Friday, October 26, 2018

Obstacles in OneWeb's negotiations with Russia

This case illustrates the fact that political, security, and financial negotiations may be as difficult as designing satellites and rockets for a would-be global Internet service provider.

OneWeb is investing billions of dollars in a constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) Internet-service satellites.

In 2015 they placed launch orders for 21 Russian-made Soyuz rockets.

In 2017, they formed a joint venture with Russian LEO satellite operator Gonets to develop the project in Russia. At that time, Gonets was a subsidiary of Roscosmos, the Russian State Corporation overseeing and implementing the Russian space industry. OneWeb had a 60% interest in the joint venture.

This week Reuters reported that OneWeb is relinquishing its majority stake in the venture -- Gonets intends to increase its stake to 51 percent.

I wonder why.

Speaking at a conference in Moscow, Federal Security Service (FSB) official Vladimir Sadovnikov objected to the project for security reasons. He feared that “Some of Russia’s regions would become totally dependent on a foreign satellite service” and added that Moscow had not received any conclusive evidence that OneWeb’s satellites would not be used for intelligence gathering.

(He also revealed his ignorance by apparently not understanding the difference between Iridium and OneWeb).

I wonder if the security concern is genuine -- OneWeb has decided to forgo inter-satellite links in favor of routing all traffic through a system of 40 terrestrial gateways, allowing a nation to know the path of traffic into and out of their territory. Are they concerned about the possible detection of sources of trolling and hacking?

Sadovnikov added a political dimension saying Russia favored setting up a similar network partnering with India, China and countries which he described as non-aggressive and China has pitched a 1,000 LEO satellite project to Russia.

An unnamed source at the FSB also mentioned politics, saying “OneWeb is an important project for Roscosmos and Russia’s space industry, but national security issues come first. There are many doubts regarding that project, especially because of the sanctions against us."

Spectrum is another stumbling block. OneWeb's request to receive a frequency band in Russia was refused and a source at the Ministry for Digital Development and Communications said they would be given permission after legal issues regarding the joint venture were completed. Given Russia's reputation, one can't help wondering whether the hangup has something to do with payoffs.

Another possibility is convoluted economic infighting within Russia. Gonets' Wikipedia page says it began as a Russian Federal Space Agency program, but in 1996 it was privatized and operated by Gonets SatCom, which was controlled by ISS Reshetnev. In 2017 Roscosmos acquired 80% of Gonets from ISS Reshetnev. Wikipedia is not a definitive source and I know nothing of the history of these organizations, but this sounds like it could be the kind of oligarchy-creation manipulation that occurs when state property is privatized. (The ownership of Cuban ISP Etecsa raises similar questions).

Perhaps there were management problems. Initially, launches of production satellites were planned to begin last May, then the date slipped to first quarter 2018. The current schedule calls for the launch of test satellites on February 7, 2019.

Regardless of the motivation for restructuring the OneWeb/Gonets venture, there is a mismatch in the aspirations of a global ISP and nationalistic governments. This case illustrates the fact that political, security, and financial negotiations may be as difficult as designing satellites and rockets for a would-be global ISP.

For background on OneWeb and other low-Earth orbit satellite Internet service projects, click here.

Gonets home page, 8/10/2018. It was removed earlier this week.

The Russian home page has also been removed. Last archived copy 4/10/18.

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Update 11/15/2018

Kommersant, a prominent Russian newspaper, reports that Russia’s Federal Security Service says OneWeb’s low-Earth orbit Internet-service constellation would pose a national security threat and wants it banned. If OneWeb service were banned in Russia it would mean the loss of a market for them and their Russian partner Gonets and would also jeopardize Russian space agency Roskosmos’ contract to launch OneWeb satellites. At the very least, that would probably delay OneWeb's plans.

The article says the issue has been raised "at the level of the President" in a Security Council meeting and a decision will be made no earlier than December. The English-language edition of Kommersant has a shortened version of this article. (I have based this note on a Google translation of the original article).

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Google -- kill Google Plus but save G+ Communities.

Last March, Google discovered a bug that exposed around 500,000 Google Plus profiles. Only static, optional profile fields like name, email address, occupation, gender, and age were exposed -- no other information like post content, Community memberships, viewing history, etc.

They discovered and immediately patched the bug last March and spent six months investigating it before going public yesterday. They say their investigation found "no evidence that any developer was aware of the bug or abusing it" and "no evidence that any profile data was misused." In spite of their assurance that no harm was done, Google stock dropped 2.6% last Thursday morning, when the news may have leaked out, and it is down about 4% for the last five days.

In the same post as they announced the bug, they announced they would "sunsetting" the consumer (free) version of Google Plus (but not the paid, enterprise version). Google or any other company has the right to discontinue an unprofitable product or service and, as they point out in their post, the "social network" portion of Google Plus was a failure, but there is more to Google Plus than social networking.

I quit reading my Google Plus feed long ago -- it was filled with spam and fake news based on my (faked) political interests, but I have found Google Plus Communities to be valuable and useful. While Google could not compete with Facebook's social networking feed, the features and interface of their Communities are superior to Facebook Groups. (Even if you like Facebook Groups, there is no way to transfer the members and history of a Google Plus Community to a Facebook Group).

Google should save Google Plus communities. There is a precedent for such a move. When it was launched, Google Plus included a service called Hangouts on Air (HoA). HoA enables video "chats" among up to ten people. That is not unique, but the chats can optionally be broadcast online and archived on YouTube. HoA was and remains a unique, valuable service that I and many others use. In 2016, Google removed HoA from Google Plus and integrated it into YouTube so it will not be affected by the elimination of Google Plus.

The decision to zap Google Plus provides a good example of the danger of dependency. There is an Internet saying -- "do what you do best and link to the rest." That makes sense and it has facilitated the rapid proliferation of Internet-based services, but it also leaves one vulnerable. The cost of using a service you depend upon may rise or one day or, like Google Plus, it may disappear.

I use HoA and Communities in my teaching and other professional work. Google saved me when they moved HoA out of Google Plus and I hope they do the same with Communities.