Wednesday, November 25, 2020

OneWeb is out of bankruptcy, but not out of the woods.

OneWeb, which declared bankruptcy in May, has reorganized and emerged from bankruptcy. Bharti Global, an Indian telecommunication conglomerate, and the British government each own 42.2% of the new company, and most of the rest is owned by previous investors SoftBank and Hughes Network Systems.

Hughes will continue work on ground infrastructure and marketing and the original joint venture with Airbus, which designs and manufactures OneWeb satellites, was re-activated and the production lines brought back into service.

The company has new top management. Neil Masterson, who was COO at Thomson Reuters, will be the new CEO at OneWeb and Sunil Bharti Mittal, Founder and Chairman of Bharti, will be the Executive Chairman. The previous CEO, Adrian Steckel, has been appointed Adviser to the Board. Notably, OneWeb founder and previous Executive Chairman Greg Wyler was not mentioned so may not be involved -- perhaps that is related to the shift from the end-user market to government, enterprise, maritime, aviation and other markets that may be less price-sensitive and not require low-cost terminals.

OneWeb has permission from the FCC to operate 2,000 satellites -- 720 in low-Earth orbit (LEO) at 1,200 km and 1,280 in medium-Earth orbits at 8,500 km and a 45° inclination. They currently have 74 LEO satellites in near-polar orbit and recently shipped 36 to Russia's Vostochny Cosmodrome for a December 17th launch on a Soyuz rocket. (While they have permission to launch 720 LEO satellites, they seem to be only planning to launch 648).

OneWeb's first priority is building out its first-generation broadband network and providing coverage down to about 50 degrees latitude next year and to complete the full constellation the following year. The plan is to begin commercial services starting at the end of 2021 to the UK, Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic Seas.

The company is seeking landing rights in India and Mittal said they plan to begin testing Internet service there in 6-8 months. (Those will be test satellites with intermittent connectivity). The plan is to offer service in India in May/June 2022.

OneWeb is starting over with new partners, assets that had cost the previous company $3.3 billion, and priority spectrum rights, but they are not yet out of the woods.

For a start, they've booked sixteen launches with Arianespace but will need about $2-2.5 billion to complete the constellation.

They have also lost time. They had initially hoped to begin Alaskan service in 2019 and serve the entire state by the end of 2020, and are now far behind that schedule. In the meantime, Telesat, their stiffest competitor for Alaska and the polar region, has made steady progress.

Whiile Bharti's participation gives OneWeb an advantage in terms of distribution and business and government relationships in developing nations in Asia and Africa, they will face stiff Chinese competition in the "Digital Silk Road" nations.

They are also under time pressure to manufacture and launch satellites in order to retain their ITU spectrum rights -- 360 satellites by June 2023 and 720 by June 226. While OneWeb has maintained it's manufacturing joint venture with Airbus, the BBC reports that "components exist for a further three batches of satellites, and the new owners have been busy in recent weeks re-establishing old supply chains to fully ramp up production to pre-bankruptcy levels."

Other than Hughes and Airbus, I don't know which of their prior contracts, MOUs, and relationships are still in force. For example, they had agreements for distribution and cooperation in Alaska, Hawaii, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and surely others I am unaware of.

Finally, there has been discussion of the possibility of OneWeb generating revenue by modifying their satellites to double as a high-precision global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that is difficult to jam or spoof. Mittal told BBC News: "For Generation 2, we will of course have full-scale precise, navigation and timing. And if the UK government wants some other payloads critical to the needs of security, we will do whatever is required." By the time they are ready to launch the next-generation satellites, they may face competition from Xona Space Systems's forthcoming 300-satellite GNSS as well as the possibility of similar offerings by SpaceX.

I hope OneWeb survives and thrives -- billions of people live in unserved areas and competition is good for all.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Starlink will be priced to be affordable

Charging more in affluent markets will increase revenue and tend to reduce the "digital divide" -- good business and good karma.

SpaceX is now serving customers (aka beta testers) in the northern United States. They will soon be doing so in Southern Canada and recently announced that Germany, where they have applied for permission and have begun construction on two ground stations, will probably be next. Early customers in the US are paying $499 for their user terminals and $99 per month for Internet service.

But what about the eventual price in Canada, Germany or, say, a poorer nation like Cuba? When discussing the plan for Germany, SpaceX vice president Hans Königsmann said the price was not yet determined and "we will focus on what the local market allows." At first that sounds like something an arrogant monopolist might say, but on second thought it is both good business and good karma.

In Econ 101, pricing is simple. In a competive market, the price or a product or service will be at the point at which the curves for supply and demand as a function of price intersect. A monopolist will set the price at the point where marginal cost = marginal revenue. Things get trickier in a classic oligopoly and even trickier in a dynamic market like satellite Internet service.

The capacity of a satellite constellation increases as technology improves and as new satellites are launched. Today, SpaceX has only around 800 satellites in service which limits both their coverage area and the number of customers they can serve in a covered area, but they plan to add around 120 satellites per month, have permission for around 12,000 and have requested permission for 30,000 more. Furthermore, the technology deployed in the 12,000th satellite will be more sophisticated and have higher capacity than that in today's satellites and most of those 12.000 satellites will have inter-satellite laser links which will further increase coverage and capacity and reduce the need for terrestrial infrastructure.

The fixed cost of a satellite Internet constellation is high -- satellites are expensive to make and to launch -- but the cost of adding and servicing a new customer is relatively low and the market is global. SpaceX satellites that fly over the southern US will also fly over Cuba, but at $500 for a user terminal and $99 per month Raúl Castro may be the only Cuban customer. Perhaps Cuba could justify shared links at clinics or schools, but the individual market would be essentially zero and excess capacity on a satellite while it is flying over Cuba wourld be wasted. The price in Cuba should be lower than that in the US in order to fully utilize available capacity.

