Elon Musk will be launching low orbit satellites

The Washington Post reports…

SpaceX has received official permission from the U.S. government to launch a fleet of satellites designed to beam high-speed Internet signals down to Earth.

The decision marks a major milestone for chief executive Elon Musk as he pursues a dream of putting 12,000 small satellites into low Earth orbit, connecting rural and developing parts of the world to the Internet.

In more-connected areas, the technology could inject a new competitor into markets that have historically been dominated by one or two Internet providers — potentially driving down prices, increasing speeds and improving service.

They say the network will be different that what folks are used to…

The proposed satellite network would differ from current satellite data technology, which is slow and expensive. Under Musk’s plan, SpaceX’s satellite fleet would orbit much closer to Earth than traditional communications satellites that stay in geostationary orbit high above Earth. That means data will travel to and from the satellite much more quickly — increasing the speed and reliability of the connection.

Better broadband is always awesome. Satellite might suffer from a history of upgrades that while improved, have not impressed all customers. So I wanted to look into the low orbit solution a bit. This is what I learned from Wired

Traditional satellite communications systems float in what’s called geosynchronous orbit, around 22,000 miles1 above the Earth. These satellites can provide internet access to remote parts of the Earth, as well as airplanes. But the connections can lag, which isn’t good for real-time applications like online gaming or video conferencing. SpaceX and OneWeb both aim to overcome this problem by launching satellites into what’s called low Earth orbit, which ranges from roughly 100 to 1,250 miles above Earth.

The problem is that in order to reach the entire world from low Earth orbit, these companies need hundreds or thousands of satellites, raising the system’s cost. Previous attempts at building low Earth orbit networks ended in bankruptcy, including the Bill Gates-backed Teledesic and satellite-phone companies Globalstar and Iridium.

SpaceX and similar companies, like Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, are trying to reduce the costs of launching rockets, which lower the cost of building such a network. But it’s not yet clear whether these companies could offer internet access at rates that subscribers can afford, and skeptics worry this will end up costing more than just trenching fiber and building cellular towers.

It sounds like cost may still be an issue, especially for the hardest to reach areas.

How much of the US has access to broadband? Depends on your definition of broadband

The Daily Yonder recently ran an interesting article by Brian Whitacre, Roberto Gallardo, Angel Siefer and Bill Callahan om their look at the FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report.

The report shows an increase to access to broadband in the US from 89.4 percent in 2014 to 95 percent in 2016. It seems like a great leap and it is – but it’s not causing the celebrations one might expect and that’s because the FCC is including satellite in their definition of broadband. In fact the FCC reports that 2016 marked the first instance where 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps satellite service was reported in the Form 477 data use to compile their maps…

This is a significant increase from the 89.4 percent reported to have broadband availability in 2014 and the 81.2 percent reported in 2012. However, digging a bit deeper into this increase demonstrates a little-known fact about how the FCC defines “fixed” broadband and how the implications associated with that definition have changed. 

To the layman, the idea of a “fixed” broadband connection would likely be a traditional, wired line run directly to a business or residence. However, the FCC has historically defined some technologies as “fixed” that might surprise some people. These include fixed wireless connections, or wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), that are basically individual towers that provide line-of-sight service to customers. Additionally, the FCC includes satellite connections as “fixed” broadband. Each of these technologies (WISPssatellite) has been pushed as important for rural broadband. (The rationale behind this definition is that the consumer receives these technologies from a fixed point, as opposed to mobile technologies where the consumer may be in motion).

The implications in this change are big…

When all is said and done, we estimate that about 10.5 million were covered by 25/3 speeds thanks to satellite as of 2016. In other words, the number of Americans WITHOUT access to 25/3 speeds would nearly double if satellite technology was removed (from the 14 million claimed in the FCC’s report, to over 25 million). 75% of this population is classified as rural by the FCC.

