure, and wind speed increased or reduced there is no signal attenuation for weather parameters in both the wet and dry seasons under consideration. There were no statistical correlations between Ku downlink signal strength and the weather parameters under investigation". I'd take that as an optimistic quick answer, but I bet SpaceX engineers could give a more definitive answer.

I wonder how snow would affect the "flying saucer antennas".

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Rural broadband subsidy -- what's the rush?

We are poised to give out $16 billion less than a week before election day ... This approach is not thoughtful policy, it’s rush-it-out-the-door electioneering.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted procedures for Phase I of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, which will award up to $16 billion in support over 10 years for the deployment of fixed broadband networks to homes and businesses in census tracks that are unserved by voice and broadband with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps. Successful bidders in the October reverse auction will have to provide a minimum of 25/3 Mbps up/download speed and the FCC will prioritize low-latency (sub-100 ms) networks when awarding funding. They are prioritizing high speeds and low latency so users will "be able to use tomorrow’s Internet applications as well as today’s."

The FCC considers geostationary satellite providers as high-latency and conventional terrestrial providers as low-latency and last month Ars Technica reported that the FCC planned to classify SpaceX and other low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite operators as high-latency, saying "the providers haven't proven they can deliver low-latency broadband." However, the FCC order issued on June 11 equivocated a bit, saying the FCC has"serious doubts that any LEO networks will be able to meet the short-form application requirements for bidding in the low-latency tier." (The short-form applications are due by July 15, 2020).

If the goal is to support applications that are in use ten years from now, it seems they should consider technologies that will be available ten years from now and the FCC is well aware of the LEO broadband projects of SpaceX, Amazon, Telesat, and several Chinese companies and the possibility that OneWeb will be resurrected. These efforts may turn out to be market failures, but we have both theoretical and experimental evidence to expect that, if successful, they will be able to deliver sub-100 ms latency.

For example, this simulation predicts latencies well under 100 ms even without the inter-satellite laser links that SpaceX plans to introduce in the future and Elon Musk has also reported low latencies with their initial test satellites.

More recently, Telefónica, a major Internet service provider in Latin America and Europe has completed tests with Telesat. (Telefonica owns the Movistar, O2 and Vivo brands). The test scenarios included high-definition video streaming, video conferencing with teams, remote desktop connection to seamlessly manage a remote computer, a VPN connection without any delay or outages, FTP-encrypted file transfers of 2 GB in both directions, and IPSec tunnel encryption with no reduction in the performance of the link. This was done without TCP acceleration or data compression and hey achieved round-trip latencies of 30-60ms with no packet loss.

What's the rush?

Why not allocate $1.6 billion of the ten-year fund this year and the remainder a year or two later when we will have operational data from one or more LEO satellite ISPs? Doing so might require some bureaucratic adjustment and would complicate the planning and bidding process for potential ISPs, but if we are thinking ten-years in the future, why not consider technology that will quite possibly be important in ten years?

Sadly, the rush is political.

For a start, the FCC Chairman came from Verizon and I bet the terrestrial Internet service providers have contributed to Trump and their senators and lobbied the FCC to classify LEO satellites as high-latency.

Furthermore, three of the five FCC commissioners are Republicans and you can read their statements on the RDOF bidding process here. It turns out that the two Democrats were able to convince one of the Republicans to change the draft ruling to allow for the unlikely possibility that LEO satellites might qualify as low-latency providers as noted above.

However, the Democrats were unable to convince any Republican colleagues to postpone the funding until accurate coverage data could be collected and wrote "dissents in part." Commissioner Geoffrey Starks expressed concern over the decision "to spend such a large portion of the budget -- over such a long term of support -- based on broadband maps that are not accurate" and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote a stronger dissent including suggestions for addressing the urban and rural digital divides and pointing out that "We are poised to give out $16 billion less than a week before election day ... This approach is not thoughtful policy, it’s rush-it-out-the-door electioneering."

Republican candidates will rush to take credit for bringing the Internet to millions of their rural constituents. Cunning.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Can SpaceX launch 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites? Maybe.

The bottom line is that success is not guaranteed, but neither is failure -- there is a non-zero probability of success.

On May 26th, SpaceX applied for permission to launch 30,000 "second-generation" Starlink broadband Internet satellites. (Note that the software on Starlink satellites is updated about once a week). The application narrative states that the second-generation satellites will be configured as follows:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

(The offsets of the single-satellite planes are set to form a uniform pattern so when a satellite crosses the equator another satellite in the adjacent plane will cross the equator a short, constant time later). The following snapshots from a simulation created by Richard Cole illustrate the coverage.

The application narrative describes the ground and space segments and addresses the problems of debris mitigation and interference with astronomical observation. Here are some points that caught my eye
  • The second-generation satellites "will have three times the data capacity of SpaceX’s current satellites." 
  • Polar regions are covered.
  • The second-generation satellites will have optical inter-satellite links.
  • Low altitudes "will enable smaller spot beams and greater satellite diversity, achieving the intensive frequency reuse needed to heighten capacity available anywhere in the world."
  • Low altitudes will allow SpaceX to use high E-band frequencies for communication with ground stations.
  • Low altitudes will reduce latency.
  • Terminal setup will be plug and play -- "point it at the sky and plug it in."
  • SpaceX promises to make sure that "Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy."
  • SpaceX will extend its debris data sharing and collision-avoidance activities and "encourages all operators to follow these same practices."
Can they pull it off?
The FCC demands that half of the satellites for an approved constellation be launched within 6 years and all to be launched within 9 years. Can SpaceX manufacture, launch, and fund 30,000 second-generation satellites that quickly while continuing to launch first-generation satellites and replacements for those that are de-orbited after approximately five years of useful life?
When asked about Starlink during an interview at the Satellite 2020 Conference in March, Elon Musk said his goal for Starlink was to remain in the "not bankrupt category." If Elon is not sure, I can't be either, but they have a few positive things going for them.
Today, SpaceX is manufacturing about 120 satellites per month, which is far too few to satisfy the FCC. That being said, it is safe to say that Elon Musk knows more about modern, automated manufacturing than anyone alive today, having learned from his experience making cars, solar tiles, batteries, satellites, and rockets. He has learned the importance of building "the machine that builds the machines," which includes the factory, equipment, staffing, processes, and supply chain. SpaceX may already be able to make satellites faster than 120 per month and they will surely improve the manufacturing "machine" and the design of second-generation satellites for manufacturing ease. If that is not sufficient, they can open another factory -- maybe acquire OneWeb's.
How about launching the satellites? SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a recent interview that if their Starship was not ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station within three years, it would be "a major company fail" and in an earlier interview, she said that Starships will be able to carry 400 satellites at a time. In his Satelite 2020 interview, Elon Musk set a goal of three launches per day with Starships landing back at the launch sites within a few days of launch. If they can achieve that cadence, launching will not be a problem.
Can they fund the project? It will take around three years for SpaceX to complete the first phase of the first-generation satellites and Shotwell and Musk have both recently said that low-cost end-user terminals are critical for global success and those are perhaps three years away. During those three years, SpaceX will have income from their launch business, government contracts, and Starlink customers as well as private investment.
They have been collaborating on Starship with NASA for six years and recently flew two astronauts to the International Space Station. Colonel Eric Felt, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, characterized that as the "culmination of perhaps the most successful private-public partnership of all times” so it seems safe to say they will be getting funding from the Defence Department as well as NASA.
How about private investment? SpaceX has succeeded in attracting Starlink investors recently, but Starlink's financial performance during the first three years of operation will impact their ability to continue raising capital. During the next three years, the majority of the satellites they launch will be at latitudes that deliver the most capacity in the relatively affluent regions of North America and Europe, and Internet service in the US and Canada is relatively expensive. Hopefully, they will be able to serve those markets without losing too much on expensive terminals while improving terminal technology. (They may also be interested in acquiring OneWeb antenna technology).
Debris is my biggest worry. The SpaceX application says their propulsion system will allow them to autonomously avoid collisions with tracked objects. Furthermore, over 85% of their satellites will be lower than the International Space Station and will be relatively quick to burn up in the atmosphere. They also promise to share all ephemeris data and encourage others to do the same.
But, what about objects that are too small to track? What if another operator is actively trying to avoid collisions -- don't they need to coordinate with SpaceX? What about other companies that are planning to launch low-Earth orbit satellites? With the numbers of satellites being launched, it seems that international regulation and coordination are required and even then a debris solution is not obvious. Orbiting debris is clearly a global (not US) tragedy of the commons.
The bottom line is that success is not guaranteed, but neither is failure -- there is a non-zero probability of success.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Public and private infrastructure investment alternatives

Electrifying rural South Dakota

The strategic goal of infrastructure is not to derive economic benefit from the asset itself, but to generate economic benefit by maximizing the use of the asset. Steve Song.

Eric Yuan, CEO of the Zoom teleconferencing service, stated that the average number of daily meeting recipients increased from 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020 in a webinar last month. I've been teaching 21 students using Zoom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the audio and video are smooth and switching between speakers is seamless. Offhand, I cannot think of any technology that has scaled so well so fast.

When I teach, I use transport offered by Charter, Amazon, and others to reach Zoom’s application on a server in an Amazon data center in Virginia. (Zoom has servers in 16 data centers around the world). Zoom's rapid expansion would not have been possible without the transport and application-service infrastructure provided by private investment. 
It is a remarkable success story, but imperfect.
Two of my students have been unable to participate in our Zoom meetings because they cannot afford fixed Internet access at home, the campus labs are closed and data caps limit their participation with mobile phones.  I can afford home connectivity, but Charter is the only broadband provider on my block, so I must pay whatever they decide to charge me. That is the situation in Los Angeles and there are rural areas in the US and many locations in other nations where broadband connectivity is not available at any price. Amazon has competition but their dominant infrastructure position provides them with opportunities to be "be evil" if they are not monitored). 
The Federal government funded the research, development, and procurement that led to the Internet then turned to private companies like Amazon and Charter to create the infrastructure Zoom and others use. The COVID-19 pandemic with its attendant substitution of communication for transportation highlights the fact that Internet access is as much a necessity today as access to sidewalks, roads, and highways. 
Can publically-owned infrastructure fill the Internet infrastructure gap? 
Singapore ISP equity, June 2000
We have some municipal broadband in the US, but it is roadblocked or outlawed in 22 states, and the states with restrictions have higher Internet prices on the average than the others. Public Internet infrastructure planning and investment are found in other nations as well. For example, Stockholm has provided municipal fiber as a service for over 25 years and around the same time,  the Singapore government decided Internet infrastructure was strategic and therefore took equity positions in the nascent Internet service providers. (Internet service in Sweden and Singapore costs less than half of what I pay in Los Angeles today.) 
China seems to follow a semi-public strategy of funding private companies and allowing them to compete against each other while retaining political control rather than equity. They followed this strategy in developing terrestrial Internet infrastructure and applications and are doing the same with satellite broadband. Community networks, where the users own and operate the network, are another form of quasi-government ownership.
I don't mean to imply that public ownership is inherently superior to private ownership. Public ownership may lead to cronyism and bureaucracy.  For example, Cuba has a bureaucratic government-monopoly Internet service provider and Cuban infrastructure and access lag behind other Latin American and Caribbean nations, content is controlled and they recently confiscated SNET, a large and successful community network (that was not connected to the Internet).
There is no simple, optimal public/private policy and whatever we do needs to be continuously monitored and adjusted as people learn to game the system, but the proposal for the creation of a National Investment Authority (NIA) by Cornell University law professors Saule Omarova and Robert C. Hockett is a good place to begin the discussion. 
The NIA would bail out citizens and critical organizations during a crisis like COVID-19 and invest in socially valuable collective goods like rural broadband, renewable energy, affordable housing, and clean water during stable times. An independent NIA governing board would set development goals and strategy, but would not make investment decisions. Those would be made by a National Infrastructure Bank (NIB) and a National Capital Management Corporation (NCMC). 
The NIB would buy and securitize bonds that municipalities and other public and private actors issue and the NCMC would seek investors in a collection of socially valuable investment funds the way a privately owned asset management/venture capital firm like Blackrock does.
But, why would a private investor invest in an NCMC fund that was focused on long-term social return instead of a fund of a private asset management firm that seeks to maximize financial return? The government would guarantee an attractive, relatively short term return on investments in NCMC funds. It would convert the expected long-term return to society into a reasonable short-term return to private investors.
The public foots the bill for bailouts today and the NIA would give us a seat at the investment-decision table. It would face political hurdles, but so did the New Deal at the time of an earlier crisis. If the NIA sounds interesting, check out this short article, podcast interview (with transcript), or this detailed paper.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Amazon will thrive after COVID-19

Amazon has already received a retail
windfall, but their infrastructure
will be more important in the long run.
My final exam this term will include a take-home question: How will COVID-19 affect the fortunes one of the major Internet companies -- Apple, Google, Facebook, or Microsoft?

I didn't include Amazon because they are an obvious winner. On December 30, 2019 Amazon stock was selling for $1,847.84 per share and on May 1, 2020 it was $2,286.04, a 23.7 percent increase. The government gave trillions of dollars to consumers and at the same time, told most brick and mortar retailers they had to close, creating a double windfall for Amazon and other online retailers.

Since its inception, the Internet has enabled us to substitute communication for transportation. (See, for example, my 1998 pilot study at Hyundai USA). The rate of that substitution is a function of technological improvement and experience with the technology by users and organizations. COVID-19 has led to the invention of new use cases for communication in lieu of transportation and forced organizations and individuals to learn to use the technology. That will cause an increase in the rate of substitution of communication for transportation which will increase demand for Amazon’s infrastructure and services. While Amazon is known for retail, they are a major infrastructure company, which will be more important in the long run.

Amazon & Jeff Bezos' infrastructure
and services
More companies will establish affiliate retailer stores at and those that are already there will see increased sales. (In 2018, third-parties accounted for 58% of Amazon retail sales). There will be increased demand for Amazon fulfillment and delivery services as well as Amazon credit cards.

Organizations that need to tighten their belts to survive after COVID-19 will want to cut costs and staff, making Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Cloud Storage more attractive than on-premises information technology. Organizations that fail as a result of the pandemic will free up IT people and potential entrepreneurs to create startups to exploit novel Internet use cases that were made apparent by COVID-19. Many of those startups will be run out of Amazon datacenters.

Space is a long-term growth sector and Amazon will benefit from that as a space infrastructure company. They are investing heavily in the launch business and recently (along with two others) received funding as part of NASA’s ambitious lunar program. Amazon's ground station service will be attractive for space startups with little cash to spend on building out their own ground infrastructure.

Amazon’s forthcoming broadband Internet service satellite constellation got a boost with the recent bankruptcy of OneWeb, which was shaping up to be a major competitor. OneWeb says COVID-19 precipitated their bankruptcy and Amazon may purchase the company or a portion of its assets.

Amazon’s Echo voice platform is also the leader in the growing voice-application sector.

In addition to being strong in retail and infrastructure, Amazon is rich. They had $55 billion cash in the quarter ending March 31, a 33.8% year-over-year increase. A lot of people will be looking for jobs after COVID-19, and Amazon will be able to afford to hire them. They will also have the funds to buy companies. How about Zoom? (If they can't afford something, they can probably get a loan from founder and CEO Jeff Bezos who has a net worth of $138.5% billion).

Finally, in addition to generating revenue, Amazon’s infrastructure will yield increased amounts of information in the post-COVID era. That information will enable them to better allocate resources and investments and make dynamic pricing decisions.

One caveat -- all of this is good news for Amazon post-COVID, but if it is too good, they may face anti-trust action.