Thursday, November 13, 2014

Elon Musk and Greg Wyler's plans for global satellite connectivty

Routers in space

(See the related post on cost savings from re-use of rockets used in launching satellites).

In the early 1990s, cellular pioneer Craig McCaw, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal founded Teledesic, with the intention of providing global Internet connectivity using low-earth orbit satellites. The satellite and launch technology were not good enough and the company failed.

Teledesic animation showing a satellite
constellation that would cover the planet.

But satellite and launch technology have come a long way since that time. In an earlier post, I asked whether Google could connect the "other three billion" in developing nations and rural areas. The post surveyed Google projects involving high altitude platforms like blimps, drones or balloons that hover or circulate in the stratosphere, low-earth orbit satellites used for imaging and telephony and medium-earth orbit satellites used for communications and navigation.

One of those projects was a collaboration with O3b (other three billion), a company founded by ex-Google executive Greg Wyler. O3b began with four satellites in 8,000-kilometer equatorial orbits and planned to serve all parts of the Earth within 45 degrees of the Equator. Wyler has left O3b when he went to Google and O3b and now has 12 satellites in orbit.

In describing the O3b project, I wondered "whether they are considering a low-earth orbit constellation" and it seems they were. Mr. Wyler subsequently left O3b to found WorldVu, which planned a constellation of 300 satellites at between 800 and 950 kilometers in altitude and has acquired Ku-band spectrum. Service will be marketed under the OneWeb brand.

That takes care of the improved satellite technology, but how about launch technology?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article saying that Mr. Wyler would be teaming up with Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX to provide global Internet access using a constellation of 700 satellites, each weighing less than 250 pounds. Musk confirmed the plan in a couple of Twitter posts, but also criticized the Wall Street Journal reporting.

I hope they will be able to realize Teledesic's 1990 vision using 2020 technology.

I concluded my earlier post on this topic by "wondering whether Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic are eyeing those other three billion people." I still wonder about Bezos and Branson.

Update 11/13/2014

After writing this post, I attended a session at Rand Corporation's Politics Aside conference and had a chance to ask Simonetta Di Pippo, the Director of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs, about her take on this proposal. She did not give a direct answer, but said that Elon Musk is a very smart man and he has never failed to succeed at anything he committed to do.

A SpaceX executive overheard my question and said he could not comment, but he reiterated Elon Musk's tweeted statement that the Wall Street Journal article had errors and we would have to wait a couple of months for the full announcement of their plans.

I guess we will have to wait to see, but this could be a Big Deal.

Update 12/15/2014

SpaceX will carry micro-satellites made by Planet Labs to the International Space Station (ISS) for launch into orbit.

Two Plane Labs satellites just after launch from the ISS

The satellites shown being launched are Planet Labs earth-imaging satellites. They are smaller and orbit at lower altitude than those discussed above, but might a constellation of more, smaller satellites in lower orbits and carrying routers rather than cameras be suitable for Internet communication? (That is not a rhetorical question -- I do not know).

For more on Planet Labs, check this terrific Ted Talk by Planet Labs co-founder Will Marshall:

Update 1/14/2015

The competition heats up.

Greg Wyler’s OneWeb satellite-Internet company has received funding from the Virgin Group and Qualcomm and Richard Branson of Virgin Group and Paul Jacobs from Qualcomm will have seats on the board. (If you are a Wall Street Journal subscriber, there is a longer article here).

Elon Musk also announced the opening of a Seattle office for the design of satellites. SpaceX declined to comment on Wyler's announcement.

Whoever builds the rockets, satellites and markets the service, it sounds like Teledesic is being reborn using modern technology and, if successful, it would be a major extension of the nervous system of the Earth and a significant enabler of Bill Gates' work in developing nations.

Greg Wyler wants to bring the Internet to the entire world.

Update 1/17/2015

Elon Musk announced that he plans to deploy a constellation of router equipped-satellites -- evidently in competition with the Greg Wyler's OneWeb project. Musk announced his plan at a closed meeting for potential employees of his new satellite office and state, local and federal government officials.

No details were released and those that were leaked appear to be inconsistent. For example, the Seattle Times reported that they planned to deploy 4,000 geosynchronous satellites and Business Week reported that they planned 700 low-earth orbit satellites.

This effort is not an end in itself, but part of a larger plan to reach Mars -- Musk says he wants to die on Mars.

It is terrific to see two powerful groups competing to fulfill Bill Gates' original vision of global satellite connectivity -- Teledesic. Teledesic failed, but with modern launch capability, micro-satellites and communication equipment one or both of these efforts may very well succeed. If they do, it will be an historic achievement and a significant complement to Gates' current work in developing nations.

Elon Musk will compete with OneWeb

Update 1/19/2015

When this thread began last November, it seemed like Elon Musk and Greg Wyler would collaborate on an Internet satellite venture, but now it looks more like competition.

A post on Ars Technica quotes Musk as saying “Greg and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture -- we want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”

They quote Richard Branson as saying that Musk doesn't have a chance because Wyler has spectrum rights and there is not enough space for two satellite constellations. He thinks the logical thing for Musk to do is work together rather than separately.

Wyler's former employer Google, which has also been working on satellite connectivity, is said to be close to investing in Musk's Space X.

I can't wait to see where all this ends up in, say, five years.

Update 1/20/2015

SpaceX has confirmed an investment of $1 billion from Google and Fidelity for a reported 10% of the company. That leads to an evaluation of around $10 billion. (I may be old-fashioned, but I don't understand markets that evaluate WhatsApp at nearly double the value of SpaceX).

It also seems that SpaceX is considering the use of modulated laser beams to cope with OneWeb's advantage in spectrum holdings.

Regardless of the technology, OneWeb and SpaceX will have to deal with regulators in each nation they serve, which seems inefficient -- would it make more sense to establish some international regulatory rules?

Looking forward -- what if one of these companies pulls their plans off and ends up serving a billion or two billion customers -- should we worry about their power? It sounds like Comcast on steroids. Even if they both succeed and establish a duopoly, they will have immense power.

Update 1/26/2015

Business Week has published a background piece on Greg Wyler -- his biography and personality. It is interesting to read for general background, but has a few details that are new to me. He says he plans to orbit 648 satellites at an altitude of 750 miles and hopes to sell the user terminals for around $200. Since there will be several satellites within range of any point on Earth, he says their antennas will not need to be professionally installed or move to track satellites, as is the case with O3B.

The article is accompanied by a 4:33 video in which Wyler describes O3B and his plans for OneWeb -- here are a couple of stills from the video:

Wyler with a mock-up of a user terminal

Wyler illustrates the latency differences between
low, middle and geostationary orbits

Update 1/26/2015

Cell-phone video (25:53 min) of Elon Musk's talk at the closed-door announcement of the establishment of a satellite design office in Seattle. Many high-level details on the project.

Update 2/12/2015

Third time is closer, but still no cigar :-(. "Rocket soft landed in the ocean within 10m of target & nicely vertical! High probability of good droneship landing in non-stormy weather." — Elon Musk February 11, 2015

Update 3/10/2015

Excerpts from a Via Satellite interview of Greg Wyler.

VIA SATELLITE: With industry verticals being served, and O3b connecting the other 3 billion people, where does OneWeb fit in to the communications landscape?

Wyler: O3b Networks does links around 150 Mbps and up, and this is about links that are much lower speeds than that. Our primary core competency will be sub 50 Mbps to small, inexpensive terminals.

VIA SATELLITE: How difficult was it to get investors like Virgin and QualComm to buy into this vision?

Wyler: Qualcomm knows more about communications chips, handover protocols and LTE then any other company. They also have a long background in satellite having built Globalstar and many other satellite communications systems. Virgin has Richard as the leader with a strong understanding of things that you can’t imagine he would have a sense of, and then this deep bench of players.

VIA SATELLITE: I understand an RFP is already out regarding the manufacturer of these satellites? When do you hope to finalize this?

Wyler: We are building satellites at high volume. They need to be done on a production line, rather than a one-off manufacturing process. We are going into a partnership where we will own a portion of the factory and the manufacturer the other portion.

VIA SATELLITE: Is 2017 a realistic timeframe to launch the first satellites? Wyler: I am an optimist. I think 2017 is a realistic time to have our test satellites up. I am not saying the constellation will be working then.

Update 3/18/2015

A third would-be satellite ISP, Leosat, has revealed plans for a constellation of Internet satellites. They will not be marketing to individual end users, but will target government and business -- maritime applications, oil and gas exploration and productions, telecom back-haul and trunking, enterprise VSAT, etc. They (and the others) hope to be able to provide low latency links over long distances. As shown here, a route from Los Angeles to southern Chile requires only 5 satellite hops as opposed to 14 terrestrial hops.

Update 10/7/2016

We have followed SpaceX's efforts to cut satellite launch cost by soft-landing and reusing rockets. Another way to cut launch costs is to use a single launch to place multiple satellites in different orbits and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has successfully launched eight satellites into two different orbits. If rocket reuse and multiple-orbit launches become routine, the cost of creating constellations of Internet service satellites will be significantly reduced.

Single launch places eight satellites
in two different orbits.(credit: ISRO)

Update 11/17/2016

SpaceX has submitted a 102-page technical supplement to their application for permission to launch a constellation of Internet-service satellites.

leaked SpaceX financial documents reveal that Elon Musk expects significant revenue as a satellite Internet service provider:
SpaceX eventually plans to launch 4,000 communications satellites, which would be dozens of times larger than any other constellation, with the first phase of this possibly going online as early as 2018. SpaceX anticipates that the satellite business will become more profitable than the rocket business by 2020, generating tens of billions of dollars by the mid-2020s.
Another post on the same leak was more specific, saying that "SpaceX expects to generate more than $15 billion in profit by 2025."

Update 1/18/2017

Two of the updates to this post were triggered by SpaceX filing a request to launch 4,400 Internet service satellites last November and a leak of SpaceX financial data last week. Each of those events triggered in-depth, informative discussions on Reddit. The Reddit discussion of the request to launch the satellites (here) and the Reddit discussion of SpaceX finance (here) cover launch, radio and IP technology, markets, advantages and disadvantages compared to terrestrial networks and much more. Check them out and join the discussions.

Update 3/11/2017

A 2016 patent by Mark Krebs, then at Google, now at SpaceX, has several interesting figures like this one specifying two constellations, each at a different altitude. As shown here, the lower-altitude satellites have smaller footprints, but would have lower latency times than the higher altitude satellites.

The higher-orbit satellites will be launched in the first phase of the project, enabling SpaceX to bring the Internet to underserved and rural areas of the Earth. The second phase, lower-orbit satellites, will be able to offer faster service and possible compete with terrestrial networks in urban areas. I am not sure, but being at different altitudes might also simplify multi-satellite launches -- launch half at low altitude then proceded to the higher altitude and launch the second half. The high altitude satellites might also enable fewer hops on long, over-the horizon routes (as shown above) and make for smoother satellite handoffs during a session. The following is a neat video explainer of the SpaceX plan:

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