Friday, September 06, 2019

Inter-satellite laser link update

SpaceX satellite mesh with four
laser terminals on each satellite
Inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) and electronically steerable flat panel antennas are critical technologies for constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) Internet-service satellites. Low-cost antennas are critical for the mass consumer market and ISLLs are required for an effective Internet backbone in space. In an earlier post, we saw that progress is being made on antennas, this one looks at ISLLs.

The figure to the right is taken from a simulation of the first phase of SpaceX's planned broadband Internet service, Starlink. It shows 66 satellites in each of 24 53-degree orbital planes -- a total of 1,584 satellites at an altitude of 550 km. Each satellite has four laser-communication terminals. Two on the front and back and two on the sides. Since the front and back lasers link to satellites in the same orbital plane, they remain at the same place in the sky relative to each other while the side lasers must move to track one another. (To visualize the dynamic nature of the links between the constantly moving satellites, check this clip from the animated simulation).

When Elon Musk introduced his Starlink plan to prospective employees in 2015, he said his goal was to transport "a majority of long-distance Internet traffic" and "about 10 percent of local consumer and business traffic." He pointed out that satellites would have an advantage over terrestrial links since the speed of light is faster in space than through optical fiber and fewer router hops would be needed to reach a distant location.

In addition to mitigating the digital divide by serving rural areas and small organizations, Musk and his competitors at OneWeb, Telesat, Amazon, and Leosat hope to service high-end, high-margin customers like enterprises, governments and maritime, airline and mobile phone companies. ISLLs are necessary for serving those lucrative high-end markets.

Initially, SpaceX proposed five ISLLs for each satellite -- the fifth would have been a link to a satellite in the crossing plane, but last November they cut back to four. The fifth terminal would have been difficult to engineer because while the front, back and side-mounted terminals move slowly relative to each other, this simulation shows that satellites in crossing planes would have been traveling at 7.3 km/second relative to each other. Designing and manufacturing them would have taken time and money.

Furthermore, because of the 53-degree orbit inclination, about half the satellites are moving northeast and half are moving southeast at any time and place. That favors east-west links over north-south links and since most of the lucrative low-latency, long-link traffic is in the northern hemisphere, they could not justify the cost or possible deployment delay. That is not to say they will not deploy them in the future. (Note that the initial five-link constellation was to orbit at an altitude of 1,100, not 550 km. Future plans call for constellations at 1,100 and 335-345 km and there may be ISLLs between all of them).

Tesat laser communication roadmap
But even with 4-links, the terminals are still under development and will be expensive. At least two companies are working on ISLLs, Mynaric and Tesat.

Tesat already markets a laser communication terminal for LEO to ground transmission from CubeSats. Their CubeLCT is 9 x 9.5 x 3.5 cm, has a mass of 360 grams, consumes 8 Watts of power and communicates through the atmosphere to the Earth at 100 Mbps, with a 1 Mbps channel from the ground to LEO. They are developing an ISLL terminal based on that experience and, judging from the diagram shown here, they are pursuing laser communication between the ground, LEO and geostationary satellites.

Mynarc has announced that their ISLL terminal, the MLT-80, will be available in high-volume production this year and both companies are working on faster terminals. A while ago, I suggested that SpaceX would probably develop their own ISLL, but last March, Bulent Altan, a former SpaceX Vice President, joined Mynarc as co-CEO and a few days later Mynaric announced that they had raised $12.5 million from mystery constellation customer. Might the mystery company be SpaceX? Might it be Amazon, which entered the race late and has enough money to pay for terminals or even buy a stake in Mynaric or Tesat? We will know soon because test satellites equipped with Mynaric’s terminals should be launched in late-2019.

The following are selected characteristics of their forthcoming ISSLs:

Mynaric Tesat
Link distance 4,500 km 6,000 km
Data rate (full duplex) 10 Gbps 10 Gbps
Target mass <20 kg <15 kg
Power consumption <60 W 80 W
Sources Tesat, Myarnic

The SpaceX simulation shown above was for satellites with 4 ISLLs, but SpaceX launched their first 60 satellites without the ISLLs and, as far as I know, has not said if forthcoming satellites will have them or not. Arthur Sauzay, a French environment and space lawyer has pointed out that SpaceX argued for the allocation of radio frequencies for ISLs in a comment to a recent Whitehouse report on the impact of emerging technologies and their impact on non-federal spectrum demand, but they seem too large, heavy and slow to support a LEO network with long-distance, low-latency links.

OneWeb has decided not to use ISLs in their first constellation and will route traffic through terrestrial gateways. This decision seems to have been at least partially motivated by Russian insistence that satellite traffic passes through gateways within their borders. I imagine China and other nations will impose the same restriction.

Telesat remains committed to ISSLs, but say they will have the flexibility in their network-control system to route traffic coming to a country over satellite or terrestrial links. Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO is confident that ISLs will be cheap enough to allow them to compete successfully with terrestrial fiber and 5G, offering fast, 30 ms latency broadband. They also have a $2.8 million contract to study inter-satellite laser links between their constellation and Blackjack, DARPA's 20 LEO satellite constellation and they are collaborating with Google on software, so we might see laser links between Telesat satellites and Google's balloons.

LeoSat is unique in that they are not pursuing the consumer and small organization markets, but are focused exclusively on large, high-end customers. They will provide fast, low latency, encrypted, reliable point-to-point connections to governments at up to 1.2 Gbps with latency under 50 ms and they have over $1 billion in pre-launch customer agreements. ISLLs are mandatory for the markets they are pursuing and since two geostationary satellite operators, Jsat and Hispasat, are investors in LeoSat, they may very well link to them in the future to offer a service similar to the SpaceDataHighway of Airbus and the European Space Agency.

China's Hongyun LEO broadband project is an ISLL unknown. China is doubtless working on laser communication in space, but I have no idea whether or not they will use it in their broadband constellation. Since they say the goal of the project is to serve rural China and they regulate Internet links to the outside world, Hongyun satellites may serve exclusively as "bent pipe" relays between rural locations and China's terrestrial network.

ISLLs will be needed if the Internet backbone in space is to compete with the terrestrial backbone and serve high-value applications. It seems that making cost-effective ISLLs for LEO constellations was harder than Elon Musk and others anticipated, but first production models are now on the horizon and they will improve over time.

For a copy of the PowerPoint presentation I use for teaching this topic click here.



Tuesday, August 06, 2019

An optimistic update from Telesat

Once the 100 inclined-orbit satellites are in orbit, they may be able to utilize their inter-satellite laser links to achieve the 30 ms latency Goldman spoke of.

Polar (green) and inclined (red) orbits
Emily Jackson interviewed Dan Goldberg, Telesat President and CEO, in a recent episode of the Down to Business podcast. The interview followed the announcement that the Canadian Government would contribute $85 million (all amounts are in Canadian dollars) to support research and development in support of Telesat's planned constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites and another $600 million to subsidize Internet connectivity in rural Canada.

Goldberg pointed out that all governments subsidize rural connectivity and said the $600 million grant was expected to generate $600 million in revenue from below-market-rate sales to telephone companies and ISPs. The remaining capacity would be sold to others and he said they anticipated sales to enterprises, governments, ships, and airlines, but did not mention marketing directly to consumers. (Only SpaceX seems to be targeting consumers from the start).

In return for the R&D contribution, Telesat has agreed to support approximately 500 professional jobs in Canada and invest $215 million in R&D. (That R&D includes the first dozen or so test satellites). Telesat has a profitable, established geostationary satellite business and will fund part of the constellation themselves, but they will also need debt and equity financing and Goldberg said this government support would make it easier for them to finance the constellation.

This financial news is important, but Goldberg's optimism about the technology is what caught my attention. They have been working on their LEO project for six years and during that time the cost of launching satellites -- geostationary as well as LEO -- has fallen dramatically and he expects it to continue to do so. He also predicted that the cost of mass-produced satellites will fall dramatically and he is confident that inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) and electronically-steerable phased-array antennas will be cheap enough to allow them to compete successfully with terrestrial fiber and 5G, offering fast, 30 ms latency broadband. (ISLLs present both technological and political problems).

The only technological concern he expressed was with regard to the problem of radio interference. He did not say anything specific on these technologies but did point out that Telesat has been providing satellite service for 50 years and is the "leading satellite technical consultant" in the world. (Three percent of their revenue is from consulting).

Goldberg summed up his optimism by saying:
Our confidence level in terms of our ability to bring this disruptive capability to the market and provide an extraordinarily high-quality, disruptive broadband service to Canadians and also to everybody else living in the world is extraordinarily high. This is not some high, big-gamble, futuristic new technology. This technology will be disruptive but it is ready for prime time.
Yes, but ...

SpaceX simulation with uncovered areas
Goldberg said they could could achieve global coverage with only 72 satellites and a simulation by Mark Handley predicts that SpaceX will not completely cover the planet with 792 satellites. How do we explain the difference?

SpaceX with 792 satellites would have much more capacity than Telesat with 72 satellites and Telesat does not plan to offer service with only 72 satellites. They plan to start service at the end of 2022 with around 200 satellites in polar orbit. They will add 100 more in inclined orbit in 2023 and perhaps eventually reach 500 satellites. Those 200 polar-orbit satellites will serve the polar regions, fulfilling their promise to provide connectivity in rural Canada. (This is reminiscent of China's Hongyun LEO satellite project which will focus on rural China).

While the 200 polar orbit satellites will provide coverage in rural Canada, they will be partially reliant upon terrestrial ground stations to reach the entire globe and therefore latency will suffer. However, in 2016 Telesat filed for a patent on a "Dual LEO Satellite System and Method for Global Coverage" and once the 100 inclined-orbit satellites are in orbit, they may be able to utilize their inter-satellite laser links to achieve the 30 ms latency Goldman spoke of.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Latecomer Amazon will be a formidable satellite ISP competitor

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
In spite of being a latecomer to the race to deploy a constellation of low-Earth orbit (LEO) broadband Internet satellites, Amazon's Project Kuiper will be a formidable competitor. SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat already have test satellites in orbit, but Amazon has several strategic advantages.

For a start, each of the LEO broadband competitors plans to end the digital divide by providing global connectivity to end-users and small organizations in underserved areas, but they are also counting on high-margin customers -- governments, enterprises, financial institutions, telephone companies, airlines, maritime companies and luxury yacht owners for early revenue. (A fifth company, LEOSAT, will focus exclusively on these commercial markets). Amazon's complementary infrastructure will give them a strategic advantage with these early customers. They will be able to leverage Amazon's established global Web and database services as well as their newly launched satellite ground-station service all of which will be integrated with the Project Kuiper constellation. Furthermore, when new end-users come online, they will be potential Amazon retail customers regardless of their satellite ISP.

The high-margin applications require inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) for fast, secure long-distance communication and that technology is still under development. OneWeb has decided to forego ISLLs for their first constellation and SpaceX launched their first 60 satellites without them and, as far as I know, has not said when they will be deploying satellites with ISLLs. Amazon may be working on their own ISLL technology or planning to partner with (or buy) Mynaric or one of the partners in the European project ORIONAS (Lasercom-on-chip for next-generation, high-speed satellite constellation interconnectivity). Note that there are political as well as technical barriers to ISSL deployment.

SpaceX and OneWeb have talked of consumer ground stations costing as little as $200, but that will require another critical technology that is still under development -- cheap, mass-produced, electronically-steerable antennas the size of a "pizza box". Telesat says they will concentrate on the maritime, aviation and cellular-backhaul markets until the cost of end-user antennas comes down. SpaceX is developing their own antenna and has filed for permission to deploy a million end-user ground stations but an engineer working on the project told me they do not yet have an antenna that is cheap enough for the consumer market. OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler claims to have a self-funded side project that has developed a suitable fifteen dollar antenna and they may be ready to deploy. I don't know whether Amazon has been working on small electronically-steerable antennas internally, but even if they have not, as with ISSLs, they have the funds to either partner with or purchase a company that is working on them.

Debris mitigation is another technology for which no one has a proven lead over Amazon at this time.

