Saturday, October 14, 2017

The role of the BFR in SpaceX's satellite Internet service

SpaceX started with their Falcon 1 booster followed by several versions of the Falcon 9. The Falcon Heavy will fly later this year and the rocket that will take the first person to Mars is called, for now, the Big F***ing Rocket or BFR.

The 150-ton BFR payload will be 10 times that of the Falcon 9. It will have an have an extra landing-guidance engine for reliable reusability and SpaceX also expects to be able to soft-land and reuse the second-stage payload rocket as well as its protective nose cone, substantially reducing cost per launch. (Note that Boeing is also planning a Mars mission so they may be planning their own BFR).

The following is speculation, but I think the BFR will play a significant role the SpaceX satellite Internet service.

SpaceX applied to launch their 4,425 satellites in two phases -- an initial deployment of 1,600 satellites and a final deployment of 2,825. That is a lot of satellites and the FCC has required licensees to deploy their full constellations within six years of their grant, but last month they relaxed that constraint, establishing milestones of launching 50% of a constellation within six years and allowing another three years to complete the constellation. The FCC has delayed licensing SpaceX's plan until spectrum sharing agreements are reached by satellite operators, so the clock has not yet started running on their six and nine-year milestones.

SpaceX plans to send a BFR to Mars in December 2022, and they won't give me any details, but they will surely be used "locally" before that. They plan to begin launching operating Internet satellites in 2019 and those will be launched by Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy rockets, but the BFR should be available to launch many of the planned 4,425 satellites before the FCC deadline and it will be used for replacement satellites when they are eventually required.

SpaceX estimates the satellite mass as 386 kg and the BFR can carry a 150-ton payload so, if they fit perfectly, a BFR could launch about 350 satellites at a time, but they won't fit perfectly, so let's say 300 per launch. SpaceX Senior Director Tom Ochinero says they will be capable of up to six launches per month. Using the BFR, 4,425 satellites in nine years sounds feasible and relatively cheap. (Elon Musk has estimated that future versions of the BFR may carry up to 1,000 tons).

The BFR may also play a role in debris mitigation. When they are taken out of operation, satellites are de-orbited and they burn up in the atmosphere, but there is some risk of debris hitting the Earth. Bloomberg reported that the FCC had challenged SpaceX's assessment of risk of human casualty from falling debris and SpaceX responded the following month. Recently two Senators have also asked the FCC to investigate the risk of collisions and debris.

The BFR may render the debate moot. In a recent presentation, Elon Musk speculated that the BFR might be used to capture orbiting satellites and return them to Earth, as illustrated here:

SpaceX hopes to recapture satellites in the future (source)

I will conclude with the following image that illustrates how the BFR got its name -- it is a BFR. If you are interested in the BFR and its role in Elon Musk's plan to colonize Mars, you should definitely read the post this illustration is taken from.

Still not sure how big it is? Check out this view of a BFR in Boston:

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Non-terrestrial spectrum sharing

Will we have global standards for Internet satellite spectrum sharing one day?

Three companies, SpaceX, OneWeb and Boeing have announced ambitious plans to put thousands of Internet-service satellites in non-geostationary low-Earth orbit (NGSO) and other companies like ViaSat and SES are currently operating hundreds of communication satellites in medium-Earth and higher, geostationary orbits.

With so many satellites orbiting in different planes and at different altitudes, there are bound to be frequent "inline events" when two satellites are simultaneously above an area both are communicating with -- causing potential radio interference.

Terrestrial radio interference has historically been handled by setting limits on transmitter power and granting exclusive rights to organizations, so, for example, in the Los Angeles area radio station KPCC has the exclusive right to broadcast at 89.3 MHz. Since transmitter power is also regulated, KPCC does not interfere with stations broadcasting at the same frequency in distant cities.

Technology has improved since the early days of radio and we are entering an era when smart radios can be programmed to cooperatively share the same spectrum (range of frequencies) by quickly changing frequencies, power levels, antenna focus, etc. (You can see a quick overview of the frequency ranges these companies wish to use here).

Last month, the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC) voted to delay SpaceX's application to launch satellites, saying they would defer to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on how these new satellite systems should coordinate and share spectrum. Since OneWeb had already been granted permission to launch their satellites, Bloomberg and others speculated that the issue of potential interference might pose a significant problem for SpaceX.

It would have been a problem in the past, but today's regulators recognize that we need new rules for the spectrum-sharing era. In 2015, the ITU came out in favor of coordination between operators stating that they did not intend "to state an order of priorities for rights to a particular orbital position and the coordination process is a two way process" and last month FCC chairman Ajit Pai agreed, saying "given recent trends in the satellite industry and changes in satellite technology, the Commission began a review last year of the rules governing NGSO fixed-satellite service operations to better accommodate this next generation of systems."

What this means is that OneWeb and other early applicants who have been approved by the ITU and FCC as having priority access to frequency bands do not have exclusive rights to that spectrum, just that SpaceX will have to negotiate and define a sharing mechanism that satisfies them.

OneWeb technique to avoid inference
with geostationary satellites (source)
That process has begun. For example, OneWeb has a patent pending on progressive pitch technology, a technique to avoid interference between their low-Earth orbit constellation and geostationary satellites, which orbit around the equator at relatively high altitudes. Their satellites will automatically change orientation and power level as they pass over the equator to avoid interference with geostationary satellites orbiting above them.

SpaceX has proposed that NGSO operators share data to indicate the steering angle of each beam within a satellite's footprint. As shown below, they assert that this data sharing would drastically reduce the occurrence of inline events between their 4,425 satellites and a ViaSat geosynchronous satellite.

Inline events (red dots) without and with information sharing

This effort to enable efficient spectrum sharing by OneWeb, SpaceX, Boeing and operators of other satellites (and one day perhaps balloons, drones and other high altitude platforms) reminds me of the proposal for the Ethernet standard for local area networks by three companies -- DEC, Intel and Xerox. A major difference, in this case, is that the Ethernet standard was adopted by a professional engineering organization and a satellite communication standard would be approved by the ITU, a United Nations agency. It may be too soon, but might engineers from OneWeb, Boeing and SpaceX one day define global standards for non-terrestrial spectrum sharing?

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Connecting the dots between Cambridge Analytica, The Mercers, Brexit, Russian hackers, WikiLeaks and the US and Kenyan presidential elections

Yesterday Hillary Clinton pointed out that Cambridge Analytica, an ad targeting company financed by billionaires Robert and Rebekah Mercer, worked on the Brexit, US, and Kenyan elections. The Kenyan election was overturned by their Supreme Court and Clinton said she hoped someone would write about the ties between the Mercers, Cambridge Analytica and the Trump Whitehouse.

(While she tentatively connected the dots between the three campaigns, it must be noted that the decision of the Kenyan Supreme Court was not based on the activity of Cambridge Analytica).

The format of this post is unusual. Rather than writing an “article,” I have compiled a short PowerPoint slide deck on the issue. The slides are annotated and have links to sources that would usually have been found in an article or blog post so you can read and study them as you would an article or use them in a presentation. (The slides are a subset of the slides used for a longer presentation, which in turn are a subset of the slides I used in class during the campaign).

The Kenyan Supreme Court, ruled 4-2 to nullify their presidential election.

Links between the Merciers, Cambridge Analytica and Trump

Update 9/21/2017

Mari Christian pointed out that Brexit leader Nigel Farage, who is a person of interest in the FBI investigation into Trump and Russia, met with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy March 9, 2017. Farage said he visited Assange at the behest of LBC Radio “with a view to conducting an interview” and that he had never even been to Russia.

With this in mind, let's modify the above figure as follows:

Update 9/23/2017

There is ample evidence that Russian Hackers acquired the data that was published by WikiLeaks. It remains to be seen whether the Trump campaign and/or Vladimir Putin were co-conspirators. Robert Mueller and congressional committees are investigating that allegation.

Several readers commented on this, so I added a slide on Russian hacking with links to relevant articles.

The final PowerPoint presentation consists of nine slides:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Can constellations of Internet routing satellites compete with long-distance terrestrial cables?

The goal will be to have the majority of long distance traffic go over this network.
Elon Musk

SpaceX orbital path schematic, source
Three companies, SpaceX, OneWeb, and Boeing are working on constellations of low-Earth orbiting satellites to provide Internet connectivity. While all three may be thinking of competing with long, terrestrial cables, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said "the goal will be to have the majority of long-distance traffic go over this (satellite) network" at the opening of SpaceX's Seattle office in 2015 (video below).

Can he pull that off?

Their first constellation will consist of 4,425 satellites operating in 83 orbital planes at altitudes ranging from 1,110 to 1,325 km. They plan to launch a prototype satellite before the end of this year and a second one during the early months of 2018. They will start launching operational satellites in 2019 and will complete the first constellation by 2024.

The satellites will use radios to communicate with ground stations, but links between the satellites will be optical.

At an altitude of 1,110 kilometers, the distance to the horizon is 3,923 kilometers. That says each satellite will have a line-of-sight view of all other satellites that are within 7,846 kilometers, forming an immense mesh network. Terrestrial networks are not so richly interconnected and cables must zig-zag around continents and islands if undersea and other obstructions if under ground.

Latency in a super-mesh of long, straight-line links should be much lower than with terrestrial cable. Additionally, Musk says the speed of light in a vacuum is 40-50 percent faster than in a cable, cutting latency further.

Let's look at an example. I traced the route from my home in Los Angeles to the University of Magallanes in Punta Arenas at the southern tip of Chile. As shown here, the terrestrial route was 14 hops and the theoretical satellite link only five hops. (The figure is drawn roughly to scale).

So, we have 5 low-latency links versus 14 higher-latency links. The gap may close somewhat as cable technology improves, but it seems that Musk may be onto something.

Check out the following video of the speech Musk gave at the opening of SpaceX's Seattle office. His comments about the long-distance connections discussed here come at the three-minute mark, but I'd advise you to watch the entire 26-minute speech:

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Trump administration -- it's lies all the way down

Browsing the Politifact site convinces one that all politicians, including the Clintons, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Polisi, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, lie, but Trump, his administration, and their supporting media have taken it to a new level

I teach a class on the applications, implications, and technology of the Internet and we spent time on the impact of the Internet on politics during the 2016 election. One of the things we noted was that Donald Trump had lied much more frequently than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or President Obama. I went back to the fact-checking service, Politifact, and it turns out that Trump is lying as frequently now than he did during the election season:

That is not surprising, but it seems to have set the standard for others in the administration, as illustrated by last week's announcement of the termination of the DACA policy by Jeff Sessions. Politifact found several statements that were one-sided or incomplete during Sessions' announcement.

Slate's Mark Joseph Stern also found a number of lies in Sessions' announcement and, in this 7-minute interview, he spoke of the way lies are picked up and propagated by Fox, Breitbart and other right-wing media outlets.

Browsing the Politifact site convinces one that all politicians, including the Clintons, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Polisi, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, lie, but Trump, his administration, and their supporting media have taken it to a new level.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Boeing's satellite Internet project

2,956 satellites orbiting at altitudes
of 970, 1,034 and 1,086 km at
inclinations of 45°, 55° & 88°, Source
Boeing was the prime contractor for Teledesic's failed attempt in the late 1990s.

I recently posted updates on the satellite Internet service projects of SpaceX and OneWeb. OneWeb and SpaceX have received a lot of publicity, but there is a third entry in the global satellite Internet race -- Boeing.

Boeing has applied for a license to launch a constellation of 2,956 Internet-access satellites orbiting at an altitude of 1,200 km. (In a subsequent amendment, the orbits were lowered to three different levels). They outlined a two phase plan -- the first 1,396 satellites would be operating within six years and another 1,560 would be launched within 12 years as demand justified.

There has also been speculation that Apple may be funding and collaborating with Boeing on satellite Internet-service provision. (If you follow this link, read the comments).

Small cells around Washington DC
Boeing will use beam-forming, digital processing and instantaneous handoff between overlapping satellite footprints to generate thousands of narrow spot beams, dividing the Earth's surface into 8-11 km diameter (50-95 km2) cells as illustrated here. Each cell will have 5 Ghz bandwidth and, if a cell contains both user terminals and Internet gateways, time-division algorithms will enable frequency re-use to serve both. These are very smart radios!

In reviewing the FCC filings, I was struck by the degree of cooperation between the competitors. When Boeing proposed 1,200 km orbits, OneWeb filed a comment saying that would interfere with their design which also called for 1,200 km orbits. In response, Boeing met with OneWeb and altered their plan, lowering altitudes to 970, 1,082 and 1,030 km.

There were also concerns that waivers Boeing requested might lead to radio interference and SpaceX responded by stating that:
The Commission should encourage systems that facilitate spectrum sharing among licensed users. The waivers Boeing seeks will help to build a sensible regulatory environment for NGSO operations while honoring the goals of the rules at issue.
These companies value engineering as well as business. (Tesla has shared their patents -- might SpaceX do the same)?

In researching this post, I came across two other Boeing filings -- one for 60 high-altitude satellites (shown here) and another for a low-Earth constellation of 132 satellites and 15 high-altitude satellites. I imagine these smaller constellations will complement the larger constellation somehow, but have not been able to learn how they will interact.

Sixty high-altitude satellites launched in three phases: the Amercas, Europe
and Africa and Asia and Australia. Click to enlarge. (source)

Boeing, OneWeb and SpaceX are from different generations. OneWeb and SpaceX are relatively recent startups and Boeing is venerable. The startups may have less legacy overhead and have gotten off to a faster start, but Boeing has been thinking about providing Internet service using a satellite constellation for over twenty years -- they were the prime contractor for Teledesic's failed attempt in the late 1990s.

We have three potential global Internet service providers -- SpaceX, OneWeb and Apple(?)/Boeing. I hope they all succeed, giving us some competition in the Intenet service market. That might one day help current Internet customers who have only one choice for their service provider (like me) but it would surely be a boon for people with no terrestrial Internet access today.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Internet speeds politics up and we are suffering are suffering from attention-deficit disorder.

He spent over a third of the speech attacking the "dishonest", "crooked", "fake" media -- 3,215 out of a total of 8,833 words. That is frightening.

Trump gave a speech yesterday in Phoenix and this morning, the transcript was online. In less than an hour, I was able to read it and do a little analysis.

The 77-minute speech included 105 pauses for applause and 13 interruptions for booing the media and others -- Trump was energized by the enthusiastic crowd. It was a typical campaign speech in which he assailed Obama care, illegal immigrants, Democrats, trade deals, the Senate; praised tough law enforcement and the wall and bragged about creating jobs, stopping crime, etc. Here is a particularly hyperbolic example:

Can you imagine, in this day and age -- in this day and age in this country, we are liberating towns. This is like from a different age. We are taking these people. They don't shoot people because it's too fast and not painful. They cut them up into little pieces. These are animals. We are getting them out of here. We're throwing them in jails, and we're throwing them out of the country. We're liberating our towns.

But two things stood out for me. He spent over a third of the speech attacking the "dishonest", "crooked", "fake" media -- 3,215 out of a total of 8,833 words. That is frightening.

He also devoted 409 words to the "absolutely necessary" border wall. (When he turned to the topic, the crowd applauded and chanted "Build that wall! Build that wall! Build that wall!"). He called out the Democratic obstructionists and threatened to shut down the government in order fund the wall. Mexico paying for the wall is evidently off the table after his embarrassing call to the Mexican President.

That was evidently the start of a wall building campaign/distraction because I got an email from
this morning asking me to sign a petition calling on the Senate to fund the wall:

Naturally, I "signed" the petition (using the name "Jim Jones" -- they do not check) and was redirected to, where I was asked for a contribution.

I cannot say that surprised me since I receive an average of more than one Trump contribution solicitation per day.

For better or worse, the Internet gives us machine-readable access to presidential speeches (and tweets), allowing us to quickly analyze and digest them. The downside is that they distract us from more mundane news about meaningful actions like changes in enforcement of immigration and drug laws or environmental regulation. We are suffering from attention-deficit disorder.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

OneWeb satellite Internet project status update

The OneWeb mission is to bridge the digital divide globally by 2027
Greg Wyler, 2017 Softbank World conference

Whoever gets the most data wins.
Masayoshi Son, 2017 Softbank World conference

Satellites in 18 orbital planes
SpaceX and OneWeb are formidable, experienced competitors in a race to become global Internet service providers using satellite constellations -- routers in space. I posted a status report on SpaceX last week, now let's look at OneWeb.

OneWeb founder and executive chairman Greg Wyler has extensive experience with networking in developing nations. In 2003 his company, Terracom, signed a contract to connect Rwandan schools, government institutions, and homes. They failed to meet their goal, and the difficulty of dealing with terrestrial infrastructure led Wyler to focus on satellite connectivity.

In 2007, he founded O3b Networks (Other 3 billion), which today provides high-speed connectivity to Internet service providers and phone companies using a constellation of 12 satellites orbiting at 8,012 km above the equator. (The geosynchronous satellites used for TV transmission and Internet access in remote areas orbit 35,786 km above the equator). In spite of its name, O3b was not going to connect the entire world and Wyler founded OneWeb in 2012, with the mission of bridging the digital divide, which he hopes to do by 2027.

Satellites will be mass-produced,
reducing cost and cutting production
time significantly.
OneWeb and SpaceX have the same goal, but their organizations are dissimilar. SpaceX is integrated -- building the rockets, satellites and ground stations themselves -- while OneWeb has partners that bring skills and funds to the project. For example, Qualcomm will design and supply communication chips and Airbus will manufacture satellites.

OneWeb also has a symbiotic relationship with Softbank, their largest investor. SoftBank's Vision Fund has invested $1 billion in OneWeb and OneWeb plays a strategic role in SoftBank's vision of the future.

SoftBank founder and CEO Masayoshi Son outlined his vision of the future in the keynote session ofth the 2017 SoftBank World conference. He believes the information revolution will be driven by strong, general artificial intelligence (AI), therefore the key material asset for the information age will be AI training data -- "whoever gets the most data wins."

Low-cost, user-installable
terminals will support WiFi, cell
phones, and the Internet. Solar panels
and batteries are optional.
Several Vision Fund investments focus on collecting that training data from Internet of things (IoT) devices. They have invested in ARM, which dominates the IoT and smartphone processor markets, Nvidia which makes processors used in AI, Boston Dynamics which is building intelligent robots and, you guessed it, OneWeb, which will link 1 trillion IoT devices to AI projects.

Wyler and representatives of some other Vision Fund companies made presentations during the keynote. Here is a summary of what Wyler said:
  • They have priority rights to 3.55 GHz of globally harmonized spectrum for non-geostationary satellites. (They also have a technique for avoiding interference with geo-stationary satellites when over the equator).
  • They will have 49 satellites in each of 18, 1,200 km orbital planes.
  • With Airbus, they have devised a novel satellite manufacturing process that will allow mass production rather than hand building.
  • Cost per satellite will be under $1 million and they will be able to produce three per day.
  • They will connect both Internet gateways and end users.
  • The first satellites will have a capacity of 595 Mbps, but that will increase to over 1 Gbps. (More on capacity below).
  • Latency will be under 50 ms, making interactive applications like 5G mobile telephony, game playing and Web surfing possible.
The following is a video (9:43) of his presentation:

(You can see the entire keynote session with presentations by several Vision Fund companies (2:12:15) here or just Son's introduction, outlining his Vision Fund strategy (30:17) here).

Satellite footprint 1,080 by 1,080 km
System capacity is a key variable. OneWeb claimed satellite throughput would be "up to" 7.5 Gbps in a June 2016 presentation to the ITU, but Wyler quoted much lower capacity in his Softbank talk. (I've asked OneWeb for clarification on this change, but have not received a reply. I will update this post if and when I do).

That revised capacity estimate may explain Wyler's February 2017 statement that they had sold a considerable portion of the capacity of their planned constellation. The following month they filed an application with the FCC for an additional 720 satellites orbiting at 1,200 km and 1,280 orbiting at 8,500 km. The 720 satellite constellation application has been approved.

I have no idea what their planned customer mix is. They will presumably serve relatively few Internet gateways, but those will require considerable bandwidth. End users like homes and schools will require less bandwidth, but there will be more of them. There will be large numbers of IoT devices, but they will require little bandwidth. Population densities also vary greatly -- between urban and rural areas, continents and islands and, in the extreme, ships at sea. 1 Gbps will go a lot further in Alaska than Bangladesh.

OneWeb seems to be ahead of SpaceX's schedule. They plan to launch their first satellites in March 2018. (That will satisfy the ITU requirement that they are using their spectrum). They will begin offering service in Alaska in 2019 and hope to cover all of Alaska by the end of 2020. By 2025 they expect to have 1 billion subscribers and their mission is to eliminate the global digital divide by 2027.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Annals of sleazy political fundraising

This morning, sent me an email offering a chance to enter a lottery for a trip to a Trump rally:

The email greeted me as "friend" and was signed by Trump himself. Trump said the winner would be flown to the rally and have his or her picture taken with him. (He did not say anything about per diem or a stay at a Trump hotel. I wonder if it would be a business class flight.)

I clicked on the Enter Now button and was taken to the solicitation page at

I checked, and it turns out that the domain name belongs to "THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION" (their caps).

I wonder how the receipts for those contributions are divided up.

Update 8/17/2017

I just got another offer to enter the raffle for a trip to a rally. This one is telling me I better hurry to donate because the deadline for entering the drawing is drawing near: "All it takes is ANY CONTRIBUTION before 11:59 PM, Friday, August 18, 2017, to be entered to win this once-in-a-lifetime chance".

Trump is shameless.


I get these offers every day since I am on Trump's email list, but this one stands out. It came from Trump Headquarters and is addressed to friend.

Trump HQ says that "Just like before the election, we don’t trust the approval polls of President Trump that the media continue to put out ... Instead, we want to hear straight from you (italics in the original).

The poll asks only one question (there is a textbox for an optional comment).

I submitted an empty form -- no vote and no comment -- but I was still thanked and asked to contribute a suggested amount between $25 and $2,700 one time or, optionally, on a monthly recurring basis. The old $1 option has been replaced by "other" -- evidently, too many people were only giving a cheesy $1.

Does anyone believe this is an unbiased poll? Does Trump think his supporters are dumb enough to consider this a legitimate poll? I guess the answers must be "yes" or they would not keep sending this sort of thing out.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Are all politicians this blatant and all contributors this naive?

Last Saturday, Newt Gingrich sent me an email inviting me to the President's Trust. Newt said I had to act quickly because the membership list was being sent to the White House at midnight. Here's the invitation:

When I clicked on the link to join the Trust, Newt asked me for a donation. He suggested amounts a lot higher than $1 and offered me the chance to make it a recurring donation:

The next day, I got an invitation to take a survey to show the liberal fake news outlets how out of touch with the truth they were on immigration.

I took the survey and, when I submitted it, got another request for a donation. It looked a lot like Newt's.

This is my first experience with a political mailing list and I have a couple questions:

  • Is this typical -- have other presidents requested donations this frequently and this early in their terms?
  • If so, is the childish deception in these offers typical?
  • Outside of Trump's base "base," are people naove enough to fall for this sort of thing?
  • Who actually gets the money?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

SpaceX satellite Internet project status update

If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will be offering global Internet connectivity by 2024.

SpaceX orbital path schematic, source
I've been following the efforts of SpaceX and OneWeb to become global Internet service providers using constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites for some time. Launch times are getting close, so I'm posting a status update on SpaceX's project. (I'll do the same for OneWeb in a subsequent post).

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing titled “Investing in America’s Broadband Infrastructure: Exploring Ways to Reduce Barriers to Deployment” on May 3, 2017, and one of the expert witnesses was Patricia Cooper, SpaceX Vice President, Satellite Government Affairs.

She began her oral testimony with a description of SpaceX and its capability and went on to outline the disparities in broadband availability and quality and the domestic and global broadband market opportunities.

Next she presented their two-stage plan. The first, LEO, satellite constellation will consist of 4,425 satellites operating in 83 orbital planes at altitudes ranging from 1,110 to 1,325 km. They plan to launch a prototype satellite before the end of this year and a second one during the early months of 2018. They will start launching operational satellites in 2019 and will complete the first constellation by 2024.

The LEO satellites launched in the first phase of the project will enable SpaceX to bring the Internet to all underserved and rural areas of the Earth. If all goes according to plan, SpaceX will be offering global Internet connectivity by 2024. These satellites may also have an advantage over terrestrial networks for long-range backhaul links since they will require fewer router hops, as shown in the following illustration comparing a terrestrial route (14 hops) with a satellite route (5 hops) between Los Angeles and a University in Punta Arenas, Chile (The figure is drawn to scale).

Ms. Cooper also said they had filed for authority to launch a second constellation of 7,500 satellites operating closer to the Earth -- in very low Earth orbit (VLEO). A 2016 patent by Mark Krebs, then at Google, now at SpaceX, describes the relationship between the two constellations.

I don't have dates for the second constellation, but the satellite altitudes will range from 335.9 to 345.6 km. (The International Space Station orbits at 400 km). These satellites will be able to provide high-speed, low-latency connectivity because of their low-altitude orbits. Coverage of the two constellations will overlap, allowing for dynamic handoffs between them when desirable. When this second constellation is complete, SpaceX might be able to compete with terrestrial networks in densely populated urban areas.

These VLEO satellites might also be used for Earth imaging and sensing applications and a bullish article by Gavin Sheriden suggests they may also connect all Tesla cars and Tesla solar roofs.

Very low Earth orbit (VLEO) satellites have smaller footprints,
but are faster and have lower latency times than higher
altitude satellites. Image Source

Ms. Cooper concluded her testimony with a discussion of administrative barriers they were encountering and listed six specific policy recommendation. You can see her full written testimony here. The entire hearing is shown below and Ms. Cooper's testimony begins at 13:54.

I will follow this post with a similar update on OneWeb, SpaceX's formidable competitor in the race to become a global Internet service provider using satellites.

Global connectivity is a rosy prospect, but we must ask one more question. Success by either or both of these companies could, like the shift from dial-up to broadband, disrupt the Internet service industry. As of July/August, 1997, there were 4,009 ISPs in North America and today few people in the United States have more than two ISP choices. Might we end up with only one or two global Internet service providers and, if so, what sort of regulation, if any, would be beneficial?

Update 9/21/2017

Evidently SpaceX will name their satellite Internet service Starlink. They applied to trademark the name last month and described the service as follows:

Update 9/27/2017

The SpaceX Internet service project hit a roadblock yesterday when the FCC voted to delay it due to fear of radio interference with OneWeb and Telesat satellites. Like SpaceX, OneWeb is planning to provide Internet service with a constellation of low-Earth orbiting satellites and they and Telesat have reserved International Telecommunication Union (ITU) priority rights to spectrum SpaceX plans to use.

OneWeb technique to avoid inference
with geostationary satellites (source)
ITU priority does not mean they have exclusive use of their frequencies and it is not a permanent designation, but SpaceX will have to work out a spectrum-sharing scheme that OneWeb and Telesat agree to. OneWeb has already patented a technique they say will avoid interference with Telesat's geostationary satellites, which orbit at much higher altitudes around the equator.

I am not an expert in such matters, but it seems that we are at the start of a transition from exclusive spectrum rights to an era of unlicensed spectrum (like WiFi) and spectrum sharing. This fundamental shift will enable efficient use of spectrum (on Earth and in space). It is reminiscent of the shift from circuit-switching to packet-switching and will take years to complete.

I understand OneWeb's desire to delay the SpaceX project for business reasons, but they seem to be on the wrong side of the technology trend in this case and delaying SpaceX is not in the best interest of society.

For more on this ruling and its implications, click here.

Update 9/29/2017

Elon Musk gave a terrific talk on SpaceX's plan to go to Mars yesterday. He plans to send two 150-ton cargo loads to Mars in 2022 and send four -- two with cargo and two with people -- in 2024. He focused on technology advances that will enable those Mars trips, going to the Moon and intercity travel on Earth. He did not mention the satellite-Internet project, but those technology advances will also cut the cost of Internet satellite launches.

Reliable reusability makes BFR launches cheaper than others.
The key to reducing cost is their shift to a new rocket, called, for now, the Big F***ing Rocket or BFR. The BFR will carry a 150-ton payload (10 times that of their current Falcon 9) and have an extra landing-guidance engine for reliable reusability. (They have now successfully landed 16 straight boosters with only one engine). As shown here, marginal cost per BFR launch will be the lowest of all SpaceX rockets, which are cheaper than any others.

Musk said they would soon begin soft-landing and reusing second stage rockets as well as boosters and he suggested that the BFR and its reusable second stage may be able to retrieve spent satellites in the future.

I don't know how many Internet satellites will fit in a BFR 150-ton payload module, but the BFR may give SpaceX a cost advantage over competitors OneWeb and Boeing. (Note that Boeing is also planning a Mars mission, so they may have something novel up their sleeve).

For more on the BFR see this post.

You can see a number of the slides from Musk's talk here and I heartily recommend watching the talk:

Update 10/17/2017

SpaceX has applied for FCC approval to test satellite communication using radios on two buildings in Redmond Washington. The ground station equipment will be mounted on the SpaceX satellite research and development building shown here and the communications equipment that will eventually be in test satellites will be on top of a tall building about 6 km away. You can read more on the application and test on Reddit.

SpaceX satellite research and development building

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Tesla Model 3 -- two inflection points

"It's actually even more important to design the factory than it is to design the product itself."
"Expect Level 5 autonomy in "about two years."
(Tesla CEO Elon Musk, video interview below)

Telsa will begin deliveries of their Model 3 tomorrow and I think that might mark two inflection points -- one in the maunufacture of electric-powered cars and the other in their autonomous control. To put the Model 3 in context, consider two earlier automotive inflection points, the Models T and A Fords.

Model T runabout
The first mass-market car was the Model T Ford, which began production in 1908. Ford was able to produce large numbers of Model Ts and sell them at a relatively low price because they were mass produced on an assembly line, which reduced cost and increased production rate significantly. Ford sold 10,666 Model Ts in 1909. The runabout (roadster) sold for $825 and the four-seat touring car was $850. Over the years, they refined the design and added sedan and coupe models, but by 1927 sales were falling and competitors were offering new features. Ford stopped Model T production and retooled to produce the Model A.

Model A roadster
The Model A began production October 20, 1927, and went on sale December 2. (They called it the "1928" Model A). The Model A offered more models than the Model T and a choice of colors. The mechanical design improved in many ways over the Model T and the driver controls were similar to those of today. If you know how to drive a stick-shift car today, you would be at home in a Model A, but would have to be taught how to drive a Model T. The Model A was a mass-produced, modern car and Ford had plants in Argentina, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom as well as the US.

So, why do I think the Model 3 might be as significant as the Models T and A?

Manufacturing strategy and scale

Gigafactory capacity projection (source)
Ford pioneered the assembly line in a vertically integrated factory and Tesla also hopes to transform the manufacturing process. The size and design of their Gigafactory is unprecedented.

When complete, Gigafactory 1 will be 6 million square feet, making it the biggest building in the world by footprint and second only in volume to the Boeing factory in Washington state. It will produce batteries for homes, vehicles and power companies as well as the Model 3 powertrain -- the motor and gearbox assembly. Final assembly of Model 3s will be done in a separate automotive plant, but they expect subsequent Gigafactories to incorporate the entire auto assembly.

Tesla views a factory as a machine for making machines and they have approached its design as one would approach the design of a multilayer chip. They hope to be able to improve the factory "clock speed" and "density" over time, leading to a 30% cost savings compared to other battery factories. Tesla's manufacturing strategy was outlined in this presentation at the introduction of Gigafactory 1:

Gigafactory 1 output will ramp up as it is built out and, by 2020, they expect its output to exceed 2013 global battery production. They plan to announce three or four more Gigafactories this year, one of which will probably be in China.

Tesla's "wall of patents"before
and after (image source)
Tesla's intellectual property policy is also innovative. On June 12th, 2014 they released their 249 patents, saying they would not sue anyone for using their technology in "good faith." As shown here, they took down the plaques on their "wall of patents" after releasing them, replacing them with an image and the slogan "OEMS all our patent are belong to you." (I think Yoda wrote that for them). It seems that Elon Musk sees other car and battery manufacturers as collaborators in the effort to rapidly achieve conversion to sustainable energy -- he realizes he cannot do it by himself.

Autonomous Control

Many auto manufacturers are working toward self-driving cars, but Tesla seems to be leading the pack. Elon Musk outlined the planned roadmap for the Model 3 in the following interview:

(If you are in a hurry, the discussion of Tesla cars and trucks begins about 11 minutes 10 seconds into the interview, but I'd recommend listening to the entire interview, which also covers boring tunnels, solar roofs, SpaceX and Mars).

Level 5 autonomy
Musk says the Model 3 will come with sensor hardware that will enable them to achieve level 5 automation, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE): "the full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver." (Follow this link or check this graphic for the definition of SAE's autonomy levels).

Those sensors will enable an autonomous cross-country drive this year. Musk says "November or December of this year, we should be able to go all the way from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York, no controls touched at any point during the entire journey." He added that it could have been any two cities on the highway system in a given country "We could change it and make it Seattle-Florida, that day, in real time. So you were going from LA to New York; now go from LA to Toronto." (I wonder if it would work in nations where they drive on the left side of the street).

But that demonstration drive pales in ambition compared to his prediction that, barring regulatory constraints, they will release a software update that brings the Model 3 up to Level 5 autonomy in "about two years."

Other manufacturers are less optimistic -- why might Tesla have a lead over the others?

The artificial neural net technology employed in autonomous vehicles depends upon software design, fast hardware, and access to relevant data. Musk has made several investments in artificial neural net companies, including Go champion DeepMind, and he says his aim is not a financial return but keeping abreast of developments in the field.

That would keep him at least even with possible automotive competitors in hardware and software design, and he has a definite data-collection lead. Tesla vehicles have been online and collecting data for several years. From their inception, Teslas were conceived of as "platforms" for downloadable control software as well as data-collection input devices.

The Model T Ford was the first mass-market car and it had little competition for some time. While the Model 3 may be innovative it, like the Model A Ford, already has competition like the relatively low-cost Chevrolet Bolt and virtually all auto manufacturers are introducing electric or hybrid vehicles. (Chinese owned Volvo has announced that all the models it introduces starting in 2019 will be either hybrids or fully electric).

Of course, Elon Musk predicting radically improved manufacturing or Level 5 autonomy in two years, does not guarantee he will achieve those goals, but do you want to bet against someone who has made landing used rockets on barges at sea a somewhat routine event?

Monday, July 03, 2017

The long memory of the Internet -- Trump then and now

The Internet has a long memory -- check for yourself by googling "early Trump interviews" and filtering for videos.

In the early days of the Intenet, we naively expected its political impact to be rosy -- leading to informed, intelligent discussion and a flowering of democracy. Many of us held on to that vision as we watched the use of the Internet during the "Arab Spring," but our optimism has eroded steadily since that time. Terrorist recruiting, fake news and lying politicians have dominated recent discussion of the political impact of the Internet, but I have some good news -- the Internet has a long, albeit imperfect, memory.

This was driven home for me by a recent segment on John Oliver's TV show Last Week Tonight. After Donald Trump fired FBI Directory James Comey, he tweeted that he might have recordings of their three previous meetings. Oliver showed and commented on a Fox News interview of Trump after he admitted that he had not recorded the meetings.

Watching the interview, I was amazed by the incoherence of Trump's speech and his dull expression and tone. His wife, who was standing beside, him seemed frozen. I was so impressed by his incoherence that I searched for the clip online and downloaded and transcribed it.

Oliver introduced the interview segment by stating that:
You may remember back in May Trump suggested on Twitter that he may have tapes of his conversations with deposed FBI director James Comey. Well, on Thursday, Trump finally admitted that he had no such tapes and offered this rationale for his claim.

Here is the Transcript of Trump's explanation:

Trump: Well, if I didn't tape him you'd never know what's happening when you see that the Obama administration and perhaps longer than that was doing all of this unmasking and surveillance that you read all about it and I've been reading about it for the last couple of months about the seriousness of the and the horrible situation with surveillance all over the place and you've been hearing the word unmasking, a word you probably never heard before, so you never know what's out there, but I didn't tape and I don't have any tape and I didn't tape.

(Oliver jokes)

Trump continues:When he found out that uh I you know that there may be tapes out there, whether its government tapes or anything else and who knows, I think his story may have changed. I mean you'll have to take a look at that because then he has to tell what actually took place at the events and my story didn't change, my story was always a straight story. My story was always the truth, but you have to determine for yourself whether or not his story changed, but i did not take.

Interviewer: That was a smart way to make sure he stayed honest in his hearings.

Trump: Well, uh, it wasn't uh it wasn't very stupid I can tell you that.

(Oliver jokes)
You can see interview (2:47) along with Oliver's commentary here:

Trump's self-defeating incoherence led me to wonder if he might be mentally impaired, so I searched for other examples online and it turns out that Trump's speech patterns today are strikingly different than when he was younger. For example this survey article compares clips of Trump's earlier interview responses with those of today. Experts interviewed for the article agree that Trump's speech has deteriorated, but all qualified their observations by pointing out that one could not determine the cause without clinical examination -- it could be the onset of dementia, but it could also be explained by normal healthy aging, being tired, stress and pressure, or it might even be a strategic appeal to relatively uneducated voters. I'd throw in narcissism and obsession with Obama as well.

Regardless, the Internet has a long memory -- check for yourself by googling "early Trump interviews" and filtering for videos.

update 7/4/2017

An article in the Atlantic Monthly posits another possible reason for Trump's mental decline, citing research showing that power can lead to a leader's loss of mental capacity -- a phenomenon one researcher refers to as "hubris syndrome."

I experienced this personally when I spent a year and a half as a consultant to the CEO of a large corporation. I was in many meetings with the CEO and various managers and vendors. People jockeyed to sit next to him around a conference table and seldom disagreed with anything he said. It was a status symbol to refer to him by his first name. I had the strong impression that being in a status bubble all day for years had made him somewhat narcissistic and overconfident.

Similarly, Trump is the boss in business and a fan of his cheering, enthusiastic base at political rallies. Perhaps he cannot conceive of being wrong, resulting in flustered incoherence when he is criticized or asked a probing question. Few people would have a sufficiently strong character, sense of purpose or justice not to be affected by being surrounded by "yes people" for years.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The political implications of the Internet, with an emphasis on the last election

I teach a class on Internet applications, implications, and technology and last semester one of our foci was the impact of the Internet on the election. I recently gave a two-hour lecture on the topic, pulling together material we had covered chronologically during the semester. These are the topics covered in the lecture:

  • Historical context
  • Lying
  • Fact checking
  • Fake news for money
  • Fake news for politics
  • Fake images
  • Trump dominated social media
  • More historical context - disillusion
  • Non-political consequences
  • Hacking USA
  • The Internet is ephemeral
  • Breitbart – “alt right” press
  • Money behind the scenes
  • Europe
  • (Imperfect) fixes
  • Future fake media
I created a PowerPoint deck for the lecture. The slides are fairly simple -- typically a mnemonic image, a few words and perhaps a food-for-thought question (as illustrated below) -- but they also have notes and links to sources for those wishing to study the material further.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Crooked Media -- my new favorite podcast emporium

If you are a Republican Trump supporter and listen to a full Crooked Media episode, I will listen to a podcast episode of your choice.

Crooked Media, which produces several political podcasts, was started by Jon Favreau, Barack Obama’s head speechwriter from 2005–2013, Jon Lovett, previously a speechwriter for Hillary Clinton and President Obama and Tommy Vietor, who spent nearly a decade as a spokesman for President Obama, specializing in foreign policy and national security issues. They are highly qualified and well connected so are able to attract high-ranking interview guests from government and academia.

They started Crooked Media because they "couldn’t find a place to talk about politics the way actual human beings talk" and are unabashed, but critical, Democrats. Their motto is "Do Something -- Tweets are not The Resistance" and they have plans to go beyond podcasting.

This might sound kind of wonky and dull, but it is actually wonky and funny and relaxed -- you really need to check them out. Not convinced? Check out the following excerpts from two interviews conducted by Tommy Vietor on his foreign policy podcast, PodSavetheWorld.

To whet your appetite, I created two excerpts dealing with US-Cuba policy. (I chose these excerpts because they are typical of Crooked Media interviews and I have an interest in Cuba).

One excerpt is from an interview of Dan Restrepo, who served as a top Latin America advisor to President Obama. Restrepo had written a Cuban-rapprochement roadmap for candidate Obama during his first campaign and he returned to the topic in 2013. He says Obama was playing a "long game," knowing that his executive authority was limited and he could not move faster than US public opinion. Restrepo characterizes Obama's strategy as a bet that by creating a degree of freedom among the Cuban people, for example by expanding reparations and undermining Castro's excuse of blaming all problems on the Evil Empire, the Cuban government would be forced to change. He noted that the blame-US game was a hard sell after the Cuban people saw the Evil Emperor, who looked more like them than the current Cuban leaders, giving a speech on TV or at a baseball game with Raúl Castro.

The excerpt (14:20) is here and the full podcast (48:37) here.

The second excerpt is from an interview of Ben Rhodes, who served as a speechwriter and emissary for President Obama and was one of two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba. Rhodes and his colleague Ricardo Zuniga traveled to Canada for 12-15 secret meetings with Cuban representatives while working out the rapprochement details. At the start, they were only negotiating for the release of Alan Gross because Obama reasoned that rapprochement would be politically unacceptable if Gross remained in a Cuban prison. Early in the negotiation for Gross, they realized more was possible and the scope of the discussion broadened. Only a few people in the White House knew of these negotiations, but the Vatican was informed early and played a key role. (If you are unfamiliar with the Alan Gross case, click here).

The excerpt (11:30) is here and the full podcast (1:00:48) is here.

Even if you are a Republican Trump supporter, check out Crooked Media's podcasts. (If you are a Republican Trump supporter and listen to a full Crooked Media episode, I will listen to a podcast episode of your choice).