Prices may or may not remain a flat fee per month, other factors like the political situation and vested interests of terrestrial Internet service providers will affect pricing decsions, and end-users will not be the only customers in a nation, but in general, SpaceX and the other constellation operators will charge more in affluent markets than in poorer markets -- they will try to operate at full capacity everywhere. Charging more in affluent markets will increase revenue and tend to reduce the "digital divide" -- good business and good karma.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Satellite and space debris tracking as a service

All spacefaring nations must work together on common issues, such as tracking the thousands of pieces of space debris that could stifle the commercialization of space.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross

On February 2, 1989, the Soviet Union launched its Cosmos 2004 satellite and the Chinese launched a rocket on December 15, 2009. Cosmos 2004 is now defunct as is the third stage of that Chinese rocket, but both remain in orbit. They were long forgotten until recently when LeoLabs, a satellite tracking service, predicted that they had a good chance of colliding at 971 km over the sea near Antarctica.

It turns out that they did not collide but they came within 11 meters of each other. The two objects have a combined mass of 2,800 kg and were traveling at a relative velocity of 52,900 km/h. Imagine what would have happened had those massive objects collided at that speed. Since they are in a vacuum, the collision would have been silent, but large and small fragments would have been scattered into their own orbits, exponentially increasing the likelihood of future collisions.

The Chinese rocket scientists were not thinking about the possibility of a collision with Cosmos 2004 when they launched their rocket in 2009, but today, with SpaceX and others planning to launch thousands of broadband-service satellites into relatively crowded low-Earth orbit, the debris problem is obvious and daunting, but there are some promising developments. (For more on the extent of space debris click here and here).

Governments have been tracking the orbits of satellites and debris larger than 10 cm for some time but a new company, LeoLabs, is using phased-array radar antennas to track objects as small as 2 cm. In a recent interview, LeoLabs CEO and Co-Founder Daniel Ceperley, said their phased-array radar antennas are capable of tracking the approximately 250,000 orbiting objects that are greater than 2 cm within a 100-meter margin of error.  

LeoLabs antennas can switch direction in one millisecond, but since it is difficult to locate and establish control over satellites with only one or a few observations in the first hours and days after deployment, they offer a Launch and Early Orbit service in which they focus more time on the satellites and SpaceX is using that service.

While the first hours and days after deployment are critical, the risk of a collision persists as long as a satellite is in orbit so LeoLabs also offers a Collision-Avoidance service that will report possible collisions a week in advance and follow up with increasingly more frequent and more accurate notices during the week. This will give satellite operators time to test alternative collision-avoidance maneuvers using LeoLab's interactive maneuver-simulation service.

The Collision-Avoidance service works if a satellite operator is trying to avert a collision with debris or a defunct satellite, but if two active satellites are involved, both parties must be informed and able to communicate about planned maneuvers. SpaceX says Starlink satellites will be able to maneuver autonomously to avoid collisions, but what happens if the approaching satellite also maneuvers in the same direction?

Up to this point, I've been talking about terrestrial tracking of satellites and debris, but tracking can also be done from space. A while ago, I suggested that SpaceX might equip their satellites to detect debris while in orbit and they have some autonomous collision avoidance capability, but as far as I know, they have no plans for offering collision avoidance data or service to others.

Northstar, a space-based Canadian startup, plans to track satellites from orbit. They have contracted for three satellites that will be in polar orbits at an altitude of 575 kilometers and plan to launch at least three more batches of three each in different orbits by 2024.

Like LeoLabs, Northstar plans to offer tracking as a service. While Northstar is several years behind LeoLabs, it will use different technology. If successful, Northstar plans to track satellites from low-Earth to geostationary orbits. They will be able to use optical scanners since there are no problems with the atmosphere and weather in space and will have a wide view, enabling them to revisit objects frequently and quickly and accurately predict orbits.

The investment and operating costs may also be different than those of LeoLabs, but I don't know whether it will have cost more to build and operate the 12 LEO satellites Northstar plans to orbit in 2024 or the six radar tracking stations LeoLabs will have in operation next year.

(NorthStar and ExoAnalytic, which tracks satellites and debris with terrestrial optical telescopes, announced a partnership in April 2019, evidently intending to combine their observations, but there is no further mention of that on their Web sites and Northstar has changed it's business model which initially called for dual-use satellites combining both Earth observation and satellite tracing.)

As shown below, many nations now launch, own, and/or operate satellites. (The map is as of 2016 but the database at the site included 68 nations as of August 1, 2020). Whether the tracking is done from the ground or space, it is clear that global data must be shared and collision-avoidance protocols invented, standardized, and perhaps automated. (Holger Krag, director of the European Space Agency (ESA) Space Safety Programme Office hopes to like to demonstrate automated maneuver coordination by 2023).

Achieving global space law and regulation like we have for the seas seems like an impossible technical and political challenge -- exacerbated by the fact that many satellites and tracking services, like the recently completed US "Space Fence," are operated by military and security organizations -- but it must be done. There has already been a close miss between a Starlink satellite and Aeolus, an ESA satellite, in which a software bug led to a communication breakdown between the ESA and SpaceX.

I am amazed to find myself agreeing with and quoting a member of Trump's cabinet, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who said "all spacefaring nations must work together on common issues, such as tracking the thousands of pieces of space debris that could stifle the commercialization of space."