Tuesday, January 28, 2020

China will be a formidable satellite Internet service competitor

In a study of the Internet in China in the late 1990s, my colleagues and I observed that "China has been able to execute plans effectively by allocating resources to competing, government-owned enterprises," and Kai-Fu Lee shows that they have pursued a similar strategy with respect to AI. Now they are doing the same with low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband satellite constellations.

Characteristics of the Hongyun and Hongyan satellites
Last December, state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) launched their first experimental Hongyun (rainbow cloud) Project satellite and a week later China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) launched their first experimental Hongyan (wild goose) Project satellite. (Both CASIC and CASC have Wikipeida pages and their Fortune Global 500 ranks are 322 and 323).

As shown here, Hongyun launched a test satellite in December 2018 and said they planned four more during 2019, but there is no record of those having been launched as of today. They have, however, completed tests of Web browsing, video chat, and high-resolution streaming and said users across China would be able to access the demonstration system. (I assume that refers to test users).

They initially planned to begin operating with 156 satellites by the middle of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), emphasizing service in China's remote regions. Late last year, they expanded the constellation plan from 156 to 864 satellites orbiting at 1,175 km with an 8 Terabytes per second capacity. They hope to serve 2 million 5G users through direct connections to base stations, 200,000 broadband users and 10 million Internet of things (IoT) users. The focus will be on China and Belt and Road nations.

CASIC has also established two satellite factories in Hubei and Hunan provinces. This may have been necessitated by the increase in the number of planned Hongyun satellites or it may be another application of the strategy of creating competing state-owned enterprises.

Hongyan applications (source)
CASC's Hongyan project plans a constellation of around 320 LEO satellites. They have launched one test satellite so far and had hoped to launch 8 more by 2020, but did not make that deadline. They expect to have 60 operating satellites "around" 2023 and to be able to provide global coverage with the full constellation by 2025.

As shown in this illustration, they plan to connect buildings, ships, trains, and planes and to provide mobile backhaul and, most interestingly, direct service to mobile phones. He Mu, Hongyan Application Director, promised the development of a "chip [that] can be integrated into the mobile phone so that everyone holding an ordinary mobile phone will have access to seamless satellite telecommunication with global coverage." That does not sound like a mobile connection to a base station with satellite backhaul, but neither does it sound possible.

Earlier this month a third competitor, GalaxySpace, launched Yinhe-1, which is expected to test Q/V and Ka-band communications at up to 10 Gbps. They refer to Yinhe-1 as a "5G satellite." I'm not sure what a "5G" satellite is, but note again that the above diagram shows a satellite communicating directly with a mobile phone, as opposed to a mobile tower. Check out this short video on the satellite and launch:

CASIC has four other "five clouds" projects underway in addition to Hongyun: Feiyun, using solar-powered drones, Kuaiyun, using near-space airships (dirigibles?), Tengyun, a project to develop a reusable space plane, and Xingyun, an 80-LEO narrowband IoT constellation using cubsats, the first of which is to be launched soon.

As noted above, Chinese state-owned enterprises often compete with each other, but they also cooperate. For example, CASIC's Hongun-1 was launched on a CASC rocket. (I wonder how they arrived at the launch price). Will Hongyun and Hongan exchange traffic at shared ground stations? Will their satellites one day intercommunicate in order to optimize a joint constellation with different orbits? Will they intercommunicate with China's geostationary satellites and other space assets?

It is often argued that government ownership and subsidy are unfair to competitors and lead to a suboptimal allocation of resources. I assume this sort of government-brokered "coordinated competition" is more common in China than in the US, but even here, the lines between government-sponsored research and development, government procurement and industrial subsidy are a bit vague as are the criteria for anti-trust enforcement. People and organizations will learn to game either system, so both must be dynamic.

Hongyun, Hongyan and GalaxySpace are late to the game. OneWeb, SpaceX, and Telesat are beginning to sign up customers and will launch a lot of satellites this year. Amazon is also a late-comer, but they have a lot of money and complementary infrastructure. Like Amazon, China has funds for the long run, domestic infrastructure which can be shared by the three LEO projects and they are working on reusability. Furthermore, they have a political advantage in the "Digital Silk Road" nations of our increasingly divided world and divided Internet. China will be a formidable satellite Internet service competitor.

Update 4/26/2020

The US military has tracked the Galaxy satellite launched in January in a 637 by 621-kilometer altitude orbit inclined at 86 degrees. On April 23, Galaxy engineers conducted a three-minute video call via a WiFi hotspot that used the satellite for backhaul.

