SpaceX taking risks to become satellite internet provider
Successful rocket reusability brings company financial improvement
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX, the upstart California company that brought the world reusable rockets and dramatically lower launch costs, now has plans to beam broadband internet from space to consumers around the world, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.
Why would a rocket manufacturer want to get into the broadband internet business? The hope is to create a cash cow that would enable its founder, industrial superstar Elon Musk, to compete with his arch rival, fellow billionaire and space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, in the race to make humanity a "multi-planetary species."
But the risk, some industry analysts say, is huge and Musk may be betting his company's future on the effort.
Last month, SpaceX's vice president of satellite government affairs, Patricia Cooper, told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that the company is aiming to launch 4,425 small satellites on Falcon 9 rockets to fully deploy a constellation to low Earth orbit by 2024. The proposal also included an additional 7,518 satellites in orbital planes even closer to the ground.
The aim is to transmit global internet connectivity to billions of users on the ground through a network of small, smart satellites without digging trenches, laying cables or dealing with property rights. With several companies aiming to launch similar satellite constellations, SpaceX could take a slice of the market. The company already operates a satellite development office near Seattle to make the dream a reality.
Musk's launch services company operates in an industry with ever-present risks and high costs. Successes with his Falcon 9 rocket's reusability have provided some financial improvements, experts say, but the launch industry isn't known as a money-maker. At least not enough of one to fulfill Musk's dream of establishing a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, which will cost billions.
If interplanetary ambitions are to become reality, SpaceX will likely need a major source of income, something Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and his launch company, Blue Origin, already have. Bezos boasted at a space convention earlier this year that his business model involves little more than him selling a billion dollars a year of his Amazon stock, which topped $1,000 a share this week.
Some experts see the challenges facing SpaceX – federal regulations, costs and competitors, to name a few – as surmountable, but the massive barrier of entry to the satellite broadband market could mean slimmer profits than expected. Musk may also be late to the game as several companies, most notably OneWeb, which has a Florida manufacturing plant under construction and plans to launch its first satellites in May 2018, have made clear their satellite broadband intentions.
Others agree that the gambit is a risk with potentially massive rewards that could propel Musk's company to the lucrative field of satellite operations and, ultimately, the red planet itself.
Could Musk, who has already disrupted the automobile and space industry, pull this off?
"They're betting the house on this," said Richard Rocket, CEO and co-founder of NewSpace Global, an information service provider that tracks the space industry.
SpaceX declined to comment for this story.
Since its founding in 2002, SpaceX's long-term mission has been to make humanity a "multi-planetary species." For Musk, that means the establishment of a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.
Chris Quilty, president of Quilty Analytics, a St. Petersburg-based research and consulting firm that focuses on the satellite and space industry, believes satellite communications could provide a financial vehicle for Musk to start funding the trip, Florida Today reported.
"If you're in the space business and you're saying, 'Where's the revenue?' it's in satellite communications," he said. "So that's naturally the part of the industry where he's decided to create a business model."
The Satellite Industry Association's latest report agrees: Global revenues were up by 3 percent from 2014 to 2015, bringing the total value of the industry to $208 billion. Launch services, also calculated in the SIA report, is a sliver of that total at $5.4 billion.
Even if the billionaire entrepreneur controlled 100 percent of the launch industry, Quilty said, it's still not enough to fund what he needs to do.
SpaceX will no doubt need many billions of dollars to approach Mars, a point Musk discussed during a Sept. 2016 International Astronautical Federation conference in Guadalajara, Mexico. He reiterated the need for continued cost reduction and hoped to get the per-person to around $200,000 with the goal of transporting a million people.
Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that SpaceX posted a loss in 2015 after a launch mishap during an International Space Station resupply mission and was vulnerable to further dips in the event of failures. The report described the company as having a "thin bottom line," solidifying the need for a profitable satellite constellation.
Profit margins are especially slim on launch vehicles, Rocket said, noting that SpaceX's advances with Falcon 9 reusability have improved the numbers. He expects the margins to be even better with Falcon Heavy, the company's 27-engine vehicle slated to launch for the first time from Kennedy Space Center later this year.
Those achievements aside, Rocket believes SpaceX wouldn't be pursuing the constellation if its leaders weren't confident about the potential.
"The real money to be made in the near term is in the very terrestrial, existing market of four billion people not having access to internet," Rocket said.
Taking advantage of reusability and its position as the lowest-cost launch operator in the industry, SpaceX has an obvious advantage when it comes to launching its proposed broadband constellation. If extra capacity is available during a customer launch, SpaceX could even launch its own small satellites on those missions.
If there's one issue that can quickly end SpaceX's – or any other company's – efforts into building wireless systems, it's spectrum.
Much like two competing radio stations in the same region can't use the same frequency for broadcasts, wireless providers can't use the same frequencies, or spectrum, for their current or future satellite networks. SpaceX's efforts are futile without it.
"It's asking for several frequencies up in the V band – the 35 GHz bandwidth – which aren't currently allocated for space uses," said James Dunstan, the founder of Mobius Legal Group, an outer space and telecommunications law firm. "It's got a big hurdle there."
Dunstan said convincing the Federal Communications Commission and its international partner run by the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union, to reallocate will not be easy and could take up to five years.
Developing space-based broadband internet doesn't stop at securing spectrum and satellite deployment; systems on the ground are needed to relay those transmissions for use by customers. Cooper told the Senate panel that SpaceX would distribute to users through terminals "roughly the size of a laptop."
Additional details were sparse, but providing adequate coverage through ground equipment is a massive undertaking in and of itself.
"Even though you're sending your signal down to a box, or a moving platform like a ship, the reality is you still need customer base access," said Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida. "So partners on the ground with network can be really helpful to your overall system deployment."
If SpaceX wants to serve billions of consumers with its broadband service, which it intends to market directly, ground systems will need to be in place across the globe. It's not a small undertaking, but does bring up another issue: Can the billions without internet access afford to pay enough to make it worth the effort?
"Most developed countries already have pretty robust infrastructure," Dunstan said. "So what you're really talking about is trying to figure out how to monetize – and how to make affordable – satellite internet service in places where people don't have a lot of money."
Further, satellite constellations close to Earth require consistent maintenance due to increased atmospheric drag on their orbits. Dunstan expects that SpaceX's constellation will need satellite replacements and servicing much more often than geostationary networks.
And the field isn't without competitors. There are at least 10 companies that filed with the FCC intentions to establish their own satellite internet services. OneWeb, which already has rights and access to existing broadband spectrum, this year broke ground on a manufacturing facility at Kennedy Space Center's Exploration Park. A joint venture between OneWeb and Airbus Group, the company hopes to assemble more than 2,000 of its small, 330-pound satellites at KSC.
"They seem to have their act together," DiBello said. "Another indicator is the fact that you're watching some pretty savvy investors put money behind them. That wouldn't happen if they weren't answering all the due diligence questions that are the kinds of questions we used to ask."
The company recently secured a $1.2 billion investment from SoftBank, a Japanese telecommunications and internet company.
OneWeb is scheduled to launch its first 10 satellites next year on a Soyuz rocket from French Guyana and purchased future launches on Blue Origin's New Glenn rockets, which will also be constructed on the Space Coast.
Just behind OneWeb is aerospace giant Boeing. Also on the list are Audacy, Karousel, LeoSat MA, O3b (now owned by SES), Space Norway, Telesat Canada, Theia Holdings and ViaSat.
The number of these additional players further complicates the issue of spectrum for SpaceX, Dunstan said.
"We have a land rush on spectrum for these big new LEO systems," he said. "How the FCC is going to deal with it is a little unclear."
Satellite-based broadband isn't new. Current services are known for what is called "high latency," or a delay before data transfers begin, due to their distance from Earth. Their speeds are also usually slower than ground-based options and cost more.
The organizations looking to future constellations are betting on technological advancements in hardware and software to improve efficiency; closer distances to Earth to mitigate latency issues; smart satellites that can prioritize and de-prioritize regions based on demand; software that can work around spectrum issues; and reduced launch costs.
All hope that these low-Earth and very-low-Earth orbit constellations can not only deliver performance equal to terrestrial options, but to billions of people.
Of those, only SpaceX controls the ride to orbit. And if it all works, it could give Musk the capability to outcompete would-be rivals while matching Bezos' deep pockets.
"I think that Elon is somewhat envious of Bezos having that luxury and that independence and is building out a satellite constellation that targets a very existing market," Rocket said. "That could essentially allow SpaceX to have more independence, which is very important to Elon."
But taking all the above challenges into consideration, Dunstan said he doesn't see a Mars-related business plan for the constellation.
"For me to sit here today and say that a satellite constellation is going to pay for Mars, that's not going to happen," Dunstan said. "I don't see that being a cash cow given just the cost of doing it."
Musk's advantages are hard to deny: His company commands launches at the cheapest prices and has demonstrated significant technical prowess in the form of Falcon 9 reusability.
But does his celebrity status increase SpaceX's chances at success?
"I don't know about that," DiBello said. "On this one, you're talking about such a big investment of money for SpaceX. Remember, he's going to have shareholders and other gods who care about how SpaceX as a company does."
DiBello believes the company will be slow and deliberate in evaluating the business case for the constellation before fully investing in it.
Quilty, meanwhile, sees Musk's status as a boost.
"It actually gives him the ability to succeed with such a crazy endeavor where others might say it makes no sense."
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