Satel­lite In­ter­net gets a fresh look, cash in­fu­sion as 3 projects go ahead

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY ROB LEVER

The race for In­ter­net ser­vice from space is on, again.

Af­ter a se­ries of failed satel­lite In­ter­net projects over the past two decades, fresh in­vest­ment is com­ing into the sec­tor, and at least three high-pro­file projects are mov­ing for­ward.

OneWeb, a Lon­don-based con­sor­tium backed by ty­coon Richard Bran­son, an­nounced in June it had raised US$500 mil­lion from in­vestors in­clud­ing Air­bus, Qual­comm and In­tel­sat to ad­vance its plan for satel­lite broad­band to un­der­served parts of the world.

Also this year, U.S.-based space ex­plo­ration firm SpaceX se­cured a US$1 bil­lion in­vest­ment that could help founder Elon Musk’s plan to build a satel­lite In­ter­net net­work, with back­ing from Google and the fi­nan­cial firm Fi­delity.

U. S.- based LeoSat, backed by Europe’s Thales Ale­nia Space, is also work­ing on a satel­lite broad­band pro­ject aimed at busi­ness. And Sam­sung out­lined plans in a re­search re­port this year “to make af­ford­able In­ter­net ser­vices avail­able to ev­ery­one in the world via low-cost mi­cro-satel­lites.”

The projects seek to launch hun­dreds of low-or­bit satel­lites to beam the In­ter­net from space. The ini­tial costs could be high, but would avoid the ex­pense of build­ing ground-based sys­tems for wired or wire­less broad­band.

If the plan sounds fa­mil­iar, we’ve seen this be­fore.

Teledesic, a 1990s pro­ject backed by Mi­crosoft’s Bill Gates and Saudi royal fam­ily in­vestors, died be­fore it went into ser­vice, as did another ven­ture called Sky­Bridge, whose as­sets were even­tu­ally ac­quired by OneWeb.

Greg Wyler, chief ex­ec­u­tive of OneWeb, said much has changed since Teledesic aban­doned its “In­ter­net in the sky” plan more than a decade ago: the cost of satel­lite tech­nol­ogy has come down, and most peo­ple now re­al­ize that con­nec­tiv­ity is needed to spur eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

“If your goal is to end ex­treme poverty, boost the things that con­trib­ute to eco­nomic growth like health care and ed­u­ca­tion, all of those things sit on a foun­da­tion of con­nec­tiv­ity,” Wyler told AFP.

OneWeb plans to be­gin launch­ing its 648 low-or­bit satel­lites in 2017, and be­gin con­nect­ing cus­tomers by 2019, Wyler said.

The com­pany has “con­trac­tual ar­range­ments” to op­er­ate in more than 50 mar­kets and is look­ing at a broad global foot­print.

“More than half the world is not con­nected,” he said.

In some de­vel­oped mar­kets like the United States, in­di­vid­u­als who live in re­mote ar­eas could sub­scribe to In­ter­net broad­band. In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, it may be schools, health care cen­ters and other gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties.

“Our tech­nol­ogy fun­da­men­tally re­duces the cost of con­nec­tiv­ity,” he said.

Musk vs. Bran­son

An equally am­bi­tious plan is be­ing de­vel­oped by Musk and SpaceX, which could launch as many as 4,000 satel­lites.

Musk said on Twit­ter that he sees “ad­vanced mi­cro-satel­lites op­er­at­ing in large for­ma­tions” that would pro­vide “un­fet­tered (In­ter­net ac­cess) cer­tainly and at very low cost.”

De­tails of the SpaceX plan are still sketchy, but the com­pany filed plans with the U.S. Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion to be­gin test­ing. Even­tu­ally, FCC ap­proval could al­low the SpaceX pro­ject to of­fer broad­band ser­vices glob­ally.

LeoSat’s plan calls for be­tween 78 and 108 satel­lites for a broad­band net­work aimed at high-vol­ume busi­ness cus­tomers such as ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions, gov­ern­ments, mar­itime op­er­a­tors and the oil and gas in­dus­try, said chief ex­ec­u­tive Mark Rigolle.

While LeoSat, a startup cre­ated in 2013, is aim­ing at only a few thou­sand cus­tomers, it can also serve as a “back­bone” for other op­er­a­tors, which would mean mil­lions could use its con­nec­tions.

“We want to be­come ‘ fiber from the sky’ from any­where to any­where,” Rigolle told AFP.

“It’s not a prod­uct that is avail­able in to­day’s mar­ket.”

The com­pany was cre­ated by for­mer oil and gas in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives who un­der­stood the need for bet­ter con­nec­tions in re­mote parts of the world, Rigolle said.

These low-earth or­bit sys­tems re­quire more satel­lites but can cover ar­eas not served by the higher-or­bit sys­tems, with bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity be­cause of faster trans­mis­sion speeds.

Rigolle said LeoSat will be able to trans­mit around the globe “from satel­lite to satel­lite with­out ever touch­ing the ground,” cre­ate a sys­tem which is “ef­fec­tively faster than fiber” and more se­cure.

Nat­u­ral Ad­van­tages

Scott Pace, di­rec­tor of the Space Pol­icy In­sti­tute at Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity, said now may be an opportune time to launch a space broad­band ser­vice be­cause of ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy and grow­ing needs for con­nec­tiv­ity.

“Space has a lot of nat­u­ral ad­van­tages” over ter­res­trial sys­tems, he said.

“Space sys­tems pro­vide a way to cover mas­sive amounts of ter­ri­tory very quickly, and the new satel­lites are in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated.”

Be­cause grow­ing num­bers of peo­ple around the world rely on wire­less broad­band, Pace said that “de­mand is more in­tense than in the 1990s and satel­lite sys­tems have a chance of meet­ing that de­mand and be­ing a player.”

Still, he said it’s not clear if satel­lite sys­tems can com­pete ef­fec­tively with ground-based sys­tems. And he said that any new en­trant will still have to com­pete for air­wave spec­trum and deal with reg­u­la­tors in var­i­ous coun­tries.

With a num­ber of satel­lite firms com­pet­ing, it is not clear if all will sur­vive, Pace said.

“It’s a ques­tion of who can get there quick enough and sur­mount the reg­u­la­tory hur­dles,” he said.

“I don’t know that there is room for mul­ti­ple sys­tems. There might be room for one, maybe two.”

AFP

Satel­lite dishes are seen at an apart­ment house in cen­tral Baku, Azer­bai­jan, Dec. 4, 2007.

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