Amazon also gained ground on the others when Elon Musk reportedly became frustrated with the pace of development at Starlink and fired the vice president in charge of the satellite program, Rajeev Badyal, a veteran of Microsoft and Hewlett Packard and satellite designer Mark Krebs, who led Google’s aircraft and spacecraft teams before coming to SpaceX and playing a key role in developing their first two test satellites. Amazon subsequently hired Baydal, Krebs and other ex-SpaceX engineers. I wonder if they influenced Bezos' decision to proceed with Project Kuiper.

Amazon has its own launch capability, but SpaceX has a clear lead in launch technology and capacity. Still, OneWeb has contracted with Amazon for five launches of perhaps 400 satellites starting in 2021 and one could imagine SpaceX serving their competitors as well. (I wonder if anti-trust law would require some sort of arm's length pricing).

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has deep pockets so will not have to worry about raising money and, perhaps more important, he will have complete control over the project. SpaceX has had to go to the capital markets several times, OneWeb is working with a group of investors and collaborator/investors and Telesat has income from its established geostationary satellite business, but is owned by a somewhat contentious combination of Loral Space and Communications and a Canadian pension fund.

Finally, Bezos has had the skill and vision to build an array of highly successful, complementary companies from online retail to fulfillment infrastructure to Internet services to space. That is not to take anything away from the others -- I suspect they were less surprised than I by the announcement of Project Kuiper. Whatever led to Amazon's decision, it is good to see them involved in a competitive battle among would-be global Internet service providers.

Update 7/22/2019

Megaconstellations points out that as a smart follower Amazon will also benefit from a matured ecosystem of suppliers and service providers facilitating mass production created and paid for by the first movers, OneWeb, Telesat and SpaceX.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Amazon's AWS Ground Station service is now available

Amazon announced that they would be providing satellite ground station service last year and Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web services, announced its availability in the video at the end of this post.

AWS Ground Station is a fully managed, ready-to go ground station service, featuring:

  • No upfront cost.
  • Scaleability -- you only pay for antenna time.
  • No long-term contract.
  • Self-service scheduling on a per-minute basis, that can be changed dynamically using their ground station console.
  • Secure transmission.
  • Low latency due to proximity to Amazon data centers.
  • Integration with EC2, S3 and other Amazon services and Amazon's global network backbone.
  • Simultaneous up/download.
  • Support of most common communication frequencies.
This sounds like a compelling case, especially for a small operator or startup, but I don't know how the prices compare to existing services or building proprietary ground stations.

A couple of questions come to mind. I assume Project Kuiper, Amazon's proposed broadband satellite venture, will use this service, but will SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and other potential satellite broadband ISPs also use it? If so, will Amazon treat them fairly? Competing ground station companies might also raise the issue of predatory pricing since Amazon will have an opportunity for cross-subsidy with their other services or they might just operate at a loss until competitors are eliminated (as they have done in other cases).

Hongyun Project -- China's low-earth orbit broadband Internet project

It might be tempting to dismiss this effort as small and behind the broadband satellite projects of companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, but that would be a mistake.

Long March 11 rocket and Hongyun-1
satellite (source).
Last December, State-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) launched the first experimental Hongyun (rainbow cloud) Project satellite and they began testing it in March.

The 247 kg test satellite is in orbit at an altitude of around 1,100 km and they plan to launch four more test satellites this year and begin operating with a 156-satellite constellation in 2022. I don't know anything more about their plans, but with only 156 satellites I suspect they will focus on unserved regions in rural China and perhaps Latin America at first.

It might be tempting to dismiss this effort as small and behind the broadband satellite projects of companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat, but that would be a mistake. China has an ambitious, global Internet infrastructure and application program called the Digital Silk Road and the "road" is terrestrial with highways, ports, pipelines, and railways, undersea with cables and in space with the Hongyun Project, their Beidou satellite navigation system, which will be global next year, and the Digital Belt and Road Earth observation program. Our withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the current trade war were gifts to the Chinese.

Update 6/4/2019

CASIC broke ground on April 24 for a satellite industry park in Wuhan, Central China's Hubei Province, where they will produce satellites for the Hongyun project.

In keeping with China's policy of funding competitors, another production line operated by a satellite start-up, Spacety, based in Changsha, Central China's Hunan Province, began construction in January. Each facility is expected to produce 100 satellites per year. (China has historically funded Internet service competition).

Update 6/18/2019

U.S. military tracking data shows the satellite is in a nearly circular orbit averaging 1,067 km altitude at an inclination of 99.9 degrees and CASIC confirmed that Hongyun would emphasize service in China's remote regions.



Thursday, May 23, 2019

Might satellite constellations learn to avoid debris with sensors on satellites?

There were no artificial satellites before Sputnik in 1957.
Today there are about 5,000 with plans for thousands more.
Space debris is problematical.

The European Space Agency (ESA) reported that as of January 2019 there were about 5,000 satellites in space and 1,950 of them are still functioning. Hopefully, those functioning satellites have fuel and thrusters that will enable them to de-orbit and (mostly) burn up in the atmosphere when their useful life is finished. The remaining 3,050 are slowly drifting, along with a lot of debris.

The ESA estimates 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 there are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball, 500,000 the size of a marble or larger many millions so small they can’t be tracked. (watch: NASA's Animation Shows Massive Space Junk Around Earth)

In low-earth orbit (LEO), debris circles the Earth at speeds of about 7 to 8 km/s. However, the average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object is approximately 10 km/s and can be up to about 15 km/s, which is more than 10 times the speed of a bullet. At those speeds, a collision with a small object can do significant damage. This sounds like a disaster waiting to happen and the current and planned proliferation of LEO satellites increases the likelihood of a Kessler Syndrome event -- a cascade of collisions between satellites and the ensuing debris.

As Kessler says "The cascade process can be more accurately thought of as continuous and as already started, where each collision or explosion in orbit slowly results in an increase in the frequency of future collisions." If you aren't worried yet, watch the following short video or read Kessler's 1978 paper.


Kessler's warning was taken seriously and NASA and others have been working on debris mitigation policy and technology for years, but the silver bullet has not been found. The Space Surveillance Network tracks approximately 23,000 relatively large objects and you can query the database here, but what about the millions of objects that are too small to track?

The SpaceX press release for their Starlink Mission hinted at their collision-avoidance strategy, saying that
Each spacecraft is equipped with a Startracker navigation system that allows SpaceX to point the satellites with precision. Importantly, Starlink satellites are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding a collision.
That sounds promising, but autonomously resolving and recognizing a marble-sized object that is approaching at up to 15 km/s, computing its trajectory and firing thrusters to avoid a collision can't be done -- even by Elon Musk.

Relatively few debris objects can be tracked terrestrially, but a satellite might be able to recognize a piece of debris and transmit its characteristics to a terrestrial processor, greatly expanding the tracking database. SpaceX may be approaching this as a machine-learning problem in which the entire constellation, not individual satellites, is learning to avoid collisions.

That is pure speculation, but it was triggered by a few thoughts.

For a start, at the end of 2017, SpaceX delivered a space debris sensor (SDS) to the International Space Station. As shown in the following short video, the SDS is capable of monitoring the size, speed, direction, and density of small particles that impact it.


Elon Musk also has a strong interest in machine learning -- he was a co-founder of openAI and his Tesla cars act as sensors uploading driving data that is used for training autonomous vehicles.

Going out to the very end of the limb -- Musk is a fan of science fiction and speculation on the possibility of a swarm of man-made objects learning about existential risks is reminiscent of emergent intelligence in Asimov's fictional planet Gaia or Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere).
Musk opened his Tesla patents and, if SpaceX demonstrates the feasibility of this approach to debris avoidance (and perhaps one-day removal), I expect that he would share this technology with competitors like OneWeb and Telesat and the space agencies of all nations.

Like global warming, space debris is an example of a tragedy of the commons and is a threat to all nations. As the cartoon character Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." Ironically, global tragedies of commons can unite us.

Friday, May 17, 2019

SpaceX reports significant broadband satellite progress

SpaceX may be approaching debris detection as a machine-learning problem in which the entire constellation, not individual satellites, is learning to avoid collisions.

Starlink size comparison -- novel packaging accomodates
60 satellites in a single launch. (Source)
SpaceX delayed last Wednesdays Starlink launch due to high winds and on Thursday they decided to do a software update and postpone the launch until next week, but they revealed significant progress in their Starlink mission press release and in tweets by and a media call with Elon Musk.

The mission press release said SpaceX has significantly reduced the size and weight of their satellites. Their initial November 2016 FCC filing specified 386 kg satellites that measured 4 x 1.8 x 1.2 meters. In February 2018, they launched two Internet-service test satellites -- TinTin A and B -- that measured only 1.1 x .7 x .7 meters with a total mass of approximately 400 kg. The mass of the Starlink satellites will be only 227 kg, about 43% that of the test satellites. (They are still heavier than OneWeb's 147.4 kg test satellites)

As far as I know, SpaceX has not previously commented on the number of satellites that might be launched at once, but the number was generally estimated as 25-30 after considering constraints on mass, volume, and numbers of satellites per orbital plane. As shown here, they will be launching a surprising 60 flat-packed satellites. Launching 60 satellites also demonstrates continued progress in rocket capability -- this will be the heaviest SpaceX payload ever.

The speed and density of satellites in
low-earth orbit increase the likelihood
of a cascading debris collision. Source
The current and planned proliferation of low-earth orbit satellites increases the likelihood of a Kessler Syndrome event -- a cascade of collisions between satellites and the ensuing debris. The press release alluded to what may be a significant advance in debris mitigation, stating that
Each spacecraft is equipped with a Startracker navigation system that allows SpaceX to point the satellites with precision. Importantly, Starlink satellites are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding a collision.
That would be a breakthrough if feasible, but on first consideration, it seems impossible. Low-earth orbit satellites move very fast and even if a satellite had the resolution and pattern-recognition capability to "see" debris in its path, it would not be able to maneuver quickly enough to avoid a collision. That point was raised in this online discussion and a possible solution suggested -- the entire constellation could dynamically pool and share data from each satellite as well as use NORAD tracking data, which Musk mentioned during the media call.

SpaceX may be approaching this as a machine-learning problem in which the entire constellation, not individual satellites, is learning to avoid collisions using its shared data as well as data from other sources like NORAD. One can imagine sharing such data with competitors like OneWeb and Telesat or even with Russia, China or India. (Elon Musk is known to read science fiction -- this speculation is reminiscent of Azimov's Gaia or Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere).

The prospect of launching 60 satellites at once and a shared-data approach to collision avoidance have grabbed my attention, but Musk's tweets and media call were also highly informative -- a few examples:
All that and they have yet to launch the satellites -- stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Satellite Internet Service Progress by SpaceX and Telesat

This has been a busy week in the race to deploy constellations of low-earth orbit (LEO) Internet-service satellites.

Telesat LEO-1, artist's conception.
Credit SSTL.
In their quarterly report, Telesat mentioned progress in two, disparate markets. As I noted earlier, they have signed their first LEO customer -- Omniaccess a provider of connectivity to the superyacht market. Telesat is a Canadian firm and the quarterly report also said Canada's 2019 Federal budget included a commitment to using LEO satellite services to help bridge the digital divide. They will be serving Russian oligarchs and rural Canadians.

Telesat also announced that the two teams they contracted with to develop overall satellite and ground system proposals, Airbus and a consortium of Thales Alenia Space and Maxar Technologies, had significantly advanced their detailed designs for the complete system, having completed the system definition and risk management phase of the program. Telesat will continue their collaboration with both teams and will select a prime contractor later this year.

Telesat's coolest development was the announcement that they had demonstrated 5G mobile backhaul. They collaborated with Vodaphone and the University of Surrey in a test of their experimental satellites and recorded round trip latency of 18-40 milliseconds. The demonstration supported video chatting, Web browsing and simultaneous streaming of up to 8K video. The team also transferred 4K video to the edge of the 5G network. SES is already providing mobile backhaul using their middle-earth orbit satellites and it seems that the new LEO constellations will be competing with them. This will be an important application for rural areas and developing nations.

Telesat has signed launch contracts with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and they plan to be operational by 2022. (Bezos will also be a Telesat competitor, but his LEO project has just been announced).

