Although there have been plenty of news articles describing the proposed 4000 satellite constellation that SpaceX filed with the FCC last week, to date there has been no analysis of how technically plausible this proposal actually is. That is perhaps unsurprising because the Technical and Legal Narratives included with the submission omit or obscure many of the most salient points needed to analyze the system and determine how realistic the claims made in SpaceX’s Legal Narrative actually are.
In particular, SpaceX claims that it has “designed its system to achieve the following objectives”:
High capacity: Each satellite in the SpaceX System provides aggregate downlink capacity to users ranging from 17 to 23 Gbps, depending on the gain of the user terminal involved. Assuming an average of 20 Gbps, the 1600 satellites in the Initial Deployment would have a total aggregate capacity of 32 Tbps. SpaceX will periodically improve the satellites over the course of the multi-year deployment of the system, which may further increase capacity.
High adaptability: The system leverages phased array technology to dynamically steer a large pool of beams to focus capacity where it is needed. Optical inter-satellite links permit flexible routing of traffic on-orbit. Further, the constellation ensures that frequencies can be reused effectively across different satellites to enhance the flexibility and capacity and robustness of the overall system.
Broadband services: The system will be able to provide broadband service at speeds of up to 1 Gbps per end user. The system’s use of low-Earth orbits will allow it to target latencies of approximately 25-35 ms.
Worldwide coverage: With deployment of the first 800 satellites, the system will be able to provide U.S. and international broadband connectivity; when fully deployed, the system will add capacity and availability at the equator and poles for truly global coverage.
Low cost: SpaceX is designing the overall system from the ground up with cost effectiveness and reliability in mind, from the design and manufacturing of the space and ground-based elements, to the launch and deployment of the system using SpaceX launch services, development of the user terminals, and end-user subscription rates.
Ease of use: SpaceX’s phased-array user antenna design will allow for a low-profile user terminal that is easy to mount and operate on walls or roofs.
What is particularly interesting is that the application says nothing whatsoever about the size of the user terminal that will be needed for the system. One hint that the user terminals are likely to be large and expensive is that SpaceX assures the FCC that “[t]he earth stations used to communicate with the SpaceX System will operate with aperture sizes that enable narrow, highly-directional beams with strong sidelobe suppression”. More importantly, by analyzing the information on the satellite beams given at the end of the Schedule S, it is clear that the supposed user downlink capacity of 17-23Gbps per satellite assumes a very large user terminal antenna diameter, because there are only 8 Ku-band user downlink beams of 250MHz each per satellite, and thus a total of only 2GHz of user downlink spectrum per satellite.
In other words this calculation implies a link efficiency of somewhere between 8.5 and 11.5bps/Hz. For comparison, OneWeb has 4GHz of user downlink spectrum per satellite, and is estimated to achieve a forward link efficiency of 0.55bps/Hz with a 30cm antenna and up to 2.73bps/Hz with a 70cm antenna. Put another way, OneWeb is intending to operate with twice as much forward bandwidth as SpaceX but with only half as much forward capacity per satellite.
That’s because OneWeb is intending to serve small, low cost (and therefore less efficient) terminals suitable for cellular backhaul in developing countries, or for internet access from homes and small businesses in rural areas. In contrast SpaceX’s system appears much more focused on large expensive terminals, similar to those used by O3b, which can cost $100K or more, and are used to connect large cruise ships or even an entire Pacific Island to the internet with hundreds of Mbps of capacity. While this has proved to be a good market for O3b, it is far from clear that this market could generate enough revenue to pay for a $10B SpaceX system. Even then, an assumption that SpaceX could achieve an average downlink efficiency of 10bps/Hz seems rather unrealistic.