The authors have some concerns…

While any technology with potential to deliver broadband is welcome, there are numerous concerns about classifying satellite as broadband. Satellite technology is highly susceptible to weather disruption; data latency is an issue; and data caps / cost are also concerning. In fact, one of the minimum requirements for providers seeking Connect America Funding (an FCC program to expand broadband services in unavailable areas) is that their latency cannot be higher than 100 millisecond per round trip – a threshold that excludes satellite providers.  Some individual states, however, are embracing satellite providers with their own broadband funding.    

The little known fact that the FCC includes satellite as part of its “fixed” broadband analysis raises questions about the adequacy of the FCC’s definitions and standards. Accurate data of existing broadband infrastructure is essential to local, state and national planning and public policy decisions. Issues of latency, pricing, data caps, and even length of contract are important elements of broadband that should be identified and defined in any publicly available broadband datasets.  

Video – Why 23 million Americans don’t have fast internet

There are a lot of things I like about this video – you just need to know in advance that it doesn’t end after 2:30 or 3:30. It’s great to hear about wireless solutions – but for today as the video says, we need to look to the past to get the infrastructure we need! And that solution is in the second half of the video…

MN Broadband Task Force: Fixed wireless, satellite, CAF and MN grant challenge process

Today the Minnesota Broadband Task Force met; the topics of the day were fixed wireless and satellite. It was interesting to hear from the various vendors. In short they got an update on what’s going on with fixed wireless and then a demo of satellite. (There was public feedback in the form of letters that came in from rural satellite users.)

I think most folks in the room would agree that this is the B-side of broadband. (There might not be agreement on whether they will stay on the B-side.) These are the folks that are interested in serving rural areas and/or in playing the role of competitor to an incumbent provider. We heard dismay at how CAF money is being spent on expanding slower connections – rather than upgrading services. The presenters attract customers who have slow connections and whose providers have said they have no plans to upgrade. They see the frustration and are able to capitalize on it by offering service that they say is better.

One red flag was a discussion on the CBRS (citizen band radio spectrum) and fear that the government may sell that public property to the highest bidder. A bidder that may choose to not use the spectrum. The problem is that can keep the competition away – leaving community members with limited choice for broadband.

Folks were also talking about the grant challenge process for the MN broadband funds in light of what’s happening in Kandiyohi County. (I will try to get more details on what’s going on there.) The issue is that a grant applicant must inform an incumbent (or nearby) provider if they intend to seek funds to upgrade service. Then the incumbent/nearby provider has a chance to challenge. One issue is that even if they don’t challenge – they know competition is coming, which means they can make just enough changes to make it difficult for the newcomer to the area. (Discussion at 3:30 in video below.)

Lots of interesting discussion….

 Here are more detailed notes… Continue reading

Rural broadband editorial from Duluth on cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans

The Duluth News Tribune recently posted an editorial from Jan Keough and her personal experience with satellite living north of Duluth…

My personal experiences with satellite tells me this may not be a universal answer. Cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans make satellite Internet less available and less useful in rural areas than wired services.

I live 20 miles north of Duluth. No wired Internet via DSL, cable, or fiber optic is available in our township. Internet is possible through fairly poor mobile (one cell tower with a weak signal), fixed wireless from the electric cooperative (tower), and satellite via two providers. I used to get Internet from one of those two providers but switched to fixed wireless largely because of cost and reliability. With satellite, the signal can be lost when ice and snow fall on the dish.

Both providers in our area offered plans with speeds of 25 megabits per second with data plans up to 50 gigabytes per month for $129 and $110, respectively. The service reaches us but is very expensive; and latency, upload speeds, and data plans are problematic.

Some friends had to deal with serious illness this past winter, with months of treatment and recovery from surgery. That meant more time working and convalescing from home and up to three people trying to access their satellite Internet at the same time to work via Skype, to connect with family, and to watch Internet movies. Simultaneous use slowed down everyone, and they ran through their “unlimited” monthly data plan halfway through the month; then the satellite service ramped down to effectively block a reasonable connection for a couple of weeks until the data plan renewed.