As noted above, Galaxy has referred to this as a "5G" satellite constellation and we speculated that they may have been implying direct connections from cell phones to orbiting 5G base stations, but these test results confirm and @Megaconstelai points out, they are using the satellite for backhaul from terrestrial 5G cells.

Update 5/26/2020

A few Hongyun test results are in. The brief note speaks of spectral thermometer tests and image data. There was no mention of broadband Internet tests.

Update 9/8/2020
A Galaxy Space test achieved 1 gigabit per second for each of its 16 Ka-band user beams and Blaine Curcio says 2020 is a turning point for Chinese commercial space. SpaceX and others are racing ahead and China has a strategic -- military, political, and commercial -- interest in keeping up with the West/US in space. The Digital Silk Road runs through space.
Update 9/20/2020 
GalaxySpace is building a factory to mass-produce low-cost satellites in East China. They will manufacture "more than one" satellite per day, joining SpaceX (four per day) and OneWeb (three per day) as mass-production LEO broadband satellite manufacturers.

Their current test satellite has verified high-frequency Q/V/Ka and other frequency band communications and they have achieved 10 Gps speed within a 300,000 Km^2 footprint. They also succeeded in a 5G wireless test, which I assume means they communicated through a 5G base station.

In a related development, China's National Development and Reform Commission added satellite broadband, 5G, and the Internet of Things to it's “New Infrastructures” list. That means more money will be invested in these technologies.

Consultant Blaine Curcio speculates that the Chinese government assumes increased importance of the Internet in a post-COVID world and rather than limiting the investment effort to the state-owned enterprises, the government has opened the doors to the private sector as well.

Update 1/19/2021

Construction of China's first smart manufacturing plant for satellites has been completed. Production will begin in March and the first product will be Hongyun broadband Internet satellites. The factory will be capable of making 240 small satellites a year and it sounds like it can be repurposed to build satellites for other constellations. SpaceX and OneWeb both claim to be able to produce satellites faster, but their factories may not be as easily reconfigured. Regardless, the Chinese space industry is progressing rapidly.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite internet service developments for 2019

SpaceX lands two boosters (video)
I posted reviews of important LEO-satellite Internet service developments during 2017 and 2018. I've been updating those posts during the years and have 16 new posts for 2019. In 2019 we saw four inciteful simulations, Leosat suspending operations and Amazon announcing the availability of a new ground station service and plans for a LEO constellation, progress in phased-array antennas but a lowering of expectations for inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs), new competition from China, worries about space debris and SpaceX racing ahead of the pack. The following are brief summaries of and links to those 2019 posts:

Simulation of OneWeb, SpaceX and Telesat's proposed global broadband constellations (January 2019)

Inigo del Portillo and his colleagues at MIT have run a simulation comparing OneWeb, SpaceX and Telesat's proposed LEO Internet service constellations. They estimated the average data rate per satellite and total system throughput (sellable capacity) for each constellation then computed the number of ground stations needed to achieve full capacity. The simulations were run with and without ISLLs. The configurations of SpaceX and OneWeb's constellations have changed somewhat since they ran the simulations, but del Portillo does not think the numbers for total throughput and number of ground stations would vary a lot for SpaceX and he expected the total system throughput would decrease slightly for OneWeb because of the reduction of the number of satellites from the initial 720 to 600.

Fifteen-dollar, electronically-steerable antennas for satellite and terrestrial connectivity (February 2019)

OneWeb founder Greg Wyler announced that his self-funded side project, Wafer LLC, has developed a flat, low-power phased-array antenna that could be mass-produced for $15. If that is the case, we can look forward to end-user terminals in the $2-300 dollar range. At this cost, one can envision deploying large numbers of two-antenna user terminals to act as ground stations when they are otherwise idle. A recent simulation shows that doing so would result in lower latency and jitter than today's terrestrial networks. Owners of these relay terminals could be subsidized.

Google balloons and Telesat satellites (February 2019)

Telesat will use Google's network operating system. In return, Google, which is also a SpaceX investor, may get access to some Telesat data in addition to compensation for their software. Another intriguing possibility is that Google might be planning to integrate Project Loon, their stratospheric balloon Internet service with Telesat's LEO satellite Internet service -- to use Telesat's network as a global backbone. That integration would be facilitated by their both running the same SDN software -- the same network operating system. (In the long run, I expect that all network layers will be integrated -- from the ground to airplanes to geostationary orbit).

SpaceX's Starlink Internet service will target end-users on day one (March 2019)

Starting with Teledesic in 1990, would-be LEO satellite constellations have pitched their projects to the FCC, other regulators, and the public as a means of closing the digital divide, but they also have their eyes on lucrative aviation, maritime, high-speed trading, mobile backhaul, enterprise, and governments markets. (LEOSat, which had planned to focus exclusively on the enterprise and government markets recently suspended operations). SpaceX has filed an FCC application for one million ground stations, indicating that they will be focused on end-users and small organizations in addition to high-end customers from the start.