SpaceX also made the news. SpaceX president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, confirmed that the launch scheduled for May 15 will include "dozens" of Starlink Internet-service satellites.

She characterized these as "demonstration" satellites and said they would not include satellite-to-satellite laser communication links. Bulent Altan, CEO of satellite laser company Mynaric, estimates that their laser terminals will cost around 250,000 euros in quantities of 1,000. SpaceX will have 4 in each satellite and they plan to start offering broadband service once they have 800 satellites in orbit -- in the 2020-2021 time frame.

OneWeb will forego inter-satellite optical links in their initial constellation, but they seem to be making steady progress in antennas for satellite-to-ground communication. Both are key technologies for LEO satellite Internet service.

Shotwell said that depending on how the demonstrations proceed, from two to six Starlink launches could follow by the end of this year. In the past, they referred to these as "operational" satellites. Maybe the switch to "demonstration" means they will use them as a marketing tool and the number of launches later in the year will be determined by sales.

Update 5/11/2019

TMF Associates suggests that the FCC may be favoring SpaceX Starlink and that the upcoming launch may carry as many as 40-50 satellites. The post also suggests that they may be launching so many satellites in order to generate publicity to spur further investment which has been difficult during the past year.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Google Plus was about community and collaboration and killing it damaged users

Anti-trust law keeps large companies from stifling competition. Could consumer-protection law keep companies from simply killing services that many people depend upon?

Google Plus chief architect Vic Cundotra "sold" the project to Google CEO Larry Page by convincing him that Facebook was an existential threat and, when Google Plus was launched, Facebook took it as an existential threat and responded accordingly.

Both were wrong, because, while they overlapped functionally, they were not direct competitors. Facebook serves a social feed of posts from family, friends, and people an algorithm identifies as being like you. Google Plus also offered a feed but was more about collaboration and support of communities of common interest.

J. C. R. Licklider, who was responsible for much of the research that led to interactive computing and the Internet, anticipated Google Plus Communities by over 40 years, writing that interactive communities would "consist of geographically separated members, sometimes grouped in small clusters and sometimes working individually. They will be communities not of common location, but of common interest."

I barely use Facebook but did use Google Plus. I didn't pay much attention to my Google Plus feed but used Google Plus Communities extensively. I have an interest in the Cuban Internet, so created a Google Plus Community on the topic and joined several other Cuba-related communities. I also joined communities on other topics I am interested in, like the Internet in developing nations and satellite Internet service.

I am also a teacher and created a Community each semester for my students to share material relevant to our class and study together. My students and I also used Google Plus Hangouts on Air for collaboration and coordination.

At the start, Google Plus was not just a social feed -- it was a collection of services that also included Photos, Hangouts, and Communities. Google separated Photos and Hangouts before they killed Google Plus and could have separated Communities as well, but they did not.

Would Google Communities have been viable as a stand-alone service? Yes. The closest competitor would have been Facebook Groups, but Groups lacks key features like post categories and the Communities user interface was far superior to that of Groups. Revenue sources could have included community-member data, ads, an optional membership fee, etc.

What about fake news, spam and toxic filter bubbles? It's easier to manage those things when the unit of scrutiny is a community rather than posts in a social feed. A community will have a creator and perhaps one or more moderators. They would be the first line of defense against inappropriate content within a community. The operator of the community platform would guard against communities that were intended to violate platform rules.

If they decided not to operate Communities as a separate service, Google could have offered the code and data assets for sale to others or at least put the code in the public domain. Evidentally it was easier for them just kill Communities along with the social feed, but doing so damaged me and other users. I don't know how many Communities there were or how many members they had, but killing Google Plus caused the loss of a large amount of social and monetary capital.

Over the years, Google has killed 137 services, 12 apps, and 12 hardware offerings, beginning with Google Deskbar after a three-year run in 2006. Anti-trust law keeps large companies from stifling competition. Could consumer-protection law keep companies from simply killing services that many people depend upon?

Such a law would not be all bad for Google. If constrained, they would still recoup some of the value of their investment and it would instill confidence in other companies that were thinking of offering products that depended upon them. If I were a developer, I would be reluctant to build a product that depended upon Google with its track record of killing 161 offerings in 13 years. Google Plus also had a symbiotic relationship with other Google services. For example, Google Plus drove some Blogger and YouTube traffic.

Elizabeth Warren and others have suggested breaking up large Internet companies. If we do so, let's not throw away all of the pieces.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Open data leads to competition

When evaluating proposed mergers and breakups, control of data should be considered along with market impact.

In a previous post, I spoke of Amazon's use of customer and market data in restraint of trade, but they are not alone. For example, leaked internal documents show that plans to sell access to user data were discussed for years and received support from Facebook’s most senior executives. Facebook gave Amazon extended access to user data because Amazon was spending money on advertising and partnered with them on the launch of the Fire smartphone. In another case, Facebook discussed cutting off access to user data for a messaging app that had grown too popular and was viewed as a competitor.

As former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler points out in a recent post, proprietary data is a source of market control and he cites two examples where opening data has led to competition. In the US, a law mandating open access to video content enabled satellite companies to compete with cable companies and in the UK, open access to customer banking data led about 200 organizations to offer new services in its first year.