This situation is not unusual. Multiple users simultaneously using multiple Internet video or other intense systems is common for families with schoolchildren, at family gatherings, for small businesses, and at local community centers. Internet video is becoming very data-intensive, with high-definition video common for gaming and certain software, eating both speed and more and more data. The “Internet of things” is real. Home-based monitoring tools are now common in thermostats, refrigerators, pet minders, medical monitors and more. And that’s on top of telecommuting, video connectivity, music streaming, gaming and other data-intensive activities. Many people use the Internet to access television networks. While 25 megabits per second may be a sufficient speed now, it won’t be long (a year or so?) before it isn’t enough for personal and business use, and cost-effective data plans are inadequate.

Can satellite deliver 100 megabits per second at a reasonable cost by 2026, which is Minnesota’s border-to-border goal? Satellite Internet may bring fast broadband to rural areas, but it is very expensive and data plans are easily exceeded; satellite Internet at the higher speed and data plans are far more costly than offerings in urban areas.

Wired systems like DSL and, especially, fiber optic offer far more affordable access to broadband and can be scaled to vastly higher speeds to meet the needs of families and businesses well into the future.

Wired infrastructure is expensive to build, but so was rural electrification. Private-public funding (leveraged by Minnesota broadband grants) and technology partnerships are capable of bringing modern and scalable broadband Internet to everyone, even in rural areas.

With satellite Internet, rural folks are at a great disadvantage, especially where cost, uploads and latency matter. That’s in health care, education, and business operations, as examples. Satellite may not be the short- to medium-term panacea in rural areas.

Like electricity and roads, wired Internet is needed across our state to ensure that everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to thrive in our communities into the future.

Jan is active with the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative.

How much do you pay per bit and byte for your broadband? New comparison tool looks at speed and usage

Grocery stores put “price per ounce/serving” labels on product shelves. It has changed how I shop. Do I always buy the cheapest? No. Not all cookies are the same. But am I better informed? Yes. The National Broadband Plan promised similar tools with their Broadband Speed and Performance Digital Labels but those were based on performance – not cost.

The Minnesota Broadband Coalition has been working on a comparison of broadband pricing based on speed (bit) and data usage (byte). The Coalition is hoping that this information can help people — both consumers and policymakers –make more informed choices.

What does this mean?

There are some extreme differences – especially with satellite. You can see that the satellite service is more expensive for both bandwidth (speed) and data usage. The satellite price for data usage, at $5 or $6 per GB (gigabyte) compares unfavorably to the dimes and nickels charged by landline providers. For all providers except satellite, the lower bandwidth services have the highest price per Mbps (megabit per second).  In other words, the more you use, the less you pay per unit. There are two providers have no data cap for their Gigabit service.

Sources now put monthly average household data use at 190 GB (gigabyte) and that number is constantly growing. For rural residents that use data for school, business, health care or other data-heavy activities, it is clear that satellite is an expensive or very limiting broadband option.  It is, however, available everywhere, for those who can afford it.

The Coalition has created a broadband cost analysis spreadsheet that you can use to help calculate the unit cost of your broadband.

Mini-Lesson: Reminder on bits (speed) versus bytes (data usage)

  • Mbps is a measure of speed – megabits per second.) Speed provides the capacity to interact online. The FCC has a guide to help track speed requirements by online activity. For example, streaming an HD video requires 4 Mbps connection (download). To figure out your household’s speed requirement, you’ll have to consider all the users of broadband – every laptop, smartphone, ipad and the Internet of things for each member of your household or office.  Think about it – your family is probably using more than one device at the same time.
  • GB is a measure of how much data you’re using – gigabytes. For example, an HD movie may be 3-5 GB.  It’s like a cup that gets filled. Depending on your provider, you may pay more if you overfill your cup, your connection maybe slowed down if your cup gets filled or your provider may not have data caps (aka data allowances) so you can interact online (download or upload) without limitations. Many people have experience with usage on mobile contracts – but cellular providers aren’t the only ones that track and charge by usage.

Need more? I wrote a longer piece on bits/bytes and average household use in December.