Eavesdropper: The world from above: Musk, Bezos, and Zuckerberg have their eyes set on the sky

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October 12, 2020 2:40 AM

While Musk is still far away from his ambitious plan to put 40,000 satellites in the lower earth orbit, till now, he has only 770 satellites floating in the sky. However, the announcement assumes importance because of his promise of delivering fast internet at lower costs.

Musk claims he seems to have breached the first barrier at least.Musk claims he seems to have breached the first barrier at least.

Last week, amidst the humdrum surrounding coronavirus, Elon Musk made an announcement that may prove to be a game-changer for the internet. Famous for revolutionizing the electric car industry and space exploration, Tesla’s founder announced that his company had launched 60 more satellites in the lower earth orbit and would soon be rolling out a public beta of his Starlink internet. In a tweet put out on Tuesday, Musk said “Once these satellites reach their target position, we will be able to roll out a fairly wide public beta in northern US & hopefully southern Canada. Other countries to follow as soon as we receive regulatory approval.”

While Musk is still far away from his ambitious plan to put 40,000 satellites in the lower earth orbit, till now, he has only 770 satellites floating in the sky. However, the announcement assumes importance because of his promise of delivering fast internet at lower costs.

Musk claims he seems to have breached the first barrier at least. The company claims that Starlink can deliver 100Mbps download speed with 30 ms latency. The plan is to take the speed to 1Gbps. Even if Musk can achieve 100 Mbps at present, with scale, even that would be comparable to most fibre optic networks across the world. And, a giant leap forward for satellite internet.

More important, it will serve the remotest destinations in the world without a hitch. The internet and broadband business does not have cut-throat competition as the cost of setting up the infrastructure is high. While metropolises still have a choice, rural area are, in most cases, stuck with one ISP. Satellite internet is expected to change all that.

However, satellite internet is not a new phenomenon. While satellite internet has been present for decades now, low speeds and high latency have hindered its adoption. A traditional internet satellite is placed at an orbit of 22,000 miles above the earth. Thus, the latency is close to a minute. But Musk is placing his satellites at a distance of 342 miles, which means it takes much less time to bounce the signal between the web server, satellite and you.

However, there are questions about how much the system can handle. While in its initial beta test with US Air Force, Starlink hit a speed of 610 Mbps, subsequent user testing has shown one-tenth the speeds and almost quadruple the latency that Musk is promising. However, these are still early days, and there are 39,000 more satellites to go. And, with the costs of satellite launches decreasing, there is also competition cropping up.

The other space race
Musk is not the only one betting on stars and satellites. He has some tough competitors in the business. While he is undoubtedly the first in promising to change the nature of satellite internet, these others are catching up fast, and there is no dearth of money to burn. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is betting on his constellation project called Project Kuiper to place 3,200 satellites in the lower earth orbit to rival Musk.

Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook too have a plan for space. Athena is expected to roll out sometime this year as well and may rival Musk in his ambitious plans. Besides, OneWeb and its new owners are also betting on similar success. While OneWeb was one of the oldest players in the game, earlier this year the SoftBank backed venture went bankrupt and sold its assets to a consortium led by the UK government and Bharti Global for a combined investment of $1 billion.

Cost and regulatory concerns
Space, however, is a tough market to crack and satellite internet is even tougher. The cost of launching a satellite may not be that prohibitive. But companies will still have to cover the ground with receiving stations and dishes. And, this is where regulatory approvals are required. For Musk or anyone else to offer seamless internet across the world, they would need to parley with each government to setup satellite links. Some countries may be more forthcoming, and some may not.

Besides, the high cost of dishes and the internet may prohibit companies from selling it to an average Joe. An enterprise may still be willing to spend that kind of money on a tower, but at what cost. So, many companies, with the exception of Starlink, are not even looking at consumers, but business use cases.

However, as Bloomberg article claims, the cost of placing a satellite in the lower earth orbit may itself be very high. The geo-stationary satellites, which are placed in a higher orbit, are longer lasting than the lower-earth ones. So, even if companies do go ahead with the plan, the replacement costs may mean that eventually, prices keep on rising. Besides, Bloomberg piece by Thomas Pfieffer and Thomas Seal also highlights experts pointing out that the cost of user terminal and antenna, which Musk claims to be only a few hundred dollars, may come close to $2,000.

The quiter option?
And, then there are the stargazers. Last week, as Musk celebrated the launch of new satellites, the United Nations Office of Outer Space affairs organized a workshop called “Dark and quiet skies for science and society.” Astronomers are hoping to submit a report to the UN so that it can create guidelines on how much of a web, constellations like Starlink can spin around the earth. So, the sky is clear for astronomers and not cluttered with satellite constellations.

Any compromise would mean high latency and limited reach. Besides, it would also put pressure on the existing system to provide internet. An article published in Reviews.org had shown that with 400 satellites, the beta test of Starlink had a speed of 45 mbps and a latency of 75 ms. If the number of satellites stay limited and pressure on system increases, then Starlink may never be able to give higher speeds. A 45mbps will still be phenomenal for rural areas, which barely get 2G speeds, but costs would be prohibitive. As per Musk, the cost of dish would be in the range of $100-$300 and the plan may cost $80.

Facebook and Amazon may still be able to push usage by bundling services, but at such high costs use cases will be limited to only a few functions. Most probably, government-related work for authentication and verification or service like banking.

But there is still a market Tesla can tap. All-time internet will mean connected self-driving cars can relay information at all points of time. There is still a future for most companies, if they find a way to bundle services. Till now, all plans are up in the air.

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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