Wheeler's position is elaborated in Unlocking Digital Competition, a report from the Digital Competition Expert Panel convened by the British Treasury Department. Their data-related recommended actions are:
  • Establishing data mobility and open standards between services: overcoming network effects which cause markets to tip by requiring systems to ‘talk’ to each other using open, standardised formats. This will mean consumers can port their data between networks, interact with users on other, similar networks, and smaller firms can plug their services into those of bigger ones. New business opportunities will open up that use, manage, and combine data made available. Consumers, in turn, will have new choices of digital services, with switching made much easier.
  • Securing access to non-personal and anonymised data: tackling the data barrier to entry for smaller and newer firms, while protecting privacy. The power of bulk data driving economies of scale and scope is a key reason new firms struggle to compete and bring innovative services to consumers. Overcoming this barrier will allow the digital economy to remain dynamic.
These are only two of the 20 recommended actions in the 140-page report. Those actions are grouped under six strategic recommendations for the government:
  • Sustain and promote effective competition in digital markets, by establishing a pro-competition digital markets unit, tasked with securing competition, innovation, and beneficial outcomes for consumers and businesses.
  • Take more frequent and firmer action to challenge mergers that could be detrimental to consumer welfare through reducing future levels of innovation and competition, supported by changes to legislation where necessary.
  • Update and effectively use tools against anti-competitive conduct to help them play their important role in protecting and promoting competition in the digital economy.
  • Continue to monitor how the use of machine learning algorithms and artificial intelligence evolves to ensure it does not lead to an anti-competitive activity or consumer detriment, in particular to vulnerable consumers.
  • Conduct a market study into the digital advertising market encompassing the entire value chain, using its investigatory powers to examine whether competition is working effectively and whether consumer harms are arising.
  • Engage internationally on the recommendations it chooses to adopt from this review, encouraging closer cross-border co-operation between competition authorities in sharing best practice and developing a common approach to issues across international digital markets.
The two open-data actions mentioned above fall under the first strategic recommendation of promoting competition, but control of data is involved in the others as well. When Amazon acquired Zappos and Whole Foods, they gained access to data on relatively affluent shoppers. Facebook's acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp and Google's acquisition of Waze also yielded data in addition to eliminating competition. The machine learning recommendation involves training data. When evaluating proposed mergers and breakups, control of data should be considered along with market impact.

The last strategic recommendation -- international engagement -- recognizes the global nature of the Intenet. (Note that the Digital Competition Expert Panel was chaired by an American). Nations like China and the US have different goals with respect to competition, but democratic, capitalist nations should strive to adopt compatible institutions and policies. In the era of Brexit and MAGA, we need to work with other nations -- I'd rather end up with two Internets than fifty.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Amazon's orbiting infrastructure

The invisible eye of the marketplace
I have been following satellite Internet service since the 1990s, but I was surprised when I learned last week that Amazon had filed an application for a 3,236-satellite constellation of low-earth orbit Internet service satellites -- Project Kuiper.

I shouldn't have been surprised -- Amazon was an infrastructure company from the start.

In his first post-IPO letter to shareholders in 1997, Jeff Bezos pointed out that their distribution center capacity grew from 50,000 to 285,000 square feet and said their goal remained "to continue to solidify and extend our brand and customer base. This requires sustained investment in systems and infrastructure to support outstanding customer convenience, selection, and service while we grow."

Today Amazon infrastructure is used internally and is offered as a service to others. Their distribution centers are now highly automated and they distribute a lot more than books. Amazon also offers Web, cloud storage, shipping and delivery services, credit cards, a voice application platform, an affiliate retailer program, satellite ground stations, automated retail stores, pickup locations, Whole Foods stores and other things I am probably overlooking. Bezos personally owns the Washington Post and the Blue Origin aerospace manufacturing and spaceflight services company. (Blue Origin has a contract to launch satellites for Telesat, a Project Kuiper competitor).

Bezos' preparation for Project Kuiper was hiding in plain sight with the reference to road building in the Blue Origen mission statement: "We're committed to building a road to space so our children can build the future" and it should have become more clear when Amazon added fully-managed satellite ground station service to its Web Service offering. Amazon says Project Kuiper "will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world.” That may be true, but it is the tip of the iceberg -- like saying Amazon saying in 1994 that they would deliver low-cost books to homes.

During the industrial era, infrastructure companies like railroads and oil and steel companies grew as quickly as possible in order to achieve economies of scale and create barriers to entry and profit from usage fees and sales. In the information era, data is as important as fees and sales. Esther Dyson pointred that out in 1995, the year after Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, and it was reaffirmed recently when Softbank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son justified his billion dollar investment in OneWeb's satellite constellation, saying "whoever gets the most data wins."

Stacy Mitchel has researched the ways Amazon has applied Dyson's insight. Since many people go straight to Amazon rather than use a search engine when shopping for products, Amazon learns what people want, what they eventually buy and don't buy and how much they pay. They use that market knowledge to decide what to feature in search results, which products to brand or manufacture themselves, which companies to buy, etc. Their size and information facilitate optimal and, in some cases predatory, pricing. Mitchel cites book sales and their zapping of Zappos as examples of the latter and also shows ways in which Amazon has used government subsidy. (Imagine the price war between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk).

Amazon harvests data from all of their infrastructure offerings. For example, Netflix uses AWS. They even learned a lot about local demographics, real estate prices, labor costs, etc. when they invited cities to apply to be the site of Amazon's future headquarters.

But, what's wrong with this? Amazon is efficient and has kept prices low and their customer service is terrific.

That sort of reasoning has dominated US anti-trust enforcement in recent years, but it is partial and short-sighted. Prices that are low enough to maintain rapid growth suit Amazon well now, but in the long run, competition and transparency fuel low prices, efficiency and the broad distribution of wealth and income.

Industrial era concentration of power resulted in anti-trust action in the early 20th Century, but those were simpler times. In the letter to shareholders mentioned above, Bezos also stated that "there are significant opportunities to better serve our customers overseas." How can we achieve competition between global Internet service providers like Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat that are outside the jurisdiction of a single nation?

There is no simple answer to that question. We can't put the genie back in the lamp, but we have seen some success with government operation of neutral, free or wholesale infrastructures like roads, sidewalks and municipal backbone networks and Google has had some success with fair, wholesale networking in Africa. Europe is beginning to look for ways to encourage competition, transparency, and privacy.

Update 4/12/2019

In yesterday's 2018 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos reported that 58% of Amazon.com retail sales are made by independent third-party sellers, emphasizing that they "helped independent sellers compete against our first-party business by investing in and offering them the very best selling tools we could imagine and build," i. e., infrastructure. He singles out Fulfillment by Amazon, the Prime membership program, Amazon Web Services, database tools, SageMaker for machine learning and Alexa, which is built into 150 different products.

He also points out that Amazon remains a small player -- "low single-digit percentage" -- in global retail largely because nearly 90% of retail remains offline, in brick and mortar stores. But they are working on infrastructure for them -- Amazon Go stores.

He has convinced me -- forget retail, Amazon is an infrastructure company.

