Google’s space odyssey…

Posted in Broadband, General, Services, Spectrum at 4:04 pm by timfarrar

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.


  1. dane1234 said,

    May 31, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    If Google plans to benefit from the ET Docket 98-106 rulemaking (Skybridge) by deploying 11.7-12.2 GHz Ku band satellites, it will presumably mean an increased number of NGSO FSS gateway (feeder) uplinks at 12.75–13.25 GHz. Those frequencies are also used by 12.70–13.25 GHz TV Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) stations. Any newcomer feeder uplinks would have to demonstrate protection of incumbent 13 GHz TV BAS stations. Further, per non-government footnote NG-53 to the Section 2.106 Table of Frequency Allotments, no feeder uplinks are allowed in the 13.15–13.25 GHz sub-portion of the band within 50 km of the top-100 TV markets. And, since the 98-106 rulemaking and the successor ET Docket 03-254 rulemaking, Part 101 Fixed Service (FS) stations can now share the 13 GHz TV BAS band if they are outside the operational areas of all 13 GHz TV Pickup stations. So that means any newcomer gateway uplinks will have to demonstrate protection of both Part 74 TV BAS, and Part 101 FS, links.

    An uplink communicating with a geostationary satellite can often be successfully frequency coordinated with terrestrial links, since the uplink antenna’s azimuth and elevation angle are fixed. But an uplink communicating with a non-geostationary satellite has to track the satellite across the sky. Over time, the main beam of the uplink antenna will sweep out virtually all azimuths and elevation angles. Therefore, an NGSO uplink is much more difficult to frequency coordinate with existing co-channel terrestrial uses. Hopefully Google will select remote uplink sites, or sites with sufficient terrain obstruction to ensure no interference to incumbent terrestrial operations, while still providing reasonable look angles to a new constellation of NGSO satellites.

  2. satman said,

    June 2, 2014 at 11:15 am

    No doubt there are coordination and frequency clearance issues that have to be resolved. Google can install gateway stations at their big data centers which are located near the hydro electric power plants in the Pacific NW and have fiber pipes. dane1234 said “12.75–13.25 GHz. Those frequencies are also used by 12.70–13.25 GHz TV Broadcast Auxiliary Service (BAS) stations. Any newcomer feeder uplinks would have to demonstrate protection of incumbent 13 GHz TV BAS stations.” That should not be an issue if the gateways are in Oregon or Central Washington State and the earth stations are shielded by earth or faraday shielding.

    I remember the excitement and hype when Teledesic was first announced and I knew some of the people that were on the development team. With Google involved, a 5 billion $$ satellite constellation is doable now that there’s a confluence of technologies ( small sat platforms, flat electronic tracking VSAT’s, cheap LNB’s and BUC’s)) plus some very smart people from the satcom industry developing it.

  3. Google begins its satellite push, buying Skybox for $500M — Tech News and Analysis said,

    June 10, 2014 at 2:34 pm

    [...] The details of Google’s satellite plans are slowly starting emerge, and we don’t know how all of these pieces will fit together. But if you want to get an idea of what a Google space-based network might look like, check out satellite communications analyst Tim Farrar’s detailed blog post on the subject. [...]

  4. Could Google offer a sky bridge to new inflight connectivity options? | Runway GirlRunway Girl said,

    June 19, 2014 at 12:17 am

    [...] platform by the end of the decade. Still, given the circumstantial evidence available today (see here, here, here and here) it is worth looking more closely at what impact this move might have on the [...]

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.