SpaceX adds another 30,000 satellites to already ambitious plans

Elon Musk’s grand plan to dominate the skies just became a lot grander as another application emerges, this time to add 30,000 satellites to the SpaceX constellation.

Submitted to the ITU by the FCC on behalf of SpaceX, the paperwork would add scope for an additional 30,000 satellites on top of the 12,000 the company already has permission to launch. According to Space News, the FCC submitted 20 filings, each for 1,500 satellites at different low-earth orbits.

In recent years, satellite connectivity has proven to be an unpopular means with many telcos in developed nations turning noses up at the idea. There was an attitude present in the industry that satellites were for poorer nations who did not control the same budgets, though the industry does seem to be coming around.

At Mobile World Congress this year, several companies were touting their assets to the increasingly cash-strapped telcos. With the cost of investment in access infrastructure soaring, satellite is becoming a more popular feature of the connectivity patchwork to deliver services to those in isolated and inaccessible regions.

It does seem the ambitious Musk is backing the continuation of this trend. Apparently 12,000 satellites isn’t anywhere near enough.

Interestingly enough, reports have also emerged SpaceX is in discussions with the US army for its Starlink broadband network. High-speed, low-latency communications are a no-brainer for the army, especially when you consider the global presence of the US army, though it does appear the team is in discussion for the Starship part of the business also.

As it stands, SpaceX’s Starship is currently working with NASA as a logistics partner after the space agency retired its space shuttle programme. However, it is also suggested the army is interesting in Starship as a means to quickly move personal around the globe.

The low-orbit satellite segment is certainly starting to heat-up, and this revelation should add more fuel to the fire. Alongside SpaceX, the likes of OneWeb, Space Norway, Telesat, and Amazon are also fighting for real-estate amongst the stars. Theoretically, the low-orbit satellites should offer greater levels of performance than traditional satellites, gigabit speeds and latency less than 25 ms, though pricing has not been unveiled by the providers.

It is promising to see aggressive progress to enhance the rich tapestry of connectivity, but there are still significant hurdles to overcome. There are currently c.5,000 satellites circling the earth, of which only around 2,000 are in operation. With some very wealthy companies launching tens of thousands of satellites into the skies, each will have to prove their plans to minimize debris and prevent collisions.

As it stands, SpaceX has 60 satellites in the skies, which could be as many as 1,000 in the very near future. Considering there are only 2,000 currently in operation, the skies could become very busy in the very near future.

Africa and the economics of satellites

Last week’s AfricaCom conference had a heavy focus on satellites but how many people actually understand the economics of satellite connectivity? We didn’t, so we asked Intelsat.

The focus on satellites at the conference is an obvious one. If comparatively miniscule countries like the UK cannot justify the expense of a fibre roll-out, how on earth is a continent like Africa going to solve the connectivity problem? The connectivity challenge is bigger in terms of mileage, and progress to date. So the answer might be out-of-this-world; satellites.

This is certainly the case for South Africa. At the same conference, Deputy Minister for Telecommunications Stella Tembisa Ndabeni-Abrahams outlined her grand plan. Satellites would deliver the connectivity which is so urgently needed in the rural areas of the country, and the country has the ambitions to own and operate its own satellite. But is this ambition economically viable?

According to Brian Jakins, Regional VP of Intelsat Africa, it might not be as easy as some people think, and this is a man in the know. Intelsat currently operate 52 satellites, 26 of which provide coverage to the African continent, including three EPIC assets, one of the most advanced satellites to date.

To launch a satellite into orbit takes between two to three years, which includes the negotiations, the build time, setting up a suitable business model and booking a space on the launch platform. And it costs between £300-500 million, for an asset which will be operational for 15 years. Jakins highlighted to us the ambition should be to own and operate a satellite when the business case is there, but it can be prohibitively expensive. The Nigerian government has found this and Jakins feels it might be the case right now for South Africa. Baby steps are needed.

The business case might not be there for owning and operating exclusively for the moment, but that doesn’t mean satellites should be dismissed. When you consider joint ventures and setting up successful partnerships, it is a perfectly viable solution considering the expense of laying physical infrastructure on the continent.

The size of Africa is another scale, and until you actually visit the rural villages, you can’t appreciate the challenge. Jakins highlighted that unlike in Europe, homes in the African villages are nowhere near each other.

“I’ve been doing business here for 24 years, and I’m still an apprentice,” said Jakins.

A village might contain a couple of dozen houses, each of which would be a couple of hundred yards apart. Trenching and laying able in these areas is prohibitively expensive, just as it is to connect the hub to the rest of the network. But Africa has a huge appetite for capacity and connectivity in the rural environments.

Another challenge, which might seem obvious once you are told but few considering straight away, is electricity. Connectivity and electricity go hand-in-hand, if there isn’t the internet, there are unlikely to be electricity cables to run any new devices you put out into the field. Solar is perhaps the only option here.

Finally, you have to consider the configuration of the antenna. Right now the industry has not advanced to the stage where ‘plug and play’ is a viable option. It might not be far away, but an engineer has to be onsite to set up the antenna. So you actually have to consider how you are going to get someone to these rural sites in the first place. Ultimately, there is a lot more to think about than just firing a satellite into space.

Satellites are certainly a good thought here, but perhaps there are a few who are trying to run before they can walk. Owning and operating a satellite might not be the best idea in the first instance, but that should not stop progress of one of the only viable options to connecting the unconnected.