Amazon's infrastructure yields revenue and data, and that data can be used in restraint of trade, but Amazon is not all bad. As Bezos points out, they create jobs and valuable services as do others who use their infrastructure. Elizabeth Warren and others are calling for changes to US tax and anti-trust laws, but we need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. (Full disclosure -- I loved Mrs. Maisel, the Big Sick, and many more and bought a terrific pasta cooker at Amazon.com yesterday).

The issue is further complicated by the fact that this is not a US issue, it is global. Amazon (and others) are Global infrastructure companies and China is a global infrastructure country.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Are inter-satellite laser links a bug or a feature of ISP constellations?

I hope each of these companies has someone in charge of thinking about what might go wrong with a single, satellite-based network providing fast, low-cost links anywhere on the global Internet.

Inter-satellite laser links (source)
OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat and Leosat all aspire to be global Internet service providers using constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Their success will require still-unproven technological innovation, but there are also political stumbling blocks.

OneWeb has already encountered significant political problems in Russia. Russia launched OneWeb's first test satellites and has a billion dollar contract for 20 additional launches, but Russian security officials are lobbying against OneWeb's offering service on the grounds that it might facilitate spying. When Anatoly Zak, an expert on the Soviet space program, investigated that claim, he concluded that "With the launch of the OneWeb constellation, the Russian rocket industry stands to earn millions, but the Kremlin is terrified at the prospect of unhindered access to the Internet by its citizens."

As far as I know, OneWeb is still planning to offer service in Russia, but they have had to make financial and technical concessions. They agreed to become a minority partner in the company that will market their service in Russia and, significantly, they agreed to drop the inter-satellite laser links (ISLLs) from their constellation and pass all Russian traffic through ground stations in Russia.

Dropping ISLLs, which are still unproven for this application, will simplify the design of their satellites and save development time and cost. It will also reduce satellite complexity, size, and weight and save power, but there will be costs.

OneWeb throughput simulation (source)
They will need more ground stations if they offer global service without ISSLLs. OneWeb founder Greg Wyler says they will have more than 40 such gateways, each capable of “seeing” satellites up to 4,000 kilometers away. A team of MIT researchers ran a simulation of a 720-satellite OnWeb constellation and they estimate that 71 ground stations would be required to reach maximum throughput. (Anatoly Zak estimates that four to six gateways will be in Russia and speculates that hackers may be able to illegally connect to satellites in neighboring countries). Dropping ISLLs will also add latency, especially on long-distance links.

What about the other would-be global LEO projects?

Telesat will retain ISSLs, but accommodate countries on a country-by-country basis. Erwin Hudson, vice president of Telesat LEO, says we "have the flexibility in our network control system to route traffic all kinds of different ways. There are no rules that traffic has to go over the inter-satellite links."

SpaceX is going forward with ISSLs, and they are also aware of the political problems. During a recruiting talk at the opening of their Seattle satellite-design office four years ago, CEO Elon Musk said "I'm hopeful that we can structure agreements with various countries to allow communication but it is a country-by-country basis ... it's not gonna take longer than five years to do that and not all countries will agree at first ... that's fine."

Leosat is also prepared to build gateways to make accommodations. For example, CEO Mark Rigolle says they would be willing to build a gateway in China to accommodate the government; however, that would be inconsistent with their primary marketing focus of providing low-latency, secure, point-to-point links globally.

These companies are all thinking about concessions they need to make in order to operate in countries that want to surveil citizens and control their access to information, but what about guarding against aggression? I hope each of these companies has someone in charge of thinking about what might go wrong with a single, satellite-based network providing fast, low-cost links anywhere on the global Internet.

During the recruiting talk mentioned above, Elon Musk said "[the constellation design] is a really difficult technical problem to solve so that's why we need the smartest engineering talent around the world to solve the problem and, you know, to also make sure we don't create Skynet." At that time, I asked "Would global Internet service providers require unique regulation and, if so, what should it be and who has the power to do it?" and said I was "less worried about Musk creating SkyNet than creating Comcast on Steroids," but I was naive.

Follow these links for background on the four projects: SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and Leosat.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

SpaceX's Starlink Internet service will target end users on day one

It sounds like SpaceX is planning on offering broadband service to end users who will order the service online and set up their own ground stations.

Internet users per 100 inhabitants (source)
Starting with Teledesic in 1990, would-be Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations have been justified to the FCC, other regulators, and the public as a means of closing the digital divide. Teledesic's goal was "providing affordable access to advanced network connections to all those parts of the world that will never get such advanced capabilities through existing technologies." Today's low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite companies make the same claim, but Telesat, OneWeb and Leosat seem to be targeting commercial markets first.

As far as I know, Telesat is the first LEO provider to sign up a customer and that customer is Omniaccess. Headquartered in the “yachting capital of the Mediterranean,” Palma de Mallorca, OmniAccess provides broadband and IPTV service to over 350 vessels -- superyachts, boutique cruise lines, and prestigious research & exploration organizations. The Telesat agreement provides OmniAccess with limited exclusivity to serve the "superyacht" market -- in other words, they will be connecting the yachts of Russian oligarchs.

In 2003, OneWeb founder Greg Wyler worked on 3G mobile and fiber access to homes and schools in Rwanda. In 2007, he founded O3b Networks, a middle-Earth orbit satellite Internet service provider to connect the "other three billion" unconnected people. OneWeb was founded in 2012 with goals of 1 billion subscribers by 2025 and the elimination of the global digital divide by 2027. Their first marketing-oriented move was to partner with Airbus, Delta, Sprint, and Airtel, establishing the Strategic Air Alliance to develop standards to enable them to provide passengers seamless, in-cabin connectivity. It looks like their first customers will be airline passengers, ships at sea and mobile phone companies.

Leosat has focused on enterprise and government customers from the start.

Elon Musk followed a similar strategy in bootstrapping his electric car company, Tesla. He started with expensive, high-end vehicles and followed several years later with the lower-priced Models 3 and Y, but it looks like the SpaceX Starlink Internet service will focus on end users from the start.