SpaceX is able to gain some increased efficiency compared to OneWeb by using tightly focused steered gateway and user beams, which the Technical Narrative indicates will provide service in “a hexagonal cell with a diameter of 45 km” (Technical Annex 1-13). But there are only 8 user downlink beams per satellite, and so the total coverage area for each satellite is extremely limited. A 45km diameter hexagon has an area of 1315 sq km (or 1590 sq km for a 45km circle). Taking the more generous measure of 1590 sq km, over 5000 cells would be needed to cover the 8 million sq km area of the continental US. And SpaceX states (Technical Annex 2-7) that even in a fully deployed constellation, 340 satellites would be visible at an elevation angle of at least 40 degrees. So this implies that even when the constellation is fully deployed, only about half the land area of CONUS will be able to be served simultaneously. And in the initial deployment of 1600 satellites, potentially only about 30% of CONUS will have simultaneous service.
SpaceX could use beamhopping technology, similar to that planned by ViaSat for ViaSat-2 and ViaSat-3, to move the beams from one cell to another within a fraction of a second, but this is not mentioned anywhere in the application, and would be made even more challenging, especially within the constraints of a relatively small satellite, by the need for avoidance of interference events with both GEO and other LEO constellations.
In summary, returning to the objectives outlined above, the claim of “high capacity” per satellite seems excessive in the absence of large, expensive terminals, while the “worldwide coverage” objective is subject to some question. Most importantly, it will likely be particularly challenging to realize the “low cost” and “ease of use” objectives for the user terminals, if the phased array antennas are very large. And the system itself won’t be particularly low cost, given that each satellite is expected to have a mass of 386kg: taking the Falcon Heavy launch capacity of 54,400kg to LEO and cost of $90M, it would take at least 32 Falcon Heavy launches (and perhaps far more given the challenge of fitting 140 satellites on each rocket), costing $2.8B or more, just to launch the 4425 satellites.
Instead one of the key objectives of the narrow, steerable beams in the SpaceX design appears to be to support an argument that the FCC should continue with its avoidance of in-line interference events policy, with the spectrum shared “using whatever means can be coordinated between the operators to avoid in-line interference events, or by resorting to band segmentation in the absence of any such coordination agreement.”
This continues SpaceX’s prior efforts to cause problems for OneWeb, because OneWeb provides continuous wide area coverage, rather than highly directional service to specified locations, and therefore (at least in the US, since it is unclear that the FCC’s rules could be enforced elsewhere) OneWeb may be forced to discontinue using part of the spectrum band (and thereby lose half of its capacity) during in-line events.
OneWeb is reported to be continuing to make progress in securing investors for its system, and it would be unsurprising if Elon Musk continues to bear a grudge against a space industry rival. But given the design issues outlined above, and the many other more pressing problems that SpaceX faces in catching up with its current backlog of satellite launches, it is rather more doubtful whether SpaceX really has a system design and business plan that would support a multi-billion dollar investment in a new satellite constellation.
So now Trump has won the White House, the opportunity for Globalstar to secure approval for its Terrestrial Low Power Service (TLPS) that was first proposed four years ago has finally disappeared. Instead of a 22MHz WiFi Channel 14, that was supposed to have access to a “massive and immediate ecosystem” (an assertion that was challenged by opponents), Globalstar is now asking for a low power terrestrial authorization in only its 11.5MHz of licensed spectrum.
That takes us back essentially to the compromise that Jay Monroe rejected in summer 2015, apparently because he didn’t believe that it would be possible to monetize the spectrum for low power LTE. However, with the FCC still keen to allow Iridium to share more of the L-band MSS spectrum for NEXT, and even Google supporting the concept of Globalstar using only its licensed spectrum for terrestrial operations, an approval seems very plausible in the near term, albeit with a further comment period required on the proposed license modification, as Globalstar acknowledges in its ex parte letter.
UPDATE (11/11): This email, produced earlier in the year by the FCC in response to a FOIA request, gives some further insight into the key June 2015 meeting with Globalstar that I referred to in my post. With its reference to “the conditions for operation in Channels 12 and 13″ and changes to “out-of-band emission levels in the MSS licensed spectrum” it seems clear that FCC staff were contemplating operation by unlicensed users right up to the 2483.5MHz boundary at least, presumably in conjunction with some reciprocity for Globalstar to operate below 2483.5MHz. Thus the deal proposed by FCC staff (although not necessarily validated with Commissioners’ offices) and rejected by Globalstar appears to have been somewhat different to this latest proposal from Globalstar (and perhaps more similar to the Public Knowledge proposals of shared use that came to the fore later in 2015). However, it seems hard to argue that the deal on the table in summer 2015 wouldn’t have been more favorable to Globalstar (due to the ability to actually offer a full 22MHz TLPS WiFi channel), if approved by Commissioners, than Globalstar’s latest proposal.
So the question now becomes, is there value in a non-standard 10MHz TDLTE channel, which is restricted to operate only at low power? Back in June 2015, I noted that there clearly would be some value for standard high power operation, but the question is a very different one for a low power license. After all, even Jay didn’t believe this type of authorization would have meaningful value last year.
Of course, its only to be expected that lazy analysts will cite the Sprint leaseback deal, which supposedly represented a huge increase in the value of 2.5GHz spectrum (though in practice this deal included cherry picked licenses for owned spectrum in top markets, and the increase in value was actually quite modest). And they will also presumably overlook the impact of the power restrictions and lack of ecosystem.
What is really critical is whether Globalstar could use such an approval to raise further funds before it runs out of money next year. Globalstar’s most recent Q3 10-Q admitted that “we will draw all or substantially all of the remaining amounts available under the August 2015 Terrapin Agreement to achieve compliance with certain financial covenants in our Facility Agreement for the measurement period ending December 31, 2016 and to pay our debt service obligations.”
In other words, Globalstar does not have the money to pay its interest and debt payments in June 2017. And with an imminent Terrapin drawdown of over $30M in December, Globalstar really needs an immediate approval to get its share price up to a level where Terrapin won’t be swamping the market with share sales next month. So how will the market react to the prospects of a limited authorization, and will investors be willing to put up $100M+ just to meet Globalstar’s obligations under the COFACE agreement in 2017?
Its important to note that the biannual debt repayments jump further in December 2017 and Globalstar will not be able to extend the period in which it makes cure payments beyond December 2017 unless “the 8% New Notes have been irrevocably redeemed in full (and no obligations or amounts are outstanding in connection therewith) on or prior to 30 June 2017″. Thus its critical that the financing situation is resolved through a major cash injection in the first half of 2017. As a result, it looks like we should find out pretty soon whether this compromise is sufficient for Thermo (or more likely others) to continue funding Globalstar.
Yesterday was an eventful day, not only for the US as a whole, but also for the inflight connectivity sector when both ViaSat and GEE announced their quarterly results at the same time. We’ve all been waiting for Southwest Airlines to make a decision about their future connectivity choices, so when ViaSat announced that “Subsequent to the end of the second quarter of fiscal year 2017 (i.e. since September 30), ViaSat was selected by a North American airline to retrofit more than 500 aircraft from its existing, mainline domestic fleet with ViaSat’s highly advanced in-flight internet system” it was natural to assume that this was Southwest.
Coming after Inmarsat and Rockwell Collins’ recent win of Norwegian Airlines for GX, which is GEE’s second biggest connectivity customer, this would also have helped to explain GEE’s announcement of a Chinese investment and joint venture which will serve over 320 planes in China.
However, GEE has now denied that the ViaSat’s new customer is Southwest and when asked about the progress of the Southwest RFP on their results call, GEE stated that investors should “stay tuned” for an announcement but that GEE “expect[s] to continue to enhance the product and services that we provide at Southwest. And our expectation that we will remain a major customer of our connectivity business well beyond the current commitments.”
What this doesn’t say is that GEE is likely to retain anything like its current business with Southwest, indeed this statement is eerily reminiscent of Gogo’s assertion in February that it hoped to “retain a strong and lasting relationship” with American, when American ultimately split its orders between Gogo and ViaSat. And a conclusion to the Southwest competition appears imminent, with either Panasonic or ViaSat expected to capture a major share of Southwest’s fleet. Panasonic certainly think they are still in the game, but others (not just ViaSat itself) appear to believe ViaSat is now in the lead on the back of aggressive terminal pricing.
So what did ViaSat actually announce? Most have assumed that if it wasn’t Southwest, it must be the outstanding mainline aircraft at American Airlines, which American has the option to move away from Gogo’s ATG service. But those orders were expected to be decided in two separate batches and not necessarily in the immediate future, since American has still not even received the first installations for either of the existing contracts with Gogo 2Ku and ViaSat.
UPDATE: So its a big surprise that American has now confirmed that it will be moving essentially all of its mainline fleet to ViaSat (other than the pending 2Ku installations). I had wondered if the order might instead be for upgrades at United (where ViaSat already serves 360 planes) combined with United’s rumored pending order for 100-120 new planes. And that might very well still be another win for ViaSat in the next month or two.
FURTHER UPDATE: Back in late May, Gogo signed a term sheet with American Airlines which specified that its “terms will form the basis for transition to a new unified agreement to be negotiated in an effort to sign no later than October 1st, 2016.” Curiously, Gogo’s Q3 10-Q filed on November 3, makes no mention of a new agreement being signed with American Airlines either before or after the end of the quarter, which raises the question of exactly what is the status of this relationship right now, and whether the companies were unable to finalize the agreement because American decided to move the remaining mainline aircraft off Gogo’s ATG network without making any further commitment to 2Ku. However, we may not get much clarity on this issue for some time, perhaps not until Gogo’s Q4 report at the end of February.
Sorry I jumped the gun on Southwest, but things still look bad for GEE, and may in fact be even better for ViaSat than I expected if they win both American and much of Southwest’s fleet, not to mention another possible win for 100+ new planes and 360 upgrades at United.
In the meantime, we face more intrigue with respect to SmartSky and Gogo’s unlicensed ATG plans, with Microsoft filing with the FCC for tests to “develop channel models for air-to-ground operations in the 2.4 GHz ISM band” and to “examine various techniques that might minimize the potential for the air-to-ground link to disrupt Wi-Fi communications on the ground in the area surrounding the ground station.”
After Microsoft tested Globalstar’s proposed TLPS solution (which incidentally may have been administered the coup de grace by Trump’s win last night) and claimed a “profound negative impact,” it would not be in the least surprising if they now propose that the FCC should commence a rulemaking on where these ATG ground stations should be located (presumably not in the vicinity of Xboxes!), similar to the work on LTE-U (which also complies with existing FCC rules for unlicensed spectrum).
While those rules would not necessarily prevent deployment (ATG ground stations would simply be located in rural areas away from other buildings), any rulemaking could result in delays of 1-2 years before the network can be deployed. The consequence of that would potentially be to accelerate the migration of mainline commercial aircraft away from ATG and towards satellite solutions, in order to free up more capacity on Gogo’s network for smaller aircraft and business jets.
Overall, my concerns about continued ruinous competition in the inflight connectivity market have now been amplified further. Inmarsat has achieved key wins with Norwegian and IAG, which have put it firmly back in the game. ViaSat continues to grow its market share and now GEE’s refocusing on China and new investment from ShareCo could allow it to continue to compete in some international markets as well. Thales may be able to take JetBlue away from ViaSat (as Inmarsat suggested at its Capital Markets Day last month) and move these aircraft onto AMC-15/16 and ultimately SES-17. And Gogo and Panasonic still have a massive backlog of orders to work through. So despite all the talk of potential consolidation, it looks like airlines (and hopefully passengers) will continue to benefit from terminal subsidies, lower wholesale session costs and increasing bandwidth for some time to come.
Earlier this year I warned that the satellite industry seemed to be stepping off the precipice, as a Ku HTS price war culminated in the very attractive pricing (of around $1000 per MHz per month) that Gogo and Panasonic secured from SES in February 2016. What has followed over the last six months or so has been rampant negativity in the press about overcapacity and price crashes. Even NSR, who in March were noting the “generally slow and stable downward pressure on pricing up to 2016″ are now asserting that “satellite capacity pricing [is] in a prolonged freefall for most applications.”
In reality, the last six months have seen the first signs of stabilization in satellite capacity pricing, as SES and Intelsat pull back somewhat from their price war which was the proximate cause of the dramatic price declines seen from late 2014 through early 2016. In particular, SES predicted a “strong growth outlook” at its June investor day and presented a slide at the GCA Summit earlier that month showing three Ka-band HTS GEO satellites for global coverage. One of the ways SES was expected to deliver on this strategy was by “focusing on value-added, end-to-end solutions” in each of its verticals.
However, since then, SES appears to have dramatically reduced its exposure to Ka-band GEO capacity, putting virtually all the risk of the single SES-17 Ka-band satellite onto Thales, and may also have pulled back on its plans to provide “end-to-end solutions” for mobility, letting Speedcast win the bidding for Harris Caprock and indicating that it will not go direct to airlines in the inflight connectivity market. Intelsat has also won a couple of key contracts for Epic, with TIM Brazil and Global Eagle.
Its therefore interesting to see the contrast between Gogo’s assertion at its investor day on September 29 that there will be an “ample and diverse supply” of Ku-band capacity (totaling nearly 1Tbps globally by 2019) with Inmarsat’s position a week later that “Ku-band supply could be limited,” especially in North America.
At this point in time, it looks like the “unexpected softness” of satellite orders in 2016, caused by fears about a price crash will mean very few new C- or Ku-band GEO satellites being ordered in the near future without an anchor tenant. Panasonic may well follow Thales’ lead with its XTS satellites, but that won’t result in any (let alone “ample”) incremental supply for Gogo. And Gogo is not in a position to order a dedicated Ku-band satellite of its own to provide more capacity on top of its existing commitments.
Operators may well be justified in fearing dramatic erosion in pricing from new Ka-band satellites with hundreds of Gbps of capacity, but outside North America, there simply won’t be any of that capacity available before 2020. As a result, stabilization of pricing (albeit at considerably lower levels than those in historic contracts, many of which still need to be rolled over) seems plausible for 2017-18.
Instead I’m much more worried about whether substantial growth in revenue really will be stimulated by these lower prices. TIM Brazil (which is one of Intelsat’s biggest customers for cellular backhaul) is a good example, with their move to Epic Ku-band capacity giving them three times the capacity (partly from improved bps/Hz efficiency) compared to their previous C-band solution, with no increase in spending. And at least part of the fall in enterprise revenues seen by Intelsat and SES in the last two years appears to be due to less bandwidth being used by these customers, rather than simply price declines on existing (let alone incremental) capacity.
Some of that reduction in capacity utilization may be due to more efficient modems, which could be a one-off effect, but I believe that the question of demand elasticity (in the face of competition from terrestrial alternatives) is going to be much more important challenge for the satellite market in 2017 and 2018 than a supposed “freefall” in bandwidth prices. If satellite operators can identify untapped opportunities where they can be competitive with terrestrial, as O3b has done in various Pacific islands, or where there is substantial demand elasticity as passengers create on commercial airplanes and cruise ships, then revenue growth will result.
But if spend is relatively inelastic, as seems plausible for many enterprise VSAT (and perhaps some government) customers, then terrestrial competition may lead to continued market erosion. The biggest wild card is cellular backhaul: huge amounts of capacity are needed as mobile operators move from 2G to 3G to 4G in developing countries, so if these terrestrial players commit to satellite, there could be substantial revenue upside. On the other hand, if mobile operators focus on microwave as their backhaul solution of choice in Africa and Asia, it will be much more difficult to achieve significant growth in the satellite business.