Will 8,000 new satellites end the digital divide? Public safety advocate is skeptical

In Featured News by Wireless Estimator


“Until I see a valid business model, I will remain skeptical that even one of these plans will result in an actual launch of service and that even one of them will actually make money.” – Andrew Seybold

By Andrew Seybold – Guest Columnist
FirstNet is required by law to build out in rural America as it builds out in larger markets. This was included in the law passed by Congress in 2012 to ensure public safety will have broadband services where they are needed, when they are needed.

In the United States, various federal government agencies offer grants and low or no-interest loans to build out broadband in rural America, and some states have put money in their budgets to increase rural coverage in their states. Now we have many ways to shrink the digital divide but no one is charged with making it happen. Someone or some organization needs to review all the programs and put them together for a cohesive approach. There is more than enough money in all the grants and loans and there is more than enough need, not only for public safety providers but for everyone—students, teachers, businesses, farmers, and everyone else who does not have broadband access today.

Worldwide there are still many remote areas as well as some more populated areas that do not yet have broadband services in one form or another. While I was on the Palmyra Atoll a few weeks ago, we had WiFi and Internet access but to a very limited degree. Access to the Internet is provided by a satellite dish and satellite service. They also have some satellite phones in case the system goes down but this type of satellite coverage only provides a small slice of the atoll with coverage. The idea behind all the new satellites being discussed is that they will, supposedly, cover much larger portions of the world.

My concerns with these efforts are multi-fold. First, these endeavors will cost companies such as Amazon, SpaceX, and others billions of dollars to launch the little satellites. However, I have not seen any indication that any of these projects will make money. In the Amazon announcement, the company acknowledged that this venture will cost $Billions and claims it stands to make $Billions. SpaceX believes the same thing. Until I see a valid business model, I will remain skeptical that even one of these plans will result in an actual launch of service and that even one of them will actually make money.

I am reminded of Muni-Wi-Fi. In 1985, Metricom was the first company to deploy Muni-Wi-Fi (the product’s name was Ricochet). Whenever I drive around Phoenix I am reminded of this endeavor because many Metricom access points are still mounted on streetlights here. Philadelphia tried and failed at Muni-Wi-Fi, and Google made several attempts in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and other cities. The fact remains that the cost of deploying Muni-Wi-Fi basically precluded making a profit. Will the proposed little satellites meet the same fate?

I don’t know the answer but I am concerned those working on closing the digital divide using terrestrial systems including fiber and various forms of wireless will believe satellites will supersede their plans and end up costing them a lot of money. Is it possible the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), NTIA, and all the other government agencies will see these satellites as the nirvana of broadband everywhere? Will they simply cancel their grants and loans, leaving it up to the private sector to do what they have been unable to do for the last thirty years? Finally, I am sure the public safety community knows this type of system with full access to the Internet, even if “secure,” would not be the way to increase its coverage. As far as I am concerned, the best approach is to continue with FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and augment rural coverage using some or all of the federal grants currently available.

Let’s take a look at two of the companies that are moving forward, or say they are, with plans to launch thousands of small Low Earth Orbiting satellites (LEOs). Amazon says it plans to launch 3,236 and SpaceX (Tesla) says it will launch 4,000. Other companies are making similar noises and companies such as Iridium are still around and have recently upgraded their systems. Even so, I believe that Internet for all, raining down on us from space at an affordable price, will turn out to be yet another saga of small satellites to follow Bill Gates/Craig McCaw’s Teledesic venture first announced in 1990.

Space will become crowded if all the companies that have announced they will cover the planet with wall-to-wall broadband by launching satellites follow through. Amazon is the latest to join the party and has filed with the FCC, which in turn has filed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is responsible for approving this type of activity.

In news about Project Kuiper, its new plan, Amazon states it intends to launch 3,236 LEOs. This type of satellite occupies altitudes below 2,000 KM or in the 100 to 1,240-mile range. There are two other classes of satellites including Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellites that occupy the 2,000 to 35,786 KM space around the earth (22,236 miles), and then Geosynchronous (GEO) satellites that are 35,786 KM or 22,236 miles above the earth.

Before we examine Amazon’s and other companies’ plans to essentially do the same thing, perhaps some words about the different types of satellites and their uses would be helpful to set the stage.

Geostationary Orbit or Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO) Satellites

These are sometimes referred to as Geo Orbit since they circle the earth at the same rotation as the earth itself. According to articles about the subject, this means each of these satellites, above the equator at 36,000 KM, follows the earth’s rotation of 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds, or about 3 KM per second. Each satellite covers a large portion of the earth and each is in an ideal orbit for telecommunications, weather, and monitoring environmental conditions. It takes only three of these satellites, equally spaced, to cover all of the earth except the polar regions.

Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO) Satellites

These satellites include GPS location birds and others, occupying space from about 1,250 to 22,225 miles above the earth. According to Howstuffworks.com, they travel at speeds of about 8,637 MPH.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites

LEOs are the smaller satellites Amazon, SpaceX, and others are planning to launch, or in some cases, have already launched in limited numbers. According to several sources, they are “ideal for making observations, for military purposes and for collecting weather data.” I guess if they work to “rain the Internet down on earth,” these definitions will need to be redefined.

How Many Satellites Are Currently in Space?

It appears from the latest information kept by the United Nations Office for Other Space Affairs (UNOOSA), as of November 9, 2018, there were 4,857 satellites in orbit. After adding Amazon’s 3,236 and SpaceX’s 4,000, by 2020 (expected completion of these projects) there will be almost three times as many satellites in orbit. And this does not include numbers from other companies that have announced similar programs.

What Does All This Have to Do with Public Safety?

As mentioned, all this space activity could negatively impact the amount of money spent on terrestrial rural broadband deployments. It is true that if these satellite systems are actually built and come online, they could be used during major emergencies around the world to provide better communications. However, I am more concerned about the mere mention of them in the press delaying, for example, a renewed effort on the part of the U.S. Congress to establish a department of broadband so all the existing grants and loans could be consolidated into one agency instead of being spread out over many agencies with different sets of goals and requirements.

If big companies issuing satellite-related press releases and even filing with the FCC slows the growth of rural broadband in the United States, it will also slow the deployment of FirstNet and Next General 9-1-1 (NG911). Fifth-Generation (5G) has already gained a lot of attention, but in the case of 5G, we have been told it will be made available to FirstNet customers as it is deployed for AT&T’s commercial customers. With 5G’s slow deployment, we are already hearing about 6G technologies and some interesting testing is being conducted at places such as New York University. Again, these are terrestrial and real because even if they cannot be delivered in the short term, the impact when they are will be to augment what we have today.

Late-Breaking News

Earlier this week, The Monitoring Association (TMA) and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) announced an agreement that will allow FirstNet access to alarm companies that have met stringent and accepted industry standards. The requirements are clearly stated in the press release that reads as follows: “To uphold the FirstNet public safety mission, FirstNet eligibility will be limited to those companies who meet accepted industry standards for transmitting public-safety related alarms (e.g., robbery, burglary, unlawful intrusion, fire, emergency medical) to an alarm monitoring facility that confirms and verifies the authenticity of the alarm and notifies a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) for relay to a public safety agency for the purpose of initiating an emergency response.”

This agreement will result in the transmission of public safety-related alarms using FirstNet service. Such alarms will be verified by a central monitoring station and will assist first responders in quickly becoming aware of an event requiring their response to prevent loss of life and/or property.

The press release further states, “Companies interested in using the FirstNet communications platform for alarm transport will apply to TMA for a Certificate of Verification indicating that they follow recognized industry standards including the ANSI/CSAA CS-V-01 Standard (Alarm Confirmation, Verification and Notification Procedures) which is designed to minimize false alarms. The alarm company will then present the TMA Certificate of Verification to AT&T as part of the process to assess eligibility to operate on the FirstNet communications platform as an extended primary user in support of public safety.”

This is a win-win situation. If time can be saved in dispatching public safety units once an alarm has been properly verified as being “real,” both the public and the public safety community will benefit from this agreement.

Winding Down

In my 50-plus years of working with wireless communications and observing how it develops, I have concluded that new technologies always take longer than we are told they will and many don’t work as well as promised. This is simply reality, and it tends to caution me to not be in a rush to grab onto what is being touted as “the next big thing.” It is far better to watch as the technology is developed and deployed—or not.

Public safety agencies are smart to take a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to new technologies. Sometimes after the hype has passed what is left is not what was promised. Public safety cannot afford to take chances with communications in the field. This is why Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and FirstNet will both be used by public safety for a long time to come. LMR systems have been proven over many years, and FirstNet is being proven in the field every day now, passing test after test.

I hope the U.S. Government continues in its efforts to put better broadband into the hands of those who need it but don’t have it and at the same time find ways to work with FirstNet the Authority and FirstNet (Built with AT&T) to augment what is being deployed. Meanwhile, we will watch what Amazon, SpaceX, and the others are saying and doing. I would still like to see a spreadsheet showing the return on this type of investment. The return on investment for our public safety networks is not measured in dollars and cents but in lives and property saved. Putting the Internet in the sky must be paid for by someone and most who need the service cannot afford it. Hopefully, these companies will figure out a way to make it work. In the meantime, I will concentrate on terrestrial communications with satellites for backhaul when and where needed!

Andrew-SeyboldAndrew M. Seybold, CEO and Principal Analyst of Andrew Seybold, Inc., and publisher of All Things FirstNet is one of the most respected and influential analysts in the wireless industry today. For more than 28 years, he has served the industry and shaped initiatives for world leaders of the wireless industry, including Verizon, Nokia, AT&T, Motorola, and Qualcomm. His firm has provided wireless consulting and education services for startups to Fortune 1000 companies such as Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Company, and Microsoft.