Broadband in the Space Wide Web: Satellite Internet Heating Up
Late last month, SpaceX officially became a competitor in the satellite internet space with the launch—third time being the charm—of its first set of 60 satellites for the Starlink constellation. While SpaceX will likely have the early lead in this new Space Race to become the dominant satellite internet service provider in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), it will not be the only player. Other companies such as OneWeb, Amazon, Facebook, Boeing, and Telesat are all planning their own low-latency high-bandwidth space-based internet constellations as well.
In this post, I will examine this resurging sector of satellite-based internet providers. First, I will examine the history of and the latest development in satellite-based internet. Then, I will provide an overview of the new emerging players in this market. Finally, I will end with a discussion on the two main concerns, space debris and light pollution, surrounding these mega constellations.
History of Outer Space-based Internet
The concept of Outer Space-based internet services has been around since the early 1990s when the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) encouraged the use of the Ka-band by satellites. With a frequency range of 26.5 to 40 GHz, the Ka-band allows for high bandwidth communication, usually at transmission rates that are hundreds of times faster than the S-band. Many companies heeded this FCC’s call to action, with Hughes Aircraft Company receiving the first ever Ka-band license for its satellite, Spaceway, in 1993. By the mid-1990s, more than 15 companies had submitted license applications for Ka-band satellite operations.
However, this early hype for space-based internet services was not without a rocky beginning. One of the first major projects, Teledesic, had envisioned a constellation of 288 satellites in LEO that can provide internet services of up to 100 mbps upload and 720 mbps download. Although attracting prominent backers such as Microsoft, Teledesic eventually ran into strong headwinds and was forced to shut down in 2003 due to lack of funding.
Although Teledesic was ahead of its time and its services were not ready for mass adaptation, its journey paved the path forward for this industry. Instead of focusing on mega constellations in LEO, satellite internet providers aimed higher by looking at the Geostationary Orbit (GEO). The first broadband internet satellite, e-BIRD, was successfully launched by Eutelsat shortly after Teledesic’s demise in 2003. This was followed by Telesat’s July 2004 launch of Anik F2, the world’s first operational high-throughput satellite. The next evolution in space-based internet came from ViaSat and HughesNet with their respective GEO launch of ViaSat-1 in 2011 and Jupiter in 2012. These satellites brought internet capabilities to rural America, bridging the technological gap where DSL, cable and/or fiber internet might not be readily available.
But launching satellites to GEO can be both space and cost-prohibitive. With satellite internet services more entrenched than ever before, companies are now looking back at the concept of LEO-based mega constellations. The next section will look at some of the prominent enterprises forging this new path.
The Emerging Competition
With launch costs decreasing, many companies are seeking to become the next dominant service provider in the satellite internet space. In this section, we will explore some of the emerging competitors including: Amazon, Boeing, Facebook, OneWeb, SpaceX, and Telesat. One quick note before we begin: there are many other players in this sector as well, but I have limited our discussion here to ones with constellations under active development and/or have demonstrable public traction. For instance, while in 2015 Samsung had floated the idea of a 4,600 satellite constellation by 2028, because it has had no recent development since then, Samsung’s efforts are not covered in depth here.
Amazon: Project Kuiper
With its founder already knee-deep in another Outer Space-related enterprise, it’s with little surprise that Amazon is making a run at becoming a broadband satellite internet provider. Known as Project Kuiper, Amazon plans to put 3,236 satellites in LEO with 784 at an altitude of 590 km (367 miles), 1,296 at 610 km (379 miles), and 1,156 at 630 km (391 miles). Covering the Earth from latitudes of 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south, this constellation will be able to provide internet services for 95 percent of the world’s population. With a name that invokes the Kuiper Belt, Project Kuiper itself is still very much in its infancy with its only public actions being the filings made to the International Telecommunication Union (or, what I call the Orbital Parking Enforcement), a few press releases, and job postings for positions within its project.
While Amazon is steadily making progress, Boeing’s own LEO constellation appears to be losing momentum. While Boeing had asked the FCC to launch a constellation of 1,396 to 2,956 satellites back in 2016, its efforts have stalled since then. As Boeing’s expertise is being a manufacturer and supplier of finished goods such as airplanes, becoming an internet service provider would have been a difficult challenge for the company. Hence, it was likely that Boeing was looking to partner with an existing service-oriented company such as Google or Apple. But, it appears neither company is currently interested.
With the expansion of its services dependent on internet services becoming more widely-accessible, it’s logical that Facebook is also engaged in the satellite internet race. Named Athena, this broadband network proposed by Facebook will be managed by its wholly-owned subsidiary PointView Tech LLC. While still visionary, Facebook’s plans are not as ambitious as some of the other emerging players in this sector. According to its regulatory filings, Facebook is only looking to receive “experimental authorization to launch and operate a single [LEO], non-geostationary orbit satellite.” With Facebook’s primary objective to test whether satellite internet services can help provide internet to “unserved and underserved areas throughout the world,” it’s likely that Facebook will not be a leader in this industry anytime soon.
In late February of this year, OneWeb successfully launched the first six satellites in its planned 648 satellites (600 active and 48 spares) constellation. The company is looking to setup its satellite network for customer demos by 2020 and for full worldwide operation by 2021. By that time, OneWeb is hoping that its network will be able to provide 500 mbps connections with latency of just 30 milliseconds. If successful, OneWeb has plans to eventually expand its constellation to 1,980 satellites. OneWeb satellites, coming in at 125 kg (276 lb), will operate in the 1,200 km orbit. These satellites are being manufactured by a joint venture (OneWeb Satellites) between Airbus and OneWeb, with each satellite costing about a million dollars to make; its Florida facilities is capable of producing 350 to 400 satellites annually. With $1.25 billion more raised after its first successful launch this year, OneWeb will look to continue its momentum. In fact, OneWeb has already signed two customer agreements: one with Talia Ltd. which provides internet services to customers in the Middle East and Africa, and the other with Intermatica, which provides internet services to customers in Europe.
