Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Boeing's satellite Internet project

2,956 satellites orbiting at inclinations
of 45°, 55° & 88°, Source
Boeing was the prime contractor for Teledesic's failed attempt in the late 1990s.

I recently posted updates on the satellite Internet service projects of SpaceX and OneWeb. OneWeb and SpaceX have received a lot of publicity, but there is a new entry in the global satellite Internet race -- Boeing. (Leosat has kept a relatively low profile).

Boeing has applied for a license to launch a constellation of 2,956 Internet-access satellites orbiting at an altitude of 1,200 km. (In a subsequent amendment, the orbits were lowered to three different levels 970, 1,034 and 1,086 km ). They outlined a two-phase plan -- the first 1,396 satellites would be operating within six years and another 1,560 would be launched within 12 years as demand justified.

There has also been speculation that Apple may be funding and collaborating with Boeing on satellite Internet-service provision. (If you follow this link, read the comments).

Small cells around Washington DC
Boeing will use beam-forming, digital processing and instantaneous handoff between overlapping satellite footprints to generate thousands of narrow spot beams, dividing the Earth's surface into 8-11 km diameter (50-95 km2) cells as illustrated here. Each cell will have 5 Ghz bandwidth and, if a cell contains both user terminals and Internet gateways, time-division algorithms will enable frequency re-use to serve both. These are very smart radios!

In reviewing the FCC filings, I was struck by the degree of cooperation between the competitors. When Boeing proposed 1,200 km orbits, OneWeb filed a comment saying that would interfere with their design which also called for 1,200 km orbits. In response, Boeing met with OneWeb and altered their plan, lowering altitudes to 970, 1,082 and 1,030 km.

There were also concerns that waivers Boeing requested might lead to radio interference and SpaceX responded by stating that:
The Commission should encourage systems that facilitate spectrum sharing among licensed users. The waivers Boeing seeks will help to build a sensible regulatory environment for NGSO operations while honoring the goals of the rules at issue.
These companies value engineering as well as business. (Tesla has shared their patents -- might SpaceX do the same)?

In researching this post, I came across two other Boeing filings -- one for 60 high-altitude satellites (shown here) and another for a low-Earth constellation of 132 satellites and 15 high-altitude satellites. I imagine these smaller constellations will complement the larger constellation somehow, but have not been able to learn how they will interact.

Sixty high-altitude satellites launched in three phases: the Amercas, Europe
and Africa and Asia and Australia. Click to enlarge. (source)

Boeing, OneWeb and SpaceX are from different generations. OneWeb and SpaceX are relatively recent startups and Boeing is venerable. The startups may have less legacy overhead and have gotten off to a faster start, but Boeing has been thinking about providing Internet service using a satellite constellation for over twenty years -- they were the prime contractor for Teledesic's failed attempt in the late 1990s.

We have four potential global Internet service providers -- SpaceX, OneWeb, Leosat and Apple(?)/Boeing. I hope they all succeed, giving us some competition in the Intenet service market. That might one day help current Internet customers who have only one choice for their service provider (like me) but it would surely be a boon for people with no terrestrial Internet access today.

Update 12/10/2017
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg said a Boeing rocket will be used to put the first person on Mars (presumably in a NASA mission).

In response, Elon Musk, who has announced plans to land a person on Mars in 2024, tweeted "do it".

A Boeing infographic shows their Space Launch System (SLS) rocket powering a manned Mars mission in the mid to late 2030s, which raises a couple of questions:
  • Why the sudden acceleration -- is it about competition for NASA funding? Catching up with the SpaceX BFR?
  • If Boeing speeds up the SLS program, will it affect the timetable for their satellite Internet business?
  • I wonder what the SpaceX and Boeing Mars missions will cost the US taxpayer -- which will be more cost-effective?
  • Finally, does the winner of this race gain any legal or property rights advantage?
I'll conclude with a bit of business speculation:

As noted above, Boeing has said they would like LEO satellite Internet partners and Apple was a possibility. More recently, Boeing announced that they will build satellites for O3b, a company Wyler founded. It has also been reported that Boeing wants to give one of its V-band satellite broadband FCC filings to a company controlled by Greg Wyler. Might we see OneWeb teaming up with Boeing in order to compete with SpaceX?

The following short video (3:18) outlines Boeing's Mars plan and previous timetable: