When the path isn't clear, the advisor you turn to should be.

10-Year Archive

Humanizing Tech

What Is SpaceX Internet?

Describing how it works and who is building it.

I. Overview

A few weeks back, SpaceX filed a plan with the government to launch upwards of 4,400 sattelites into very low earth orbit. The plan being that you can get faster internet and more bandwidth wherever you are in the planet because the satellites will be physically closer to you and the internet signal will need to go through less stuff to get to you.

The FCC will need to approve the measure, but the real goal isn’t to just surround the earth with sattelites. Nay, what we really need is a series of waystations in between Earth, the Moon, and Mars, that relays high speed internet across space and then have more satellites orbiting Mars that will pump the same signal down to the red planet.

This way, communicating with Mars doesn’t take 20 minutes round trip (40 minutes total). That’s a long time for a text message.

II. How It Will Work

In a nearly 100-page Technical Supplement document that accompanied the main filing, SpaceX described how this system will work. Not all satellites will be launched at the same time. It will take multiple rocket launches to deliver this payload. Current estimates peg this at 166 total launches, minimum, to get all 4425 satellites into orbit.

And the satellites won’t just be in one single plane or altitude. It will look more like a donut shape of satellites covering the earth across 83 or these orbital planes.

You might be wondering how big each of these satellites are going to be. It pegs the weight at about 850 pounds. To put that into perspective, that weighs the same as a bale of hay or a California Sea Lion. So, instead of thinking about internet satellites orbiting our pale blue dot, consider a bunch of sea lions swimming around our great big space ocean.

You might also be wondering how much this whole shindig is going to cost. Estimates peg it at about $20M per launch * 200 launches (mid-range) = about $4B.

One of the concerns some people had was how these satellites would fare against the ones we already have in orbit. There are about 1400 satellites already orbiting Earth, but they are much bigger and orbit much further out than SpaceX’s plan. This would nearly double the number of craft we put into space.

III. Internet Coverage Area

Coverage for one satellite is pretty large, a circle with a diameter of about 1300 miles. That’s an surface area of 2,000 square miles. With Earth having a surface area of just under 200 million square miles that means one satellite covers approximately 0.001%. That doesn’t seem like enough, does it?

Lets dig in and find out.

Earth, incidentally, has about 4x larger surface area than Mars, so less satellites would eventually be needed over there. At least that’s what you’d think. About 70% of Earth’s surface is covered in water, so unless we’re trying to blanket the oceans with internet on the off chance that someone would be out to sea, you can realistically keep your business concerns to the land mass areas. That means 200M square miles * 30% land mass = 60M square miles of land mass, which is almost exactly the same as Mars 55M square miles of land surface area (no oceans, remember).

Thus, if you’re talking 4400 satellites for Earth, you’re going to need the same amount for Mars in the long term. Practically speaking, though, you’ll really only need one right above where the first settlement is.

IV. Speeds & CDN Comparisons

It’s predicted that the new speeds would be something around 1 Gbps. That’s just insane. If you got to speedtest.net right now and do a test for either your cellular connection or your home wifi, it’s likely that you’re only getting around 5 to 10 Mbps. In terms of comparison, this new space internet would be 100x faster than what you’re currently experiencing. An average HD video that you stream from Netflix, at the upper end, is about 5 gigabytes. That means it would take 5 seconds for you to download the entire thing.

As we move into a video world with 4K UHD with 360-degree virtual reality surroundings, the amount of bandwidth required from CDNs like Akamai, a Piksel partner, is going to increase substantially.

Of course, SpaceX’s internet would potentially sidestep the rest of the industry currently in place. Of course, the source video files still need to be stored on a hard drive in a data center somewhere. Even with those kinds of speeds, you still want really low latency, so it means that when you request a file, it communites with a satellite overhead, then that satellite communicates to some kind of base station nearby and then down to earth, where it gets connected to a fiber optic connection to that data center where the data is stored.

If you’re paying attention, you can already see the opportunity here. Basically SpaceX starts become a CDN itself, where it would potentially store the core asset files in a real “cloud” instead of in the ground somewhere. Satellites cost more money the more they weigh.

Today, however, solid state drives are really cheap and really light. Doing a quick Google search, I found a Seagate 8TB external hard drive that weighs only a few pounds. And it only costs $170.

Akamai charges about $0.15 per GB to package and store a file across thousands of points around the world at scale. Doing the math on that 8TB hard drive and you’re looking at $1200. Here are some of the storage and bandwidth limits of Akamai today. At internet scale, Akamai will probably charge you $0.001 per GB for bandwidth, assuming you’re streaming at the level of their entire capacity.

The first step, however, for SpaceX is just getting it working at scale, then setting up relationships with businesses, cellular networks, and consumers. It’s a way for them to continue to print money to fund their missions to Mars. But it also doesn’t disrupt what they need to help set up colonies on the red planet. Space internet way stations begin with the connectivity around the Earth.

Conceptual diagram for Space Internet satellite motion

V. Implications

It’s reported that this type of satellite-based internet could handle around 50% of backhaul internet and 10% of local traffic for very populous and high-usage cities. I don’t doubt it if they’re able to pull off the full plan and position most of the satellite coverage to the most populous areas and leave the oceans to their own accord, save for emergency situations.

But the biggest benefit to this type of connectivity isn’t for getting the already connected crowd a much faster speed. It’s for the emerging markets in sub-saharan Africa, deep inside India or the jungle, and about connecting the laggards on the tech adoption curve.

Have a look at that post. It shows that less than half of the human population has an internet connection. Interestingly, nearly 2x as many people use SMS to text. In emerging markets, so much of communication and business is done over text because internet isn’t available.

Instead, they use a cheap solar panel on top of their make-shift house to charge their phone. And guess who has a great business making solar panels. Imagine if Tesla, Solar City, and SpaceX merge. They could single-handedly own half the world’s connection to the internet and the rest of the population that has settled on Mars.

As more people, and therefore more communities, come online, they begin to see what’s possible and follow along with tutorials, setting up their own infrastructure and beginning to move from 3rd to 2nd and 2nd to 1st world.

It’s just the next step in the infrastructure for making Space as a Platform a realistic endevour for future generations of entrepreneurs. Push to production becomes a rocket launch, all cordinated by autonomous drones and space internet.

There’s an important message at the bottom of that Tech Adoption Curve post. Namely, that as we’ve seen these technologies make their way into everyday people’s lives on Earth, we will see that exact same adoption curve play out on extraterrestrial planets we attempt to colonize. First it’s oxygen, water, food, and safety from the elements. Then we get into power, communication, and on and on until we’ve recreated all the bits of infrastructure.

It will cause an economic boom that none of us are quite ready for.

Ask your future born son and daughter where they will end up working. Truth is, they might not commute into the local office, or even hop a plane to London for a meeting, but rather a rocket to Mars.

“See you in a few months at Christmas, mom and dad.”


Read More

Space as a Platform

What Is SpaceX Internet? was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

from Stories by Sean Everett on Medium http://ift.tt/2gxSmdW