With its first 60 satellites launched successfully and operating nominally, SpaceX is the clear current leader in the LEO satellite internet sector. With each satellite weighing about 227 kg (500 lb), this launch contained SpaceX’s largest payload by date, coming in at a total mass of about 18.5 tons. Known as Starlink, this mega satellite constellation will eventually be made up of 11,927 satellites by the mid-2020s. Under its current revised plan that was approved by the FCC in April of this year, Starlink will include 4,409 satellites that will roam in orbital altitudes of 550 km (340 miles) to 1,325 km (823 miles), and 7,518 satellites between 335 km (208 miles) and 346 km (214 miles). Using its Falcon 9 rocket that will place 60 satellites at a time, SpaceX plans to keep a launch cadence of 1,000 to 2,000 satellites each year. Having proven its worth as a formidable launch operator, SpaceX will also have a competitive advantage by being able to use its own family of previously-flown Falcon 9s for these launches. In fact, the first launch of Starlink satellites used a Falcon 9 that had already been flown twice (with potentially more to follow as its first stage had been successfully recovered at sea after this third launch).
As it is still waiting to receive bids for its $3 billion satellites contract, Telesat is still in the early stages of building out its own constellation. However, when it’s ready to proceed, the company already has FCC’s blessing for the launch of these satellites. While Telesat has not decided on the exact number of satellites for its constellation, its CEO, Dan Goldberg, mentioned that the “natural break points” are set at 112 and 192 before reaching a target of 292 satellites, with plans to eventually expand the constellation to 512 satellites. While Telesat’s constellation is not going to be fully operational until 2022, it has been performing proof of concept demos with its Phase 1 LEO satellite, which was successfully deployed in January 2018.
Loitering in the Sky: Light Pollution and Space Debris
With each of these LEO constellations containing hundreds or thousands of satellites, the space above Earth will become exponentially crowded in the upcoming years. This is causing many to worry about the detrimental effects this next Space Race might have on further Outer Space operational and explorational activities. In this section, we will explore the two main areas of concern: orbital debris and light pollution.
Orbital Overcrowding: Space Debris
With so many companies launching Cubesats into LEO, the Outer Space community is becoming concerned, rightfully, about the increasing likelihood of catastrophic collisions setting off the Kessler Syndrome. With mega-constellations on the rise, this issue is likely to get worse before it becomes better. While we are still far away from a practical solution, governmental agencies as well as public and private organizations are tackling this challenge from many different perspectives.
Recognizing the issue, NASA is starting to recommend that satellite owners have post-mission disposal maneuvers in mind when launching their devices. The FCC is also reforming its guidelines related to orbital disposal. Currently, FCC regulations set an upper limit of 25 years for post-mission orbital life. For a satellite to naturally deorbit within 25 years, it must be cruising at an altitude of 650 km or lower. Because many of these constellations are operating well above this altitude, its satellites will not be able to rely on natural forces to deorbit within these time limits. Hence, FCC is proposing a new rule in which satellites that are intended to operate at a height above 650 km must first be deployed below this altitude. In this transitory zone, satellites will be tested to ensure that their various mechanisms, including maneuvering components, are working properly. Once the tests are passed, the satellites can then be moved up to their normal operational altitude.
Aside from modified regulations, new companies, with innovative solutions such as harpoons and nets, are also forming to address the space debris problem. But, there are major legal ramifications that remain unresolved in this field. Additionally, public organizations are also seeking to hold companies accountable by creating ratings similar to that of LEED certification for buildings. The Space Enabled Research Group at MIT, along with the European Space Agency, and the World Economic Forum will work together to develop the Space Sustainability Rating to “create an incentive for companies and governments operating satellites to take all the steps they can to reduce the creation of space debris.”
Blocked Views: Light Pollution
SpaceX’s launch of its first train of satellites is leading many to literally see another potential problem: light pollution. Many in the astronomy community are worried that these mega constellations will lead to contamination issues when Earth-based observatories try to capture images of the Universe. Because astronomers rely on long-exposure shots and identification of gaseous elements by the type of light their targets emit, satellites passing through the frame could taint and distort these results.
While Musk had pushed back on these concerns before, noting that the Starlink constellation will be largely invisible during the night, he recently acknowledged that this will be a concern that the Starlink team will seek to address.
While this is a relatively new issue, it has the potential to become a flashpoint as more and more satellites become operational in Outer Space. Telescopes with wide-focused lens, such as the LSST, will inevitably have to deal with satellites flying in through their shots. This will add to the operational costs of these telescopes as capture rates must go up as further noise-reduction tasks are necessary to attenuate the effects of light noises emitting from these constellations.
The Coming of the Space-based Information Age
Through the expansion of satellite-internet services, we are witnessing the birth of a new communications age in which information will become more readily available to more people than ever before. But with each new age comes new challenges, and the development of Outer Space-based internet will be no exception. With enterprises in this sector ready to have its mainstream breakthrough soon, we must be adequately prepared to solve the issues, especially related to space debris and light pollution, that these enhanced services will bring.
Large Synoptic Survey Telescope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kpdLDJXEmys
Project Kupier Jobs: https://www.amazon.jobs/en/teams/projectkuiper
Scott Manley’s Video on Light Pollution by Constellations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEuMFJSZmpc
Telesat LEO: https://www.telesat.com/services/leo/why-leo