Reality and hype in satellite constellations…

Posted in Broadband, Echostar, SpaceX, Spectrum, ViaSat, VSAT at 4:47 pm by timfarrar

I was surprised to see last month that generally well informed observers like Om Malik were taking seriously (and even describing as “astute”) a blog post by Casey Handmer that suggests Starlink is a “very big deal” that will “catalyze enormous positive change, bringing, for the first time, billions of humans into our future global cybernetic collective.”

In order to justify that level of hype, Handmer claims that each satellite will cost $100K (which could “fall to $20k by the thousandth unit off the line”) and generate $30M in revenue during its five year lifetime, delivering “the ocean of gold needed to philanthropically build a self-sustaining city on Mars”. The first half of this claim is excessively optimistic unless the capabilities of the satellite are dramatically scaled down, which is already known to be the case.

For example, Starlink has abandoned crosslinks, at least for now, and would require a fundamental change in design and deployment in order to accommodate them: placing fragile movable RF antennas (let alone laser payloads which was the original plan) on the corners of the satellites would mean changing the current stacking and non-propulsive deployment mechanism and potentially implicate other characteristics like the stabilization of the satellite bus, due to the need for extreme pointing accuracy (especially for laser crosslinks). And the cost of a single phased array antenna on the ground can exceed Handmer’s supposed $100K cost for the entire satellite, which may be another explanation for why the current satellites are apparently operating in a fixed beam configuration.

But my primary focus is on the second half of the claim with regard to revenue, which is far easier to validate against terrestrial broadband benchmarks. In order to get to his $30M per satellite figure, Handmer assumes that a satellite will generate 100 beams capable of supporting 100Mbytes per second (800Mbps), i.e. a peak capacity of 80Gbps per second, with a loading factor of 100 seconds per 90 minute orbit (i.e. 1.85%) in order to carry 1000 GBytes of data per orbit. This peak capacity is significantly in excess of the figures in SpaceX’s own November 2016 FCC filing (which states an average aggregate downlink capacity of 20Gbps), and that filing doesn’t account for any reduction in capacity resulting from SpaceX being required to share spectrum with other satellite systems such as OneWeb.

However, Handmer’s assumed loading factor could be slightly on the low side (thought certainly not “ludicrously low” as he alleges), if Starlink was able to provide services all around the world. For example, Iridium’s (never filled) capacity for its first generation of satellites was just under 4% of the nominal peak capacity per satellite (1100 calls per satellite x 66 satellites = 38.2 billion minutes, but the system only had 1.5 billion minutes of saleable capacity per year).

On the other hand, SpaceX is planning to ignore the ITU spectrum priority rules (claiming merely that Starlink needs to initiate rather than complete coordination with other systens), which give OneWeb priority access to the NGSO spectrum and may block Starlink from gaining market access in many countries. And the low altitude of Starlink’s satellites, combined with the lack of crosslinks, means that providing services to ships and planes crossing the oceans and poles is not a feasible objective in the foreseeable future.

Combining these two factors, it appears that Handmer’s 1000Gbytes of saleable capacity per orbit will in reality be more like 250-500Gbytes per orbit (i.e. 2-4 times less), based on a peak capacity of up to 20Gbps (downlink plus uplink) and a loading factor per orbit of 2%-4%.

But the more important assumption is that this capacity will be sold at “a subscriber cost of $1/GB”. That figure is ludicrously overstated compared to the cost of broadband today. For example the average usage of Altice customers was 220Gbytes per month back in Q2 2018, while Charter’s median broadband usage in Q1 2019 was 200Gbytes with cord cutters averaging 400Gbytes per month. If we take a typical retail ARPU of around $60 then the retail price is $0.15-$0.30 per Gbyte and with consumer Internet data usage projected to increase by 160% between 2018 and 2022 (according to Cisco) the retail price of data on existing fixed broadband connections will soon be below $0.10 per Gbyte. So Handmer has overestimated the retail revenue potential per satellite for Starlink by at least 20-40 times.

Another, even more critical consideration is that the underlying cost of data delivery over fixed networks is much, much lower than the retail price. Back in 2016, Dave Burstein noted that it cost ISPs less than 1 cent per Gbyte to deliver internet traffic, and that figure is undoubtedly lower today. That’s the more appropriate basis for comparison with the cost of delivery for Starlink (unlike Handmer’s ridiculous comparison with an obselete 14 year old submarine cable, when most domestic internet traffic doesn’t even need to go outside the US), which (using our 250-500Gbytes per orbit figure above) would have a satellite capex cost alone of 0.7-1.3 cents per Gbyte over 5 years.

Then you need to add the cost of the ground segment and backhaul (certainly at least as high as the satellite capex), and most importantly, the cost of the user equipment, which will be much higher than the (less than $100) cost of a terrestrial cable modem and will far outweigh the cost of the satellites themselves. As CNN notes, “ground equipment may pose one of the biggest obstacles to success” and was probably the main reason why previous efforts like Teledesic folded.

Viasat spends $700 to acquire each satellite broadband customer of which roughly $300 is the end user equipment and installation adds another $150. But those are fixed dishes which do not need to track the satellites as they move across the sky. A Starlink terminal could easily cost $1000 or more, even with various compromises to reduce cost (such as narrowing the scan angle, though that will require a very large number of satellites, potentially several thousand, to be in orbit), before adding the cost of rooftop installation, let alone customer acquisition. And if each customer consumes say 500 Gbytes per month, then that will mean 250-500 terminals will need to be deployed to consume each satellite’s saleable capacity, implying incremental terminal costs of at least $250K-$500K per satellite (at $1000 per terminal).

To sum up, Handmer’s assessment that the satellites will generate revenue equal to 300 times their costs is fatally flawed. Even looking purely at retail revenues, then the revenues will be 20-40 times lower than he estimates, while the total system capex costs will be 4.5 to 7 times higher than he estimates (including ground segment costs of $100K per satellite and terminal costs of $250K-$500K per satellite). In the best case (and with unlimited demand!) that means retail revenues will be just over 3 times the capital costs, while in the worst case the retail revenues will only just cover the capital costs, ignoring ongoing operations, service and support.

When looking at the underlying costs of data delivery, it is also clear that Starlink’s costs will be meaningfully higher than the cost of terrestrial data delivery in areas with access to broadband, giving terrestrial rivals plenty of room to compete to retain their existing customer base (and ensuring that additional cost sensitive markets like cellular backhaul will remain out of reach).

So my conclusion is that while Starlink may be a “big deal” for the satellite industry (and for astronomers), it certainly isn’t a big deal for the terrestrial broadband market. In essence, under any plausible set of cost assumptions, Starlink’s bandwidth will cost more than current terrestrial broadband connections, and Starlink’s ability to disrupt a retail market where existing providers have existing infrastructure with enormous gross margins will be very limited. That’s nothing like Handmer’s nonsensical claims that “further launches will be funded entirely by providing better service to high density cities”.

Starlink may provide service for customers with no access to terrestrial broadband alternatives, but the satellite broadband market has fewer than 2M subscribers in North America and 1M users in the rest of the world combined, which Viasat, Echostar and others have spent the last decade trying to serve (and at least in North America have essentially saturated the market). So it seems unlikely that Starlink will do much better.