Over the last two weeks rumors have swept the satellite industry about Google’s plans to build a huge new broadband satellite constellation (dubbed “son of Teledesic” in a February article). I’ve done a fair amount of digging and since it looks like we will see this story in the mainstream press pretty soon, I thought it would be useful to summarize the analysis I produced for research clients last weekend.
As The Information reported on Tuesday, last month Google hired Brian Holz (former CTO of O3b) and Dave Bettinger (former CTO of iDirect) to work on the design of a massive new broadband satellite system, as part of Google’s Access division.
What has so far gone unreported are the technical details of the planned system, which is expected to involved 360 LEO Ku-band satellites using a filing by WorldVu in Jersey. The constellation will have 18 planes of 20 satellites, with half at an altitude of 950km and the remainder at 800km. I would expect the constellation to be launched in two phases, with the higher altitude satellites providing complete global coverage, and the lower satellites being added later, in between the initial 9 planes, to provide additional capacity. It also seems likely that the system could include inter-satellite crosslinks (within each of the two halves of the constellation) given the near polar orbit that is planned. WorldVu is apparently owned/controlled by Greg Wyler, the founder of O3b, who is rumored to have a handshake agreement with Larry Page to move ahead with the project.
The satellite system is budgeted to cost $3B, which is a very aggressive price target (recall Teledesic was supposed to cost $10B back in 1999), based on a plan to use very small (100kg) satellites. If this ultimately proves infeasible then the cost would certainly rise: for example the O3b and Iridium NEXT systems (700kg and 800kg respectively) cost at least $40M per satellite to build and launch.
UPDATE (6/1): The WSJ now has more details of the plan, confirming my supposition that it would start with 180 satellites and add the rest later. I was quoted in that article as stating that “180 small satellites could be launched for as little as about $600 million” but that should not be interpreted as a total cost for building and launching the satellites. If the target of 100kg could be achieved, the all-in cost for the first 180 satellites would certainly approach $2B, and if the satellites end up being more like 200-300kg, which a satellite designer suggested to me might be easier to achieve, then that all-in cost could reach $3B. The full 360 satellite system would likely cost $3B for the 100kg satellites and $4B-$5B for the 200-300kg satellites.
Notably the satellites would use the Ku-band, not the Ka-band which has been popular for broadband in recent years. This takes advantage of the FCC and international rulings secured by Skybridge in the late 1990s, which made over 3GHz of spectrum available for NGSO Ku-band systems, so long as they avoid interfering with satellites along the geostationary arc. In practice this means turning off the satellite when it is within about 10 degrees of the equator and handing over to an another satellite that is outside this exclusion zone. WorldVu apparently has priority ITU filing status with respect to this huge amount of spectrum on a global basis.
The total system capacity is unclear, but it could certainly be 1-2 Tbps or more for the full constellation, although not all of this will be usable (for example in polar and oceanic regions). Importantly, any LEO system would be critically dependent on the successful development of Kymeta’s new flat panel meta-materials antennas (which are being developed initially for Ka-band, but could also be extended to operate in Ku-band), because otherwise the need for tracking dish antennas makes it impossible to build terminals cost-effectively. After all, this terminal problem ultimately proved terminal for Teledesic in the late 1990s, and O3b is already telling potential enterprise customers that they should look to Kymeta to provide a viable low end terminal in a couple of years time.
Construction and launch of the first half of the constellation could probably be achieved within 5 years, if the satellites were small enough for dozens of them to be launched at once, and sufficient launch slots could be secured. However, it seems Google has not yet engaged actively with satellite manufacturers to seek their input on design feasibility (let alone bids) and so it might be premature to expect any formal announcement (and for the clock to start running on construction) at this stage.
Nevertheless this prospect is causing considerable excitement amongst satellite manufacturers, who had been bracing for a potential decline in business after record orders in recent years, and corresponding trepidation amongst satellite operators, who were already wary of a potential price war (and accelerated depreciation in the value of some older satellite assets) brought on by new high throughput Ku and Ka-band GEO satellites. Those investing in new broadband satellite systems of their own (like Intelsat, Inmarsat, ViaSat and Hughes) will certainly have to take this wildcard into account, but like the movie, only time will tell if Google’s space odyssey is going to be regarded as more than just dazzling special effects.