Wednesday, November 29, 2017

An example of effective government support for new communication technology

Based on their questions and comments during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the commercial satellite industry, one could not tell whether a senator was a Democrat or Republican.

The US government has a history of support of telecommunication. On March 3, 1843, the US Senate passed a bill "to test the practicability of establishing a system of electro magnetic telegraphs by the United States." The bill provided $30,000 for Samuel Morse to conduct the test. He built a telegraph link between Washington and Baltimore and the rest is history.


US government R&D, procurement, regulation, and expertise also played an important role in the development of the Internet -- see Seeding Networks, the Federal Role. (If you do not have access to the paper, send me a request for a copy). Government collaborated with universities and industry on the development of the Internet up to the time they phased out support, as shown below:

Federal funding prior to the NSFNet phase out
Source: my ACM bibliography (scroll down)

The October Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the commercial satellite industry provides a current example of effective government support of new communication technology.

The hearing focused on broadband access, primarily from low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Witnesses from four companies -- Intelsat, OneWeb, ViaSat and SpaceX -- testified and the tone of the hearing was set by the opening statements of Committee Chairman John Thune and Ranking Member Bill Nelson. Thune began by saying "I believe we are at a critical moment in the development of satellite capability, and I am excited to hear from our panel of distinguished witnesses today." In his opening remarks, Nelson echoed Thune's optimism and among other things stated that he "would like to thank our witnesses for being here today and I look forward to discussing how we can work together to bring about this new Space Age."

The senators were sincere in their desire to serve the American people and they were asking for recommendations as to how they could craft legislation to realize the potential of satellite broadband service. A short introductory statement by each witness was followed by questions and answers. The senator's questions were constructive -- trying to learn from the witnesses, not score political points with their constituents. Based on their questions and comments, one could not tell whether a senator was a Democrat or Republican. They were all constructive.

I was also struck by the degree of overlap in the recommendations given by the four executives, for example:
  • They are all in favor of sharing spectrum among themselves and with terrestrial service providers. They agree that dividing frequency bands among operators is the least desirable and most inefficient way to avoid interference.
  • The four agree that satellite safety and debris mitigation will be critical in an era of large constellations of LEO satellites and that we need to work with International agencies to establish standards. They understand that a disastrous collision would set the entire industry back so they have a common interest in satellite safety.
  • Global standards are needed for debris mitigation, spectrum sharing, etc. and the US, with its history and expertise at NASA and the staffs of agencies like the FCC and NTIA, can and should take the lead in establishing those international standards.
  • The government definition of "broadband Internet" should be technology neutral. Today's geostationary satellite service is slower than terrestrial service, but speeds of coming LEO services will be comparable to terrestrial service.
  • OneWeb is also working on a grappling mechanism for retrieving spent satellites and Greg Wyler said they "hope to open source" the design. No other witnesses mentioned open source, but given Tesla's open source policy, we might expect open source designs from SpaceX as well.
The only explicit disagreement I heard was OneWeb arguing against the Connect America Fund subsidy, but, if it is not limited, I am sure they would like to receive funds. In general, the satellite providers have many common interests and they would like procedures and policies adjusted to allow them to compete on a level playing field with terrestrial ISPs.

Watching this hearing reminded me of the collaboration between Intel, Digital Equipment Corporation and Xerox to create the Ethernet standard. Potential competitors grouped together to define a standard that would enable a large, competitive market as opposed to several small proprietary markets. LEO satellite broadband feels like a startup industry -- reminiscent of the early personal computer days in the US, the ARPAnet and Internet in the days of the Acceptable Use Policy or even the Cuban start-up scene today.

You can see the hearing yourself -- the senators' opening statements, the written testimony of the witnesses and a video of the entire hearing, including questions, answers, and discussion among the senators and witnesses may be found here. SpaceX and OneWeb are both planning large LEO satellite constellations and you will find summaries of their testimonies at the end of these progress reports: SpaceX and OneWeb.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Telesat -- a fifth satellite Internet competitor

Telesat will begin with only 117 satellites while SpaceX and the others plan to launch thousands -- how can they hope to compete? The answer lies in their patent-pending deployment plan.

Polar (green) and inclined (red) orbits
I’ve been following SpaceX, OneWeb, Boeing and Leosat's satellite Internet projects, but have not mentioned Telesat's project. Telesat is a Canadian company that has provided satellite communication service since 1972. (They claim their "predecessors" worked on Telstar, which relayed the first intercontinental transmission, in 1962). Earlier this month, the FCC approved Telesat's petition to provide Internet service in the US using a proposed constellation of 117 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

Note that Telesat will begin with only 117 satellites while SpaceX and the others plan to launch thousands -- how can they hope to compete? The answer lies in their patent-pending approach to deployment. They plan a polar-orbit constellation of six equally-spaced (30 degrees apart) planes inclined at 99.5 degrees at an altitude of approximately 1,000 kilometers and an inclined-orbit constellation of five equally-spaced (36 degrees apart) planes inclined at 37.4 degrees at an approximate altitude of 1,248 kilometers.

This hybrid polar-inclined constellation will result in global coverage with a minimum elevation angle of approximately 20 degrees using their ground stations in Svalbard Norway and Inuvic Canada. Their analysis shows that 168 polar-orbit satellites would be required to match the global coverage of their 117-satellite hybrid constellation and according to Erwin Hudson, Vice President of Telesat LEO, their investment per Gbps of sellable capacity will be as low, or lower than, any existing or announced satellite system. They also say their hybrid architecture will simplify spectrum-sharing.

The following figure from their patent application illustrates hybrid routing. The first hop in a route to the Internet for a user in a densely populated area like Mexico City (410) would be to a visible inclined-orbit satellite (420). The next hop would be to a satellite in the polar-orbit constellation (430), then to a ground station on the Internet (440).

An inter-constellation route (source)

The up and downlinks will use radio frequencies and the inter-satellite links will use optical transmission. Since the ground stations are in sparsely populated areas and the distances between satellites are low near the poles, capacity will be balanced. This scheme may result in Telesat customers experiencing slightly higher latencies than those of their competitors, but the difference will be negligible for nearly all applications.

They will launch two satellites this year -- one on a Russian Soyuz rocket and the other on an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. These will be used in tests and Telesat says a number of their existing geostationary satellite customers are enthusiastic about participating in the tests. They will launch their phase 2 satellites beginning in 2020 and commence commercial service in 2021. They consider 25 satellites per launch vehicle a practical number so they will have global availability before their competitors. Their initial capacity will be relatively low, but they will add satellites as demand grows.

Like OneWeb, Telesat will work with strategic partners for launches and design and production of satellites and antennae. They have not yet selected those partners, but are evaluating candidates and are confident they will be ready in time for their launch dates. Their existing ground stations give them a head start. (OneWeb just contracted with Hughes for ground stations).

Their satellites will work with mechanical and electronically steered antennae and each satellite will have a wide-area coverage mode for broadcast and distributing software updates. Their patent application mentions community broadband and hotspots, large enterprises, ships and planes, software updates and Internet of things, but not homes as initial markets.

Telesat's Canadian patent application goes into detail on all of the above, and I'd be curious to know what exactly would be protected by it. They also consider their global spectrum priority rights from the International Telecommunication Union as an asset, but they will have to agree to spectrum sharing conventions and debris mitigation agreements.

Let me conclude with a suggestion for Telesat and the Cuban government.

OneWeb has committed to providing coverage to the entire state of Alaska by the end of 2020 and Telesat says they will have global coverage by 2021. I follow the state of the Internet in Cuba and think Cuba would be a good starting place for Telesat service. Cuba has the best-educated, Internet-starved population in Latin America and the Caribbean, they have very little domestic Internet infrastructure and much of the infrastructure they do have is obsolete. Cuba is close to being an Internet "green field" and, since it is an island nation, their polar satellite "footprint" would not be densely populated.

Cuba could work with Telesat to leapfrog over several infrastructure generations. If Telesat can deliver on their claims, the barriers would be political and bureaucratic, not technical. Cuba is about to change leadership, and there is some indication that Miguel Díaz-Canel, who many expect to replace Raúl Castro, will favor Internet development.

SpaceX could also provide early Cuban connectivity, but dealing with a US company would be politically problematical and Cuba and Canada have a well established political and economic relationship. Even if Cuba were willing to work with SpaceX, the current US administration would not allow them to do so. Connecting Cuba would be good for Cubans and good publicity of Telesat.

For more on Telesat and their plans for LEO satellite Internet service see their patent application and you can see animations of their proposed hybrid-constellation connectivity here and here.

Update 11/25/2017

LEO-1, Telesat's low-Earth orbit satellite, has been shipped to India for launch. The 168 kg satellite will be used in two-satellite tests of Telesat's forthcoming broadband service. Testing will begin when both test satellites are in operation. LEO-1 will be in polar orbit and I assume the other will be in an inclined orbit in order to test their two-constellation design.

Update 11/29/2017

The Soyuz 2 launch vehicle that was to have placed 19 spacecraft into orbit has failed, destroying one of the two satellites Telesat had planned to use in the first test of their forthcoming broadband Internet service. The other has been shipped to India for launch, but the project will be delayed until the lost satellite can be replaced.

Update 5/19/2018

SpaceX and OneWeb get a lot of publicity and have ambitious plans, but Telesat is the first LEO ISP to begin testing with potential resellers.

Last January, Telesat launched a demonstration satellite and it is now ready for testing. Maritime connectivity provider OmniAccess and Australian ISP Optus had committed to testing the system previously and this week they were joined by in-flight entertainment company Global Eagle Entertainment.

Global Eagle CEO Josh Marks said he was persuaded to collaborate with Telesat by their planned coverage over oceans, polar regions and high-latitude routes and their "open architecture" business model. In addition to testing, they "will collaborate with Telesat on both the technology and commercial model for their new LEO platform.”

OneWeb and several airlines have formed the Seamless Air Alliance, which is developing standards for in-flight Internet connectivity through LEO satellites. I wonder whether Telesat and Global Eagle will join the alliance or go their own way.

Update 7/6/2018

Telesat now expects its LEO constellation to enter service in 2022, not 2021 and they have been pledged CA$20 million from Canada’s Strategic Innovation Fund. The delay may be a result of the failure of the launch of their first test satellite, but they are now operating a second test satellite.

Update 7/23/2018

General Dynamics will help develop terminals and Gilat will work on modem technology for Telesat. It seems that Telesat is following the OneWeb many-partners business model as opposed to SpaceX's do-it-yourself model.

Update 8/2/2018

Telesat has entered into two new contracts, one with Thales Alenia Space and Maxar Technologies and the second one with Airbus. Reading the press releases, it sounds like they are both working on comprehensive system designs and at the end of the process, one will be selected as the prime contractor.

Erwin Hudson, vice-president of Telesat LEO, also outlined their marketing strategy. In the long run, they plan to serve consumers directly through LTE or 5G mobile networks, but they will initially focus on government and enterprise companies. The long-run plan sounds similar to OneWeb's.