SpaceX sister company, SpaceX Services, filed an FCC application for "a blanket license authorizing operation of up to 1,000,000 earth stations that end-user customers will utilize to communicate with SpaceX’s LEO constellation." Those end users will be individuals, libraries, schools, etc. "throughout the contiguous United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands." They assert that this license will "enable SpaceX to bring high-speed, reliable, and affordable broadband service to consumers in the United States and around the world, including areas underserved or currently unserved by existing networks.” (Note that these initial satellites would have the capacity to serve Cuba and other Caribbean nations).

Their user terminals will "employ advanced phased-array beam-forming and digital processing technologies to make highly efficient use of Ku-band spectrum resources by supporting highly directive steered antenna beams that track the system’s LEO satellites." Since SpaceX plans to begin launching operational satellites in 2019 and they are already conducting successful satellite-ground communication tests, they must be confident that they can mass produce such antennas at a low cost. (Note that a former SpaceX executive has recently joined Mynaric, a German laser communications startup focused on satellite and airborne platforms. Perhaps SpaceX and Mynaric will collaborate on the antennas).

https://spacenews.com/former-spacex-starlink-exec-joins-german-lasercomm-startup/

Ground stations that can track fast-moving satellites, switching seamlessly from one to another when they go out of view, will be easy for end-users to install. It sounds like SpaceX is planning on offering broadband service to end users who will order the service online and set up their own ground stations.

Click for more on the SpaceX, OneWeb, Telesat and Leosat LEO Internet-service projects.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Rethinking technology policy - the 50th anniversaries of the moon landing and first ARPANET message

The anniversaries of these milestones remind us of the economic and social returns we have seen from ambitious Federal research, development and procurement programs. Why isn't this a Sputnik moment for the United States?

Log entry for the first ARPANET
message (Source)
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 lunar lander and set foot on the moon. On October 29th, Charley Kline, an ARPANET programmer at UCLA, attempted to log in to a host at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), but the system crashed after he had typed LO. After a bit of debugging, he succeeded in typing LOGIN and the rest is history.

These events were milestones in ongoing, federally-funded research and development efforts -- the manned spaceflight program and the development of digital telecommunication networks from Morse's telegraph to early electronic digital computers and telemetry experiments, the SAGE early-warning system and eventually the ARPANET and the Internet. (The previous link is to a text version of the history article. Contact me if you would like a pdf of the article as it appeared in the Communications of the ACM).

The anniversaries of these milestones remind us of the economic and social returns we have seen from Federal research, development and procurement programs. When President Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, he enacted many ambitious government programs aimed at ending the great depression -- a "new deal." He initiated programs like Social Security and infrastructure projects like rural electrification. Confidence in the Federal Government being able to pull off large, successful programs continued through World War II, the Berlin Airlift and Marshall Plan, the Interstate highway system and the space program.

Early ARPANET sketch, showing
UCLA and SRI nodes (Source)
President Kennedy kicked off Apollo program in 1961, saying he believed "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth." But pendulums swing and, in a 1986 press conference, we heard President Reagan say “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Today we are discussing a "green new deal" -- is the pendulum about to swing back?

Update 3/14/2019

Former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon addressed technology policy in an terrific interview. The following is a paraphrase of his reflection on the emergence of collaboration between government, universities and private companies that was born when the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite:
I don't think we're having anywhere near the conversation we need to have about the missing piece of China policy which is: what is the United States going to do? Why isn't this a Sputnik moment for the United States? In the late 1950s, when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, the United States undertook an enormous national effort that changed the way we taught math and established NASA and the Golden Triangle of technological and innovation development between the government and research universities and private companies.

We face a similar challenge at this point in terms of technology competition with China. That is something I think we need to be talking about and the discussion includes immigration policy, infrastructure investment, education investment and [consideration of the] impact of technology, particularly artificial intelligence, robotics and automation on labor markets. Populism is not at its peak right now -- we need a really serious discussion about how we are going to manage the future of work in the face of technology.
This comment was made at around 33:15 of the interview:


Friday, February 15, 2019

Google baloons and Telesat satellites

Telesat will use Google's network operating system. Will Google get access to data? A global backbone?

Loon balloons float at an altitude of around 20 km -- above
birds and the weather. They navigate by moving up or
down to catch wind currents moving in different directions. 
Telesat is making progress. Within the last month, they announced a launch contract with Blue Origin, a successful antenna test with Ball Aerospace and completion of system requirements reviews, but perhaps more interesting is an agreement to use the software defined network (SDN) platform Google has developed for their Project Loon.

Google has been interested in connectivity for underserved areas for many years, and have investigated and invested in non-terrestrial solutions using satellites, blimps, drones and balloons. Project Loon uses constellations of balloons in the stratosphere. They began working on it in 2011, provided emergency connectivity in Peru in 2016 and Puerto Rico in 2017 and are slated to begin commercial deployment in Kenya later this year.

Like LEO satellites, Loon balloons are in constant motion relative to the Earth and each other and the Loon SDN "schedules, predicts, controls and optimizes the wireless topology, radio resources, and routing of packets across the ground and aerospace segments of non-geostationary networks." The satellites and balloons are at different altitudes and move at different speeds, but the network characteristics are similar and Google will adapt their SDN for Telesat's satellite constellation.

Nothing was said about the terms of the deal. Since Google is also an investor in SpaceX, they now have an interest in two of the three large LEO satellite Internet-service projects. In addition to being paid to develop and maintain Telesat's SDN and getting a return on their SpaceX investment, they might be getting access to the data flowing through the networks or to a global backbone.

Softbank invested a billion dollars in OneWeb's satellite-Internet project for access to data. Softbank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son outlined his vision of the future in the keynote session of the 2017 SoftBank World conference. He believes the information revolution will be driven by strong, general artificial intelligence (AI), therefore the key material asset for the information age will be AI training data. His conclusion is "whoever gets the most data wins." Google uses data for AI training and for advertising.

Another intriguing possibility is that Google and Telesat might be planning to integrate their balloon and satellite networks. One can imagine Project Loon using Telesat's satellite network as a global backbone. That integration would be facilitated by their both running the same SDN software -- the same network operating system.

Whatever the motivation, this partnership provides Telesat with a strategic software asset and Google may gain access to data and a fast, global backbone.

For progress reports on the three LEO broadband projects, see OneWeb, Telesat and SpaceX.

Check this short Project Loon video: