Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Can Elon Musk Disrupt a Significan Part of the Global Bandwidth Business?

It has been quite some time since satellites carried a significant portion of global bandwidth. That role has been assumed by the networks of optical fiber cable circling the globe, instead.

But Elon Musk wants to shake that up in the same way he wants to shake up the auto business, satellite launch business, the Hyperloop transportation system and SolarCity, the retail solar power business.  

And make no mistake: although most of the potential impact and attention will be focused on the objective to delivering Internet access to billions of people, there are other potential disruptions for the capacity industry.

Almost lost in the reporting about the proposed new venture is the potential to challenge--as crazy as it might seem--the long haul business. In fact, Musk seems to be focusing on the possibility that, over the long term, satellite displaces much of the long haul bandwidth network business now based on undersea cables.

“The long-term potential is to be the primary means of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas,” said Musk.

That will strike some as fanciful. But this is Elon Musk. He seems to specialized in commercializing “fanciful” products.

It is a scientific fact that light travels as much as 40 percent faster through a vacuum than through an optical fiber. When that can be turned into a commercial fact (content and information with up to 40 percent less latency) is the question.

The newly-announced satellite Internet venture would feature hundreds to thousands of satellites in low earth orbit. Such LEO constellations have been proposed before (Iridium and Teledesic come to mind).

Some might be skeptical that the new venture will succeed at one of its potential business models, namely providing retail Internet access to billions of people globally. Iridium and Teledesic, other touted LEO satellite networks, did not get off the ground, or survive.

For some, the more intriguing question is where LEO satellite networks could grab a significant portion of global long haul traffic. That will strike many as fanciful. But this is Elon Musk, so the question merits more than a casual dismissal.

For starters, the satellite fleet will provide its own backhaul. And if the potential base of retail users is billions of people, that could be a substantial amount of capacity in its own right. The fleet presumably will be used both to beam signals to and from the ground stations, but also possibