Monday, January 16, 2023

Hole in Space -- the mother of all video chats

New technology enables new art forms and artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz (K&S) began working with geostationary satellite links in 1977. Their first work was an experiment in remote dance and music. Video of dancers at The Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and an educational television center in California was transmitted to a central control studio where a composite was formed and sent back to monitors the dancers could see. 

First day: "They're in New York? I'm in LA, right?"
Their next project involved remote conversation rather than movement and they called it "Hole in Space" (HiS). The conversation took place in November 1980 between people at two locations, a display window at the Broadway department store at the Century City mall in Los Angeles and a window in the foyer of the Avery Fisher Concert Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York.

They made three two-hour connections. The first day was unannounced -- participants were curious passers-by who just stopped to see what was happening. They took the second day off and some word of mouth had gotten out by the third day. There was also local news television coverage before the final day, so some people made plans to meet distant friends and relatives.

The sessions began at 5:30 Los Angeles time, so illumination was needed. They did not want to attract large crowds by lighting the participants. Instead, they relied on visible light from inside the venues augmented by infrared emitters near the bottoms of the windows.

The terminals consisted of cameras developed by Cohu Industries that were sensitive to both infrared and visible light. (You can see the effect of the heat-sensitive infrared radiation in the glowing cigarettes of some participants). The displays were RCA projection TVs with custom-made 12 by 12-foot vinyl screens. Connections to the satellite ground stations were over microwave links to a mountaintop near Los Angeles and the roof of a tall building in New York.

Third day: conveying emotion as well as content
Communication was provided by Western Union's Westar satellites, which were typically used for things like the distribution of television programs and sporting events like the Los Angeles Lakers basketball games. Western Union provided three uninterruptible two-hour sessions. 

Galloway says the geostationary satellite latency was not a problem (as it had been for dance), but feedback between the speakers and microphones was, so they had operators at each location manually toggling echo cancellation on and off. There was also someone interviewing people in the crowds during the sessions. At one point a speaker failed in Los Angeles, and Rabinowitz had to run upstairs to borrow one from the store's audio-visual sales department.

K&S became aware of terrestrial networking after HiS and in 1984 began their Electronic Cafe project which supported conversations, remote collaborative drawing, and global New Year's Eve "Telebrations".

HiS was done at a time when nearly all data was text (only upper-case if your terminal was a Teletype or keypunch machine). It was done the year Usenet began and was three years before TCP/IP replaced NCP on the ARPAnet, five years before the NSFNET was established, and eight years before we saw the first text-only version of the Web. (See links to these and other milestones here).  K&S's art pieces anticipated modern services like Zoom for meeting online and JackTrip for remote musical practice and performance. 

Here are links to a short, narrated video, 4m 48s, and a longer video produced by K&S, 29m 45s.

I wish there were holes in space between Russia and Ukraine.

Wednesday, January 04, 2023

SpaceX launches "second generation" Starlink satellites

Why did SpaceX designate these satellites as Gen2 rather than Gen1? 

Starlink Gen1 v1.5 vs Gen2 v F9-1 satellites (source)

In interviews last Spring, Elon Musk said the data throughput of the next version of Starlink satellite (Gen2) would be almost an order of magnitude greater than that of the first generation and that the new Starship rocket would be needed to launch them. Regulatory and engineering delays slowed Starship's progress, so the Gen2 satellites Musk referred to at the time have not yet been launched.

Last Fall, SpaceX broadened the definition of Gen2 to include three configurations, designated F9-1, F9-2, and Starship. Musk was referring to the Gen2 Starship version when he described high-capacity satellites last Spring. The SpaceX Falcon rocket will launch F9-1 and F9-2 satellites, but the Starship version will require the Starship rocket. 

Last month, the FCC authorized SpaceX to launch 7,500 Gen2 satellites operating at altitudes of 525, 530, and 535 km and inclinations of 53, 43, and 33 degrees, respectively, using frequencies in the Ku- and Ka-bands. (They had applied for authorization for 29,988 satellites but only 7,500 were approved at this time -- perhaps due to concern over space debris).

Last week, SpaceX launched 54 Gen2 F9-1 satellites and they are close, if not identical, to the earlier Gen1, version 1.5 Satellites SpaceX has been launching recently. Eric Ralph referred to them as "suspiciously similar" and NASA confirmed that they were the same size and mass as the previously launched Gen1 version 1.5 satellites.

Why did SpaceX designate these satellites as Gen2 rather than Gen1? fo

Tim Farrar attributes it to SpaceX gaining a competitive advantage over potential rival Kuiper, saying "It's very clear that SpaceX wants to launch the first Ka-band Gen2 satellites before Kuiper's test satellites to gain a band-splitting advantage." 

In 2018, the FCC granted SpaceX permission to use the 27.5-29.1 GHz and 29.5-30.0 GHz bands for Gen1 Earth-space transmission. Subsequently, SpaceX was authorized to use those bands for its Gen2 satellites and Kuiper was authorized to use 27.5-3,0 GHz for its satellites. The FCC rules say that SpaceX and Kuiper can agree to a spectrum-sharing rule that protects the first-round rights of SpaceX, but if they cannot agree, the first to launch a satellite capable of operating in the frequency band under consideration gets to choose which portion of the spectrum it will use when interference is detected.

A second motivation may have been the Gen2 right to orbit at a 43-degree inclination. Starlink has had insufficient capacity to serve customers in some regions and may have calculated that the 43-degree inclination would ease that congestion in relatively high-price, high-demand regions like the U. S., where Ookla has shown declining speeds tor three quarters.

Regardless, the designations Gen1 and Gen2 seem arbitrary, and we won't see a meaningful difference between them until Gen2 F9-2 satellites are launched and we won't see a major difference until Starship is flying and launching Gen2 Starship satellites. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Cuban undersea cable politics

Undersea cables between the U. S. and Cuba have long been intertwined with politics. 

In 1887, The New York Times reported on the inauguration of a cable in support of the Cuban insurgents fighting for independence from Spain -- a precursor to the Spanish-American war. Phone service between the U.S. and Cuba began in 1921 with AT&T's installation of an undersea cable and AT&T dominated international telephony to Cuba until the 1990s.

In 1994, WilTe1 applied for permission to construct a 210-kilometer, 2.5-gigabit fiber optic cable that would have had roughly 41 times the then-authorized capacity, but they never received approval for an Internet cable.

In 1966 Sprint established a wireless link from Florida to Cuba, providing Cuba with its first Internet connection with funds from the U. S. National Science Foundation International Connections Program

When President Obama relaxed relations with Cuba, Daniel Sepulveda, who led two U. S. government delegations to Cuba, said there were at least a half-dozen proposals — from U. S. and non-U. S. companies — to construct an undersea cable between the US and Cuba. The most promising proposal was for a 56-kilometer link between the existing ARCOS cable, which connects to southern Florida, and Cuba. The proposal was submitted in August 2018 and the FCC deemed it acceptable for expedited 45-day processing, but nothing happened until Trump established a committee to consider the security risks of the cable. This month the committee advised the FCC to deny the politically hot proposal

Within a week, ETECSA, Cuba's state-owned telecommunication monopoly, and the French telecommunication company Orange announced an agreement to construct a 2,470-kilometer cable connecting Cuba and the Caribbean Island of Martinique. At the announcement ceremony officials of ETECSA and Orange said technical work had already begun and the permits for the cable had been granted. This was clearly planned in advance and the announcement was triggered by the decision on the ARCOS cable. (I wonder if the topic came up when President Biden and Prime Minister Macron met recently).

As shown here, Cuba currently has undersea cable connections to Venezuela and Jamaica (red) and a U. S. owned cable (green) between Guantanamo and Florida. (There has been discussion of giving the Cable to Cuba someday). 

The new Arimao cable will run from Schoelcher, Martinique to Arimao Beach in the Cienfuegos Province on Cuba's south coast and will connect to Havana and other Cuban locations over the domestic backbone. They have already begun laying the cable, which will take around three weeks and it is expected to be ready for service in 2023. Its capacity is listed as "unknown."

The Arimao cable will improve service and resilience in Cuba, but approving the ARCOS cable would have been a better solution for the following reasons:
  • It would have improved the standing of the U. S. in the region and the world. The UN General Assembly has voted on a resolution calling for the end of the U. S. embargo on Cuba every year since 1992 (except in 2020 due to COVID). This year 184 nations voted for the resolution, Colombia, Ukraine, and Brazil abstained and only the U. S. and Israel voted no.
  • The 56-kilometer ARCOS cable would have been cheaper and a little faster than the 2,470-kilometer cable. (I do not know how the cable is being financed, but ETECSA and Orange are listed as owners).
  • The cable would already be in service.
  • The cable would have landed on the north side of the island at Cojimar, a district of Havana, the source and destination of heavy traffic, lightening the load on the Cuban backbone and improving latency.
  • It may have improved U. S.-Cuba relations.
In my opinion, this was a lost opportunity.

Update 12/18/2022

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez tweeted the following after the Cuba-Mozambique undersea cable was announced:
Establishing a submarine cable connection between Florida and Cuba would be a positive step for both countries and would expand Internet access for Cubans. Denying it contradicts the position declared by the US government in May 2022. (original in Spanish)
Why did he post that at this time? Was it to make it clear that the U. S., not Cuba, had stopped the ALBA cable link? What impact would a third international link have?

Friday, December 02, 2022

Justice Department recommends that the FCC deny the proposed ARCOS cable segment connecting Florida and Cuba

Proposed link between the ARCOS undersea cable and Cuba
In September 2020, I wrote a post on a proposed 56-kilometer link between the ARCOS undersea cable and the north coast of Cuba, near Havana. The Trump-appointed Justice Department Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector was to conduct a 120-day security review of the proposal. 

Since it is US policy to "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services," I assumed the proposal would have smooth sailing, but it stalled. I followed up with several people but got no explanation.

When President Biden was elected, I argued in favor of the proposal, pointing out that it was consistent with our stated policy, would benefit the Cuban people, would improve our standing in the region, and would be popular with many Florida voters.

Yesterday a Justice Department press release stated The Committee had finally recommended that the FCC deny the ARCOS application. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen said, “as long as the government of Cuba poses a counterintelligence threat to the United States, and partners with others who do the same, the risks to our critical infrastructure are simply too great.”

The Justice Department recommendation cites three risk factors (paraphrased):

  1. ETECSA, Cuba's government-run telecommunication monopoly, would own the landing station in Cuba and could therefore have access to all traffic over a segment to Cuba.
  2. The Cuban government could perform a BGP hijack to misdirect non-Cuban Internet traffic to themselves for interception.
  3. The Cuban government has close ties to China and Russia and could share intel learned from #1 and #2 with them.

Doug Madory, Director of Internet Analysis at Kentik refuted the claims pointing out that all traffic to/from Cuba goes through ETECSA, and nothing stops them from misdirecting or sharing information with China and Russia now. Madory concludes "I suppose this was a political decision because the rationales listed in this announcement are completely nonsensical from a technical standpoint."

The report mentions a classified annex and considerable "confidential business information" is redacted, critical information, but from what we can see, as Madory says, this seems political.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Is the Defense Innovation Unit's Hybrid Space Architecture the "ARPANET" of space and will it run on Aalyria Spacetime?

Spacetime's user interface shows changing links and topology over time (source)

The goal of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) of the Department of Defense is to strengthen our national security by accelerating the adoption of commercial technology throughout the military and strengthening our allied and national security innovation bases. Space is one of its areas of focus and two of the space "lines of effort" are multi-orbit operations and logistics and hardware-to-software transformation modernization.

The DIU's Hybrid Space Architecture (HSA) program seeks to provide global, ubiquitous, and secure Internet connectivity throughout the space domain for commercial, civil, and military users, including international allies and partners. Several companies are developing multi-orbit Internet service between the low-Earth orbit (LEO) and geostationary (GEO) satellites and medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellites and GEO satellites, but the HSA is more ambitious, calling for a "robust, secure software-defined network which integrates diverse telecom systems across LEO, MEO, GEO orbits, and cislunar space." The DIU recently awarded contracts to four companies to begin work on the HSA. They expect to award more contracts and plan on-orbit demonstrations within 24 months.
One of the awards went to Aalyria, a startup that is marketing Spacetime. Spacetime is a multi-layer, multi-orbit, operating system for a temporospatial network that "captures the potential for software-defined controllers to utilize knowledge of physics to make predictions about the future state of the lower-level network" for end-to-end path optimization. Those predictions require simulation of both the network stack and astronomical physics that began with the integration of space and network simulators at NASA.

The practical application of Spacetime grew out of Google's early efforts at connecting rural areas and developing nationsIn a recent podcast interview, Brian Barritt, Aalyria CTO, and Executive VP said Spacetime exceeds the HSA requirements since it can integrate and optimize paths across terrestrial, air, LEO, MEO, GEO, cislunar, and eventually deep-space networks. (Vint Cerf, an early proponent of delay-tolerant networking for use in a Solar-System Internet is on the Aalyria Advisory Board and considers Spacetime to be applicable to NASA's next-generation space communications architecture).

Barritt says Spacetime was used by hundreds of thousands of users of Project Loon and is ready for adoption today. He added that Spacetime networks can interoperate, optimizing paths and potentially sharing assets across a federated network of networks of up to a combined size of fifteen million possible links (for now).

Several LEO broadband constellations are working on LEO, GEO and air integrations -- OneWeb seems to be farthest along -- but these efforts are of limited scope compared to Spacetime. Furthermore, they are proprietary solutions and Barritt says Spacetime APIs are open and available now, and they hope to make them an open standard. (Years ago, I worked on a project benchmarking Apple's local area network technology, AppleTalk, against IBM's Token-ring and Ethernet. The benchmark results were irrelevant because Ethernet was an open standard).

A multi-orbit network requires optical communication links between satellites. SpaceX has begun deploying satellites with optical inter-satellite links in their Starlink constellation and many vendors are working on space-space optical communication. DARPA is also pursuing a space-space standard that may become the "Ethernet" of inter-satellite links. Barritt says Spacetime drivers can be written to incorporate any optical terminal.

SpaceX recently moved to affordable pricing as performance faltered in some locations due to oversubscription given limited spectrum availability and gateway capacity. They will add capacity by improving technology and launching more satellites but growing traffic volume will require optical (and v-band RF) links between satellites and the ground, and those are problematic due to atmospheric signal distortion. 

Barritt says Aalyria's Tightbeam optical terminals can adapt to adverse atmospheric conditions under program control, for example cutting transmission speed to increase signal power to maintain signal integrity. Spacetime can adjust Tightbeam power, route around inclement weather, or find an RF link if that yields the optimal path. Tesat, Mynaric, Skyloom, the Space Development Agency, and Chinese companies are also working on optical space-ground communication and Spacetime drivers should be able to accommodate their terminals if they are superior to Tightbeam.

Barritt ended the interview by stating that despite the failure of Loon, high altitude platforms are not dead and spoke of the hypothetical case of a LEO broadband constellation that was over capacity in a region. He suggested that if it were running Spacetime it could federate with lighter-than-air vehicles to add capacity.


Lest you run out and invest in Aalyria after reading this, I must add a disclaimer or two. Most of what I have said is based on statements from Aalyria and Brian Barrett's interview, which I encourage you to listen to.

While Project Loon logged over two million Spacetime-user hours, there have been no other adoptions as far as I know. Telesat initially planned to use Spacetime but that was canceled in favor of a network operating system from Thales Alenia Space. I don't know why that change was made, but it may have been because Telesat had been contemplating the integration of their LEO and GEO constellations and decided to keep them independent.

Tightbeam has been tested over long, challenging terrestrial links like from the ground to a mountaintop in the San Francisco Bay area and from aircraft to the ground, but not yet from space.

The commitments of today's LEO companies, particularly SpaceX and OneWeb, to proprietary operating systems might be Spacetime's biggest problem. SpaceX has around 500,000 residential subscribers and OneWeb and Eutelsat have merged and are committed to and working on LEO-GEO integration for OneWeb's version 2 satellites, which they hope to begin launching in mid-2025. 

We will know a lot more about Spacetime and Tightbeam when we see the on-orbit HSA demonstration in 24 months. 


Rather than end on a disclaimer, I'll offer some utopian science fiction. The current version of Spacetime can handle up to fifteen million links, which must require massive, parallel computation, but Barritt envisions federations of Spacetime networks if they can increase the link limit. That could enable the sharing of common resources like Amazon's ground-station service or federation of future broadband network generations. (Has Amazon settled on control software for the Project Kuiper constellation)? 

LeoLabs offers satellite and debris tracking and collision avoidance as a service that, like Spacetime, requires powerful simulation. Would there be a meaningful way for the two companies to collaborate on collision avoidance?

Last and least likely, how about a Spacetime federation that includes China's Satnet constellation? That is politically inconceivable today, but it will be many years before Satnet is ready to launch satellites and global challenges will be more pressing by the time they are.

Update 11/23/2022
DIU has awarded four contracts in the second phase of HSA to companies collectively pursuing the goals of an agile and resilient communications architecture that will move data across commercial, military, and allied assets while integrating multi-domain cloud-based storage and analytics. The organizations joining the DIU effort include SpiderOak Mission Systems, Amazon Web Services, and Project Kuiper, and Microsoft Azure Space.

Note that Amazon and Microsoft will be competing on cloud access and ground station service and Project Kuiper, not SpaceX Starlink, will be working on connecting the unconnected. The others are focused on battlefield status, security, and privacy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Aalyria, a space Internet startup with nearly a decade's worth of intellectual property from Alphabet

Has Aalyria's optical transmission technology eliminated the space-Earth communication bottleneck?

Aalyria, a new space Internet company, just burst out of stealth mode. It is based on work done on Alphabet's "moonshot" Project Loon and Alphabet transferred almost a decade’s worth of technology IP, patents, office space, and other assets to Aalyria in return for an equity stake in the company. Spacetime is Aalyria's intelligent network orchestration technology and Tightbeam is its advanced atmospheric laser communications technology.
Loon balloons floated at an altitude of 18-25 km, above
birds and the weather. They navigated by moving up or
down to catch wind currents moving in different directions.
Spacetime is a multi-layer, multi-orbit, software-defined networking system that was developed for Project Loon, one of Google's early efforts at connecting rural areas and developing nations. At one time, Telesat had agreed to use the Google networking system to link their low-Earth orbit and geostationary satellites, but Telesat has not yet launched its LEO constellation.
With the demise of Project Loon, the network management software was orphaned, but development continued and Aalyria says it now "optimizes and continually evolves the antenna link scheduling, network traffic routing, and spectrum resources -- responding in real-time to changing network requirements." That sounds like a tall order with constantly moving satellites, planes, ships, and vehicles, but the foundation was laid with drifting balloons.
This is an impressive claim, but it is not unique. Others are working on multi-orbit broadband networks and OneWeb recently signed an agreement for seamless interoperability between their low-Earth orbit satellites, Intelsat geosynchronous satellites, and airplanes. 

Tightbeam is a different story -- optical links are beginning to be used between satellites in space, but as far as I know, no one is currently transmitting production volume optical data between satellites and Earth. Optical communication is winning out over radio frequency links in space because they are faster, more secure, and harder to jam than radio frequency and the terminals have lower mass and consume less power. What's not to like? Unfortunately, rain, clouds, dust, or heat distort and attenuate optical signals.
One can imagine building ground stations in places with dry climates and routing around bad weather when it occurs, but Aalyria says they have developed novel hardware and algorithms that correct for these distortions enabling them to transmit data through the atmosphere at speeds up to 1.6 terabits per second over hundreds of miles.
Recently capacity limitations have slowed Space Starlink, triggering a shift to affordability-based pricing, and performance has continued to decline since that time. Over-subscription in a local area or cell contributes to that decline, but, as Mike Puchol points out, the scarcity of radio frequency spectrum for traffic between satellites and terrestrial gateways is also a constraint. Gateway congestion is already a problem and Starlink and others are planning to launch many more satellites. Puchol predicts that we will have optical links between satellites and gateways and speculates that they may use ultraviolet frequencies. The Chinese are also working on optical communication and they have conducted satellite-ground high-speed laser tests.
Regardless of who does it first, we will eventually see optical links between satellites and the ground. I've not seen any description of Tightbeam technology or results of tests and demonstrations, but if Aalyria's technology lives up to its description, it is important.
A few miscellaneous points.
  • I don't know where the name Aalyria comes from. I Googled it and only got references to the company itself. (There were tons of hits -- the company is hot).
  • I wonder if they plan to operate their own constellation or license the technology. I suspect that the prospective broadband licensees already have their own "Spacetime" but not their own "Tightbeam." At some point, Aalyria (or Amazon, Microsoft, or Google) will roll out optical ground stations.
  • My guess is that Tightbeam was developed by Alphabet project Taara which had been working on optical communication for Loon and other applications.
  • I tried for a couple of days to get more information on Tightbeam and its performance? Technical papers, experimental results, patents, etc. but email to bounces.
  • Finally, I notice that the Board of Advisors has eleven members, four of which have prior Defense Department experience. That may have helped Aalyria secure an initial $8m contract with the Defense Innovation Unit. Another member is Vint Cerf, co-designer of TCP/IP, a Google VP, and most relevant in this context, a long-time proponent of interplanetary networking. Only one employee is listed as an optics engineer, but Board member Dr. Donald A. Cox III is an optical communications expert.

Update 10/8/2022

Tim Deaver, VP of Strategic Solutions at Mynaric says they are working on space-ground, air-ground, and ground-ground terminals. Will they be able to write terminal drivers and have them work in a Spacetime network?

Sunday, September 04, 2022

SpaceX introduces affordability based Starlink pricing

GDP per capita, 2022 (Source)

These are the first Starlink price or service changes, but they won't be the last.

When SpaceX announced the price of the Starlink service, Elon Musk said it would be the same everywhere but I wrote that eventually it would be priced to be affordable in different nations. (If you predict enough things, you are bound to get something right).

The fixed cost of a satellite Internet constellation is high -- satellites are expensive to make and launch -- but the cost of adding and servicing a new customer is low and the market is global. At the initial price of $500 for the terminal and $99 per month for the service, there would be unused capacity in poor nations and contention for limited capacity in wealthy nations.

Earlier this summer, we were seeing complaints that Starlink sales were straining capacity in parts of the U.S. and Canada, and last month SpaceX announced variable pricing and an optional service cap in France. That was dubbed a pilot study, but since then the variable pricing dam burst, and customers in many nations received notification of permanent price cuts because of "local market conditions" and "parity in purchasing power." 

A 56% service price cut in Brazil
This change has been discussed on Reddit and a user established a crowd-sourced database of Starlink terminal and service charges by nation. As of this writing, the database contains complete records for thirty-nine nations. The average terminal price, including shipping, is $493.99, and the average monthly service charge is $72.65. In eight nations, the service charge has been cut by over 50%. In general, service charge cuts are greater than terminal price cuts since SpaceX is already subsidizing terminal purchases. (The database is currently a shared Excel spreadsheet, but I would like to see a cleaned-up version as a page on Wikipedia or better yet on the Starlink Web site).

These are the first Starlink price or service changes, but they won't be the last. The technology, the product mix, and the market will continuously change, and SpaceX will eventually encounter competition in the non-residential satellite broadband market. They will need data-driven Ph.D. marketing managers to set prices, not MBAs.

Update 1/3/2023

Ookla reports crowd-sourced speed tests for Starlink every quarter. As seen here, performance in the U. S. has dropped in the last three reported quarters. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

OneWeb and Intelsat sign the first multi-orbit broadband agreement -- more to come

A Boeing 777 connected to OneWeb LEO and Intelsat GEO satellites during this test flight. (Image from demo video).

Last week, OneWeb announced the first of what I expect to be many multi-orbit deals. 

LEO, MEO, and GEO satellites (not to scale)
Last October, I reviewed multi-orbit tests and plans of several low Earth orbit (LEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and Geostationary (GEO) broadband satellite companies, and quoted Neil Masterson, CEO of LEO operator OneWeb as saying "Interoperability with GEO satellites must happen -- it's common sense ... Customers don't care whether it's a LEO satellite or a GEO satellite -- all they want is connectivity." 

In June, OneWeb and Stellar demonstrated in-flight connectivity to a Boeing 777 jetliner, achieving a download speed of 260 mb/s. Ben Griffin, OneWeb vice president, says the speed is constrained by the current aircraft antenna and their satellite spot beams are capable of 500 mb/s. (777 carrying capacity is from 312-388 passengers).

Last week, OneWeb announced the first of what I expect to be many multi-orbit deals. Intelsat, an established GEO provider of in-flight connectivity, will distribute OneWeb's forthcoming LEO in-flight connectivity. The companies expect the multi-orbit solution to be in service by 2024 and they promise seamless connectivity with OneWeb LEO satellites for latency-sensitive applications and Intelsat GEO satellites for applications where latency is not critical. 

Note the emphasis on the word seamless above. The transition between constellations must be transparent to users. Automatic routing based on packet type is required and is well understood and implemented in different systems. For example, OneWeb had previously demonstrated LEO-GEO connectivity with Hughes using their ActiveClassifier technology that "automatically identifies different types of data and apps and tags them with a specific priority setting using advanced heuristics algorithms."

It is likely that OneWeb will soon be interoperating with three GEO operators. They have demonstrated seamless LEO-GEO integration with Hughes, have agreed to partner with Intelsat on in-flight connectivity, and have signed a memorandum of understanding to be acquired by GEO operator Eutelsat. This is the sort of interoperability promised by Neil Masterson. 

Will we see multi-orbit connectivity standards?

This is the first LEO-GEO broadband effort, but I expect many others because they solve problems for both LEO and GEO Internet service providers. LEO service providers are capacity constrained. SpaceX's Starlink LEO service is currently over-subscribed at some locations in the U.S. and Canada. They will add capacity by launching improved satellites and offloading latency-tolerant traffic to a GEO partner, freeing capacity for more valuable latency-sensitive traffic

GEO operators will seek LEO partners or, as in the case of Telesat, develop their own LEO constellations to provide low look-angle connectivity in polar regions and to serve latency-sensitive applications. Dan Goldberg, CEO of GEO ISP Telesat, acknowledged this when explaining why they were creating their own LEO constellation saying, “I guess it’s something we had to do. For us, you have no choice but to land at LEO.”

This post focuses on one application, in-flight connectivity, and one LEO operator, OneWeb, but this is just the start. For example, Intelsat and OneWeb have also been working on military applications and Viasat is working on multi-orbit solutions with several non-GEO operators or prospective operators and conducting a multi-layer satellite communication study for the European Space Agency. Intelsat is reportedly in merger talks with MEO operator SES. The elephant in the room is SpaceX. Elon Musk is a big fan of do-it-yourself integration, but it's hard to imagine SpaceX operating its own GEO satellites -- partnering with and launching satellites for a GEO operator seems more likely. I wonder whether China SatNet is looking for a GEO partner.

Friday, August 05, 2022

SpaceX Starlink's variable pricing pilot in France is good business and good karma.

An idle satellite over Africa is neither generating revenue for SpaceX nor serving the population.

Starlink is available in 37 nations and the price for best effort service was the same everywhere until August 3 when variable pricing with throttling became available in France. I predicted they would eventually shift from uniform to affordable pricing some time ago, but why did they do it now?

Starlink first became available in the U.S. and Canada and sales are beginning to outrun the available capacity. At oversubscribed locations, the best effort is unacceptable, median performance is slipping overall, and the recent announcement of new, non-residential services will exacerbate the problem. Launching new satellites will ease today's congestion and capacity will increase rapidly when version 2 satellites are launched, but demand will always be uneven and capacity limited,

Under the pilot program in France, the monthly service fee drops from €99 to €50/month. A Fair Use policy will begin in October. Users who consume 250 GB/month or less will be prioritized. Those who exceed 250 GB/month will still have access to unlimited data but may experience slower speeds during times of network congestion. They can also choose to purchase additional data to reclaim priority status for €10/100GB.

This is a pilot program, and it will be carefully studied and tweaked. For example, they will be able to vary the congestion threshold criteria, the performance goals of prioritized and limited service, and the frequency of checking a cell to determine whether prioritization is required. SpaceX may have selected France for the pilot study because it is demographically similar the U.S. and Canada.

It is not surprising to see Starlink begin to transition to variable pricing. When I was a child, phone call charges were reduced on Sundays and during the evening and mobile phone companies offer variable price plans today. 

Starlink service is currently available in thirty-seven nations, four of which are in Latin America. None are in Africa or Asia and an idle satellite over Africa is neither generating revenue for SpaceX nor serving the population. Ideally, the full capacity of the satellite constellation would be utilized at every location and time because the marginal cost of serving a new customer when and where there is excess capacity is near zero. (SpaceX does not offer residential installation or support). That optimal goal is unreachable, but I would be surprised if, eventually, we do not see pricing for affordability -- different service plans and terminal prices in different countries. 

(For a related discussion see this post).

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Starlink sales are straining capacity in parts of the U.S. and Canada

OOKLA Speedtest results for the U/ S. and Canada (source)

On June 5th Elon Musk said SpaceX had nearly 500,000 customers in 32 nations and 9 languages. By now there must be 500,000 customers most of whom are in the U. S. and Canada and their performance is suffering.

In the first quarter of this year, OOKLA reported that the median Starlink download speed fell from 104.97 to 99.55Mbps in the U.S. and from 106.64 to 97.4 Mbps in Canada. Upload speed dropped from 12.5 to 9.3Mbps in the U.S and from 12.82 to 10.7 in Canada and has been dropping slowly since the first quarter of last year in both nations. Median latency increased from 40 to 43ms in the U.S. and from 51 to 55ms in Canada during the year.

A few of the first-quarter customers were small businesses, rural schools or clinics, etc. but the overwhelming majority are residential. OOKLA hasn't published second-quarter results yet, but they may be worse because SpaceX has entered several non-residential markets -- business, roaming (RV), and maritime -- during the quarter. They have also deployed mobile roaming on trains and vehicles in Ukraine and they are testing aircraft connectivity so we may soon see these services offered commercially.

There are also anecdotal reports of declining performance like this one on Reddit Starlink discussion: "Speeds have slowed significantly. No obstructions, and support is no help. KY, USA." This post describes one person's experience but has 103 upvotes and 142 comments, many describing similar experiences. Note that the user found that "support is no help" and future customers will need more support than today's residential early adopters who tend to be technically proficient. SpaceX will soon be competing with OneWeb in the non-residential markets and this sort of experience and publicity will harm Starlink's reputation.

That's the bad news. The good news is that SpaceX is rapidly adding capacity. They are launching satellites at an unprecedented rate and the Version 1.5 satellites they are now launching have inter-satellite laser links. Furthermore, when Starship is ready, it will be capable of launching version 2 satellites which Elon Musk says will offer nearly an order of magnitude more data throughput than the version 1 satellites they will eventually replace. Maybe they should slow down sales in oversubscribed areas for a while.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Ten SpaceX Starlink updates

Starlink availability map (Source)

Starlink now has nearly 500,000 users and is available in 32 countries and nine languages. It is either available, wait-listed, or coming soon in every nation except Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela.

There are now 15,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine with service throughout the nation through connections to ground stations in Poland, Lithuania, and Turkey and they have made a significant contribution in the war with Russia. For better or worse, they have demonstrated the value of low-Earth orbit satellites in combat.

A Chinese research paper called for the development of systems to track, monitor, and disable Starlink satellites. Quotes include "The country needs to be able to disable or destroy SpaceX’s Starlink satellites if they threaten national security" and "A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation’s operating system.” The paper in Chinese is here and an English translation is here.

SpaceX has begun launching version 1.5 satellites with optical terminals and Elon Musk says they will be operational by the end of the year. They are about to run a test using laser links to provide connectivity in Polar regions (above 53 degrees latitude) where there are no ground stations. It will take some time for them to connect all the satellites in the constellation in an orthogonal mesh, but this simulation predicts a ~2x latency improvement over long links when the mesh is complete. 

Astronomers worry about reflections from larger Version 2
satellites. (source)
The version 1.5 satellites do not have visors that reduce reflection which interferes with astronomical observation because they were incompatible with the laser terminals. Principal engineer David Goldstein says they're working on technology that will make version 2 satellites ten times dimmer than Vantablack paint.

SpaceX tested Starlink roaming in the US and later in Ukraine and they have now rolled out two new commercial services, Starlink for RVs, a low-priority service that can be paused, and Residential Starlink + Portability which provides priority service at your registered residence, but low-priority service when away. Elon Musk reported that they had 30,000 Starlink-for-RV orders within three weeks of its availability.

Service is not yet offered for moving vehicles, but it has worked well in the tests mentioned above and in Ukraine. Since the technology works, they may be delaying availability until they have a capacity allocation/pricing scheme, or they might be working on a new terminal. How long will it be before they have a terminal for Tesla and other cars and trucks? (They will eventually be competing with Geely for automobile connectivity).

Starlink's new business service is intended for locations with up to twenty users. It includes a $2,500 terminal with a high-gain antenna and promises download speeds of 150-500 Mbps and latency of 20-40ms. It includes 24/7, prioritized support and a publicly routable IPv4 address, but does not offer on-site support or a guaranteed service-level agreement.

Starlink began by serving the consumer market, but they have begun selling to air and ship lines. Starlink has contracted to offer service on JSX and Hawaiian Airlines and has applied to serve Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The airlines will use a new high-gain antenna that can deliver 500 Mbps down and40-50 up with 400w peak power consumption. I'll be curious to see what sort of terminal they will have for cruise ships with thousands of passengers but little nearby congestion when at sea.

SpaceX published a detailed description of its approach to space sustainability and safety in a February 22 post on their Starlink Updates blog. The post reports that Starlink satellites made 3,300 autonomous maneuvers to avoid collision during the second half of 2021 and describes the policies and technology Starlink uses to avoid collisions, including "ducking" -- retracting the solar panel and orienting their attitude to have the smallest possible cross-section in the direction of conjunction. Unfortunately, SpaceX cannot solve the space debris problem unilaterally and all debris objects cannot be tracked from Earth, though improved tracking from satellites might help and at least one company, Privateer, is exploring that possibility.

(Click here for a Starship update).

Update 6/29/2022

Royal Caribbean has run an informal test of Starlink aboard one of their cruise ships. Starlink significantly outperformed geostationary satellite service with a Ping time as low as 38ms and up and download times as high as 77/03 and 15.72 mb/s. That is fast enough to stream video or teleconference but does not shed much light on what to expect when connectivity is distributed throughout a ship with 5,000 passengers and a crew. It will be interesting to see how LEO service on ships ends up competing with O3b Mpower MEO connectivity

Update 6/30/2022

The Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine, Mikhail Fedorov, said that in the future, Internet from Starlink will appear on Ukrainian trains and it has been demonstrated in a successful pilot test in which Starlink technicians were surprised that it worked at high speeds. Ukraine’s Special Communication and Information Protection State Service chief Yurii Shchyhol said Starlink will be available in all Ukraine Railway trains by the end of 2022.

It looks like SpaceX is using Ukraine as a testbed for connectivity in moving vehicles and as a war tool in general.

Update 7/1/2022

The FCC has authorized Starlink connectivity to RVs, large trucks, ships, and planes. They expect to be on planes "very shortly" according to Jonathan Hofeller, Starlink's commercial sales chief. Elon Musk has said he didn't see "connecting Tesla cars to Starlink, as our terminal is much too big." That's true for today's terminals, but I wouldn't rule it out in the future -- by SpaceX or, as mentioned above, Geely.

Update 7/7/2022

Starlink Maritime is available now near coasts where they can reach terrestrial ground stations. Coverage will expand in the fourth quarter of this year and expand to global coverage in the first quarter of next year as more satellites are equipped with inter-satellite laser terminals.

With a price of $5,000 per month and a one-time hardware cost of $10,000 for two high-performance, ruggedized terminals for a download speed of "up to" 350 Mbps, they are marketing to merchant vessels, oil companies and Russian oligarchs with Yachts, not the few thousand customers on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. Latency will on average be greater than terrestrial Starlink due to hops through inter-satellite links. Customers can pause and resume service at any time, but when they turn it on, they will have to pay for the month.

For those who might be worried about performance in severe weather and rough seas, SpaceX points out that Starlink is currently being used to get high-quality video of rocket landings at sea, providing continuous coverage next to engines capable of generating up to 190,000 pounds of force.

Update 7/15/2022

The first phase of Starlink launches consists of 4,408 satellites in five orbital shells. Over half of those satellites are in orbit already, but just last week they launched the first forty-six of the 520 operational V 1.5 satellites that will be in near-polar orbits with inclinations of 97.6 degrees.

Phase 1 orbital shells -- 4408 satellites

These polar orbit satellites will enable them to offer global coverage on land and sea as described above.

Update 8/31/2022
Following on the trial described above, Royal Caribbean has agreed to provide Starlink connectivity on their entire fleet of 63 ships. They will begin outfitting ships immediately and expect to have them all online by the end of the first quarter of next year. 
Other cruise lines connect through geostationary satellites, but Royal Caribbean has been using SES middle Earth orbit satellites on two of their ships. Starlink LEO satellites will provide better performance and offer full global coverage, which the others cannot.

Monday, June 13, 2022

Can SpaceX launch version 2 Starlink satellites this year?

A Starship spacecraft being lifted onto a Super Heavy booster

The answer to the question in the title depends on the availability of SpaceX’s new Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster rocket, collectively referred to as Starship. Elon Musk says he is highly confident about getting Starship to orbit this year. He also says, “At Space X we specialize in converting things from impossible to late.” 
Starship is critical to Starlink because the version 2 satellites are seven meters long and weigh about 1.25 tons and the current Falcon 9 rockets have neither the cargo volume nor the mass-to-orbit capability to economically launch them. As Musk put it, they "need Starship to launch and fly frequently or Starlink version 2 will be stuck on the ground." 
Version 2 satellites will be ejected
using a "Pez dispenser" mechanism
modeled after industrial pallet
Musk has said the performance of the version 2 satellites will be nearly an order of magnitude better than that of the current satellites and they will include inter-satellite laser links. He did not elaborate on his order of magnitude estimate and it will be interesting to see how they handle a mixed-satellite constellation, but all the analysts predicting the profitability and capacity of Starlink will have to go back to work. The projected improvement also reminds us of the advantage of short satellite life.
Today's terminals will work with the version 2 satellites, but performance will be better with a new terminal that is being developed. Perhaps Starlink will allow current terminal owners to trade them in on Version 2 terminals.
But can SpaceX launch the remaining 9,500 approved satellites or the 30,000 that are awaiting approval in a timely manner? They can if they achieve rapid reuse of Starships. The total world mass-to-orbit to date is 16,000 tons. Musk estimates that a single Starship launching three times a day could put 109,000 tons in orbit in a year.
Today they are doing about one launch per week and the current average turnaround time for boosters is 21 days -- can they reuse a Starship three times a day? Boosters fly for about six minutes before returning to Earth and SpaceX plans to have them land back on the launch pad ready for refueling, installation of a spaceship, and re-launch. (They will need more spaceships than boosters). 
During an interview/tour of the Starbase manufacturing and launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, Musk spent time at a launch pad discussing the 10-second booster landing and capture sequence and the design decisions it entailed with Andrew Krebs, Director, Starship Launch Engineering. It was apparent that various tradeoffs are still being evaluated and change is constant. Musk said there is a good chance they will fail to capture the booster on the upcoming orbital flight. (Recall the "unscheduled disassembles" tape of attempts to safely land Falcon boosters). 
They spent some time on the tour at an assembly bay talking about Starship design and manufacturing. Since they need Starship to launch and fly frequently, they expect to eventually have ten or twelve manufacturing bays and Musk expects to manufacture a new spaceship and booster every month. (He estimates that they will eventually have 1,000 Starships for building a city on Mars).
Raptor 1 vs Raptor 2 (source SpaceX)
The greater mass of the Starship and satellites requires more powerful rocket engines than SpaceX is currently flying so Starship will use thirty-nine Raptor 2 engines -- 33 for the booster and six for the spaceship. The Raptor 2 is more powerful than its predecessor, has a much simpler design, and costs about half as much. They had trouble manufacturing them at first but now expect to make seven or more per week.
If all goes well, Musk estimated the variable cost per orbital flight as being a few million, "maybe" as low as one million, dollars. 
In addition to engineering and manufacturing, there are regulatory hurdles. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires an environmental review before they can do the first orbital test launch and they are currently being required to make over seventy-five environmental adjustments to do an orbital launch in Texas. I have no idea how long these adjustments will take, and Musk has considered moving the first orbital flight to Florida. You can see the latest FAA report here.
There are a lot of unknowns and precisely landing and catching a 68-meter long, 9-meter diameter rocket might turn out to be impossible, but SpaceX specializes in converting things from impossible to late.
This post is based on a Starship update talk Musk gave at Starbase in Boca, his recent all-hands company presentation, and videos of interviews with Tim Dodd, the "Everyday astronaut," conducted while touring Starbase. Those videos are here, here, and here. I've only selected some Starlink-related material from these sources. Check them out to learn a lot more about Elon Musk and rockets.

(Click here for a Starlink update).

Update 6/17/2022

The FAA has concluded that continued launches "would not significantly affect the quality of the human environment" and Elon Musk, who has said there would be no more "hops," expects to attempt a Starship orbital launch in July. Musk thinks they will be able to satisfy the FAA quickly and get on with the orbital launch test. He tweeted “There will probably be several launch countdowns before we pass all the abort triggers, but hopefully the first countdown is this month.”

Update 8/4/2022

Alternative plan -- booster returns to launch pad
The answer to the question in the title is "no," but they are pushing hard and next year is a possibility. Version 2 satellites are already at Starbase, and the next Starship launch will try to reach orbit. It would be surprising if the first attempt reached orbit, but Elon Musk is confident that they can do it within twelve months. Whenever they do it, if all goes well, they will try to land the booster on the launch pad rather than allowing it to fall into the ocean. 
Musk previously predicted that the first orbital test would be as early as last January, so he is nearly a year behind schedule, but that prediction did not include an attempt at landing on the launch pad.