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The Satellite Broadband is Heating Up

There is a lot of news recently about low-orbit satellite broadband. There is recent news concerning the three primary companies that will be vying in the space.

First is Jeff Bezos Project Kuiper, which is still likely to get a brand name at some point. Project Kuiper has contracted with United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing-Lockheed Martin venture, for the first nine broadband rocket launches. It’s been speculated that these launches will carry something under 500 satellites into orbit—including the company’s first test satellites.

Project Kuiper has plans to launch 3,236 satellites, and the company says it will need 578 satellites to begin offering limited service. The agreement with the FCC would require the company to launch half of the total satellites before 2026, although it appears the company intends to get to that number sooner. There have been no announced dates for the nine launches, but one would think they’ll start this year.

Project Kuiper is taking a different strategy than Starlink and is launching larger and more capable satellites rather than swarms of cheaper disposable satellites. It will be interesting to see what this difference means in terms of customer coverage and bandwidth. The company has already been funded with $10 billion from Jeff Bezos, and it seems likely the company will eventually do what’s been announced.

OneWeb is also back in the news. Eutelsat, one of the world’s largest operators of satellites has invested in a 24% stake in the company. This adds to the existing ownership by the UK government and Bharti Global, a large cellular carrier in India.

OneWeb is taking a third path and plans to launch 648 satellites which are larger and are basically floating data centers. The company recently launched 36 satellites, bringing it to a total of 182 satellites in orbit. The company says it will be able to start serving the UK, Alaska, northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and northern Canada after two more launches and plans to be able to serve the whole planet by the end of 2022. It’s no longer clear after the change of ownership if the company will support residential broadband or will pursue connectivity for larger users like cellular towers and corporate users.

Starlink and SpaceX are all over the news. Starlink is now taking $99 deposits from prospective customers and quickly picked up 500,000 prospective customers and a quick $50 million. There is no guarantee that any customer will be able to receive service. Starlink now has 1,300 satellites in orbit and says it will begin offering retail service by the end of 2021.

Starlink download speeds in beta tests still show a range between 50 Mbps and 150 Mbps—a great upgrade for customers using rural DSL or cellular hotspots. Elon Musk continues to say that by next year that broadband speeds will approach 300 Mbps, something that is doubted by a number of industry engineers who question the ability of the constellation to handle a significant number of customers. But there are also problems becoming apparent during the beta test. A recent article in Verge claims that Starlink can’t handle trees or impediments that block the horizon. That’s not promising for serving homes in the woods or mountains—like in my area of western North Carolina.

Starlink also won a recent regulatory battle at the FCC. The ruling is extremely technical, but the gist is that Starlink will be able to deploy some satellites in a lower orbit, which will allow a lower elevation angle for customer receivers, which ought to increase the speeds somewhat. But Starlink faces another upcoming battle over the spectrum that is used by the satellite fleet to backhaul traffic to and from the earth. The battle is over spectrum between 12.2–12.7 GHz, which is primarily owned by Dish Networks. Dish wants to use this spectrum for terrestrial 5G, and this would greatly curtail Starlink’s backhaul capabilities. The FCC ruling warned Starlink that it might not get access to the spectrum.

Within a year or two, a lot of the hype concerning satellite broadband will be behind us as we start seeing commercial satellite fleets in operation. Of particular interest to those watching this space will be if Starlink can achieve the broadband speeds being touted once the network is under full customer load. By the looks of the applications pouring into the company, it won’t take long to find out.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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