A closer look at the companies building thefuture of connectivity in the skies and beyond

January 14, 2019


Our take on the potential and reality of the new airborne networks being established in space and the stratosphere

In much the same way that the ancients used constellations to communicate the stories of the Gods to us mere mortals on the ground, so are modern-day pioneers turning to constellations in the heavens to affect the next giant leap in human communication.

As we explained in our previous blog post, numerous companies – both large and small; known and unknown – are working on establishing constellations of various sizes and for various uses to guarantee data provision to any area on Earth regardless of how remote or cut off.

This new impetus – fueled by a highly commercial New Space market that focuses on reduced costs, private investment and a reluctance to be tied to government or military contracts – is seeing the concept of constellations of hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of satellites, balloons, drones and even commercial aircraft being proposed as backbone networks to provide connectivity the world over.

 

The political and regulatory will to see these new constellations succeed is there

 

The political and regulatory will to see the new constellations succeed – to see most of these developments in space succeed – is clear when one notes how the current American administration, in the guise of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), approves any development it sees as beneficial to extending the reach and capacity of the current telecommunications offering. Not one constellation has so far been turned down by the FCC. Indeed, the FCC has agreed the most ambitious constellation: SpaceX’s recent application to launch an additional 7,518 satellites (permission for the launch of the constellation’s initial 4,409 satellites had already been granted in March 2018). The FCC also approved similar requests from Kepler, Telesat and LeoSat all of whom will also deploy hundreds of internet-providing satellites.

But are they really going to be the revolutionary developments that their builders claim they will?

“…there is no question: it’ll change the world…”

In April of this year, Gwynne Shotwell, the President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX, was questioned by owner and curator of TED talks Chris Anderson about the work of SpaceX and its hopes of transporting humans to Mars within a decade.

Whilst the lion’s share of the 30-minute session understandably focused on SpaceX’s big rockets and space tourism, Anderson turned briefly, halfway through the Q&A, to the question of Starlink – the satellite constellation that SpaceX is in the throes of setting up and which will, when fully operational, provide the bulk of the funding for the Mars program.

Anderson asked about progress made on Starlink and its potential. To roughly paraphrase, he asked Shotwell: if you get this constellation up and running it will be “pretty radical” won’t it? If everybody can connect cheaply?

Shotwell’s understated tone seemingly played down the importance of her reply. In a more-or-less throwaway response, she simply stated: “Yes, there’s no question – it’ll change the world.”

The message was clear: the future of telecommunications – the future of internet connectivity – had begun and its implications would be huge. It would finally bring the internet full circle: the digital divide would dissolve and the holistic benefits that full access to broadband internet would bring would finally be available to the underserved and hitherto unconnected, in so doing transforming economies, nations and cultures.

The Utopian hopes of the dreamers of northern California would finally be realized: internet for everyone. Wherever they were on Earth.

But what are the benefits of these constellations? What do they promise over and above the current connectivity offering available?

The key to constellations is that, as opposed to a single satellite or drone sending down data or voice services from orbit to the Earth, most constellations are, firstly, connected by links between the individual network notes. This creates a mesh network encircling the entire globe which allows for the delivery of data and connectivity to any place on the planet.

 

LEO constellations low latency brings financial benefits

 

Constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO) in particular command a number of benefits and advantages over geosynchronous satellites operating at higher orbits. Key among these is latency – that is the delay between requesting data and the receipt of a response – which is much lower from LEO as satellites are that much closer to the ground. The technological benefits of low latency, and the financial benefits that it brings, were recently expanded upon by the University of London’s Professor of Networked Systems, Mark Handley, who used SpaceX’s Starlink constellation to demonstrate how the network will be able to provide lower latency communications than any possible terrestrial optical fiber network for communications over distances greater than about 3000 km.

Professor Handley stated that Starlink – and other planned constellations in LEO – could rapidly become “a license to print money” thanks to the tangible benefits it would provide to industries such financial institutions and banks for whom shaving milliseconds off of communications latency can be a serious competitive advantage for traders.

And the primary focus of LEO constellations are for communication and Internet of Things applications. Whilst Globalstar and Iridium constellations operate at LEO but only provide limited data and satellite phone services, the new constellations will focus predominantly on broadband and particularly on establishing bandwidth that existing satellite broadband cannot match and which will permit those speeds to be accessible to remote and far-flung areas on Earth.

The benefits of placing a constellation in LEO are numerous, as set out above, but the one downside is that given these satellites’ proximity to Earth – and the resulting smaller area of coverage achieved – higher numbers of units will be needed.

Whereas these numbers would have essentially threatened an historic constellation such as Globalstar or Teledesic and raised the cost to prohibitively astronomical levels the role of commercialization in the New Space business model means that such numbers are really quite easily achieved.

 

New Space business models are firing market growth

 

Companies such as Nanoracks and Planet Labs are producing satellite units at a rate that just a few years ago would have seemed ridiculous. A Los Angeles Times article from August 2018 reported on how Planet Labs “largely using commercially available tech components…can crank out and test 25 of these pint-sized [micro-] satellites in a week.” And, it adds, at a cost just a fraction of the few hundred million one would expect to pay for a traditional satellite (although, exactly how much, the company would not say).

And it is not just talk; to date, Nanoracks has already launched over 200 CubeSats from its specially-built CubeSat Deployer. (There is a great video on the company’s website showing the Deployer spitting out cubesats from its International Space Station anchor.)

So the unit numbers are easily achievable but how does one then go about getting them into low Earth orbit. That is the expensive bit – getting the satellites into space. A rocket, fuel, a launch. It all adds up.

We know that the greatest disruptor of them all – SpaceX – has transformed the launch market with huge rockets built commercially and which are reusable and large enough to, for example, deliver a Tesla Roadster into low Earth orbit because, as CEO Elon Musk says, it is “silly and fun”.

But SpaceX is by no means the only company working on establishing regular deliveries to Earth’s orbit.

 

Startups as well as established tech companies are driving developments in the constellations market

 

The American/New Zealand-based Rocket Labs runs its Electron Program with the express purpose of getting small payloads, such as cubesats, into space. Indeed, it has already delivered microsats for Planet Labs and Spire Global (the latter now having over 70 cubesats performing Earth observation tasks from LEO).

One of the key characteristics of the New Space environment is that it is not just the big boys, such as Elon Musk and SpaceX, Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin, Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic or the late Paul Allen and Stratolaunch, greedily hogging the market. Start-ups with little capital and few staff are making their own very noticeable impact on the market and there is more than enough space for them and new kids on the block to compete.

Firefly Aerospace and Vector Space Systems, both of the United States, are two more start-ups working on launch vehicles with the former focusing on smallsat payloads and the latter on larger payloads up to 1,000 kg.

And do not think for a moment that just because the Americans have the money and the know-how they are the only country engaged in this market. The Russians and Chinese are obviously involved as well as leading European countries, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as smaller countries, such as Luxembourg, which just last year passed a space resources law allowing space resources to be owned by private companies.

So naysayers claiming that they cannot see new constellations taking shape, and transforming the delivery of the next generation of broadband internet, are increasingly sounding more desperate and beginning to resemble modern day Canutes laughably and impotently urging the incoming tide to recede.

Their question is always “can you afford to do this?” But the real question is “can we afford not to?…”