Are inter-satellite laser links a bug or a feature of ISP constellations? (April 2019)

OneWeb has decided not to include ISLLs in the first phase of their constellation and SpaceX will not introduce them until near the end of 2020, at which time they may start with test satellites. OneWeb's decision was motivated by political issues in Russia as well as technical considerations. They will need more ground stations to offer global service without ISLLs and a team of MIT researchers has run a simulation of a 720-satellite OnWeb constellation. They estimate that 71 ground stations would be required to reach maximum throughput.

Amazon's orbiting infrastructure (April 2019)

In his first annual stockholder letter, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stressed that Amazon was focused on investing in infrastructure. Initially, they invested in retail distribution centers but have added an Internet backbone, trucks and planes, third party retail support, cloud computing and storage, and satellite launch and ground station service and are now working on a constellation of LEO satellites for broadband service. They use this infrastructure themselves and market it to competitors like online retailers and they have contracts to launch satellites for OneWeb and Telesat. This infrastructure yields both revenue and access to market data and there have been calls for antitrust action against Amazon.

Satellite Internet Service Progress by SpaceX and Telesat (May 2019)

Telesat has signed their first LEO customer, Omniaccess a provider of connectivity to the superyacht market, received a subsidy from the Canadian budget for providing service in rural Canada, is working with two teams that are competing to be the prime contractor for their constellation, and signed a launch contract with Amazon's Blue Origen. They also announced that they had demonstrated 5G mobile backhaul in tests with Vodaphone and the University of Surrey. SpaceX also announced ambitious plans for future launches, which have subsequently been surpassed.

SpaceX reports significant broadband satellite progress (May 2019)

SpaceX announced a significant reduction in the size and weight of their satellites and the addition of krypton-powered thrusters that would enable them to autonomously avoid collisions with on-orbit debris that was large enough to track. The thrusters would also be used to de-orbit obsolete satellites. Might the collective constellation "learn" to avoid smaller debris one day?

Might satellite constellations learn to avoid debris with sensors on satellites? (May 2019)

According to the European Space Agency, there are about 5,000 orbiting satellites, about 40% of which are still functioning. They estimate that there have been over 500 break-ups, explosions, collisions, or anomalous events resulting in fragmentation and they estimate that there are 34,000 debris objects >10 cm, 900,000 from 1 to 10 cm and 128 million from 1 mm to 1 cm. NASA says there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball, 500,000 the size of a marble or larger and many millions so small they can’t be tracked. Space debris is a "tragedy of the commons." SpaceX plans to launch thousands of satellites. Could sensors on satellites detect and catalog small pieces of debris and, if so, could that lead to meaningful evasive action?

Hongyun Project -- China's low-earth orbit broadband Internet project (June 2019)

China has announced two LEO broadband satellite projects and a LEO narrowband Internet of things constellation. While far behind SpaceX in technology, the Chinese companies have a large domestic market, access to government capital and political and economic ties to many nations through their Belt and Road and Digital Silk Road infrastructure projects.

Amazon's AWS Ground Station service is now available (June 2019)

Amazon is offering satellite ground station access as a service. They list a number of advantages to their service, several of which are based on complementary Amazon offerings like access to their data centers and global network backbone and cloud computing and storage services. We can assume that Amazon's satellite constellation will use these ground stations at cost and, like their launch service, they will be made available to competitors. Amazon has been accused of predatory pricing in retail and competing ground-segment companies may fear the same.

Latecomer Amazon will be a formidable satellite ISP competitor (July 2019)

In spite of being a latecomer to the race to deploy a constellation of LEO broadband Internet satellites, Amazon's Project Kuiper will be a formidable competitor. While far behind SpaceX, Amazon has in-house launch capability and they have extensive complementary infrastructure including data centers, Web services, and a ground-station service. They also have the funds to finance the constellation as well as to develop or acquire critical technology like ISLLs and cost-effective phased-array antennas. They have also hired ex-SpaceX executives and engineers and in Jeff Bezos they have a leader who is comparable to Elon Musk.

An optimistic update from Telesat (August 2019)

Telesat received 685 million Canadian dollars from the government to subsidize rural connectivity. They plan to start service at the end of 2022 with 200 satellites in polar orbit, to add 100 more in inclined orbit in 2023 and perhaps eventually reach 500 satellites. Combining polar and inclined orbits and utilizing the far-north ground stations they already have for their profitable, established geosynchronous satellite service will help them gain a foothold in rural Canada and polar regions.

Inter-satellite laser link update (November 2019)

SpaceX initially planned to have five ISLLs per satellite but cut that back to four due to the technical difficulty of linking to a fast-moving satellite in a crossing plane and the short duration of such links. OneWeb has decided against using ISLLs for the time being due to cost and political considerations and Telesat remains committed to them. SpaceX is engineering its own ISLL hardware, but OneWeb and Telesat may be working with third parties. The situation with Hongyun is unknown and LEOsat has abandoned their effort.

What to expect from SpaceX Starlink broadband service next year and beyond (November 2019)

By the end of 2020, SpaceX will have coverage in the heavily populated parts of the world between around 50 degrees north and south latitude. They expect to be launching 120 satellites a month and, by the end of 2020, the satellites will be equipped with ISLLs. However, by that time they will have many legacy satellites in space and those early ISLLs may just be for testing. They expect the next-generation Starship to be able to place at least 400 Starlink satellites in orbit, reducing the per-satellite cost to 20% of today's 60-satellite launches. They hope to compete with the "crappy" $80/month service in the US and, since the cost of the constellation is fixed, they will strive for affordable prices worldwide.

Starlink simulation shows low latency without inter-satellite laser links (ISSLa) (December 2019)

Mark Handley, a professor at University College London, has made two terrific videos based on runs of his simulation of the first -- 1,584 satellite -- phase of SpaceX Starlink. I discussed the first video, which assumes that the satellites have ISLLs, in a recent post. This one shows that, while not as fast as an equivalent ISLL path, long bent-pipe paths would typically have lower latency than terrestrial fiber routes between the same two points. It also considers the possibility of using end-user terminals as ground stations when they are idle, which would further reduce latency and jitter.


Friday, January 10, 2020

Cuban fake news about some fake news

Four CITF winners (source)
When the CITF was established, it was touted as being formed for the benefit of the Cuban people, but that was fake news.

Granma recently posted a Trump-worthy article charging that the U. S. finances mercenary groups and gives scholarships to train young Cubans as fake leaders in a dirty Internet war on Cuba. The article also alleges that activists who live in Florida, Texas, Tennessee and Georgia have tried to manipulate Cuban opinion on the constitutional referendum using the hashtag #YoVotoNo on Twitter and it claims we do similar things in Iran and Bolivia.

I am not sufficiently naive to think that the US has never meddled with the Internet in Cuba and have blogged extensively about the Alan Gross case, Zunzuneo and the attempted smuggling of satellite receivers disguised as surfing equipment, but the claims made in this article are bogus. It is telling that there there are no links in the story -- nothing to substantiate any of the claims -- and I have first-hand knowledge of the central claim that:
In February of 2018, the so-called Cuba Internet Task Force was created, following instructions outlined in a Presidential memorandum on national security, released June 16, 2017. The website Razones de Cuba has documented that the CIA’s Political Action Group and institutions on the task force have highly qualified specialists who, based on models previously developed through Big Data, sent sector-specific messages to Cubans.
The CITF established two subcommittees, one to explore and develop recommendations on the role of the media and the free, unregulated flow of information through independent media in Cuba and the other to explore and develop recommendations for expanding Internet access in Cuba. I attended the first meeting of the Internet-access subcommittee, participated in the online discussions of both and reviewed and commented on their draft recommendations.

The Task Force Final Report is short -- only 1,904 words on 6 double-spaced pages. (This post is 631 words). It consists of a summary of the state of the Cuban Internet and regulatory policy followed by nine fairly obvious, tersely stated recommendations. I am unaware of any impact it has had on U. S. or Cuban action or policy.

The CIA and its Political Action Group (PAG) are not mentioned in the report and were never mentioned during the discussion leading up to it. No form of cyberattack or propaganda was discussed by the Task Force or called for in the final report. In short, this was a bland report and the Task Force was a show for Florida voters.

The quote regarding the CIA and PAG are taken from the English language version of the story. It is noteworthy that it has been edited out of the Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese versions. Each version credits the same author and I reached out to him asking about this but did not receive a reply. Furthermore, the article credits the Razones de Cuba Web site with having documented this CIA PAG meddling. I searched their Web site for terms like Grupo de trabajo, grupo de tarea and and 1984, but got no hits.

You get the picture -- the CITF did not work with the CIA and this Granma article does not document any of the charges it makes. In fact, it includes no links or quotes -- just assertions. When the CITF was established, it was touted as being formed for the benefit of the Cuban people, but that was fake news. It was a political move, intended to give Trump a boost in Florida. It also provided Cuba with propaganda fodder for articles like this one and strengthened the economic and political ties between Cuba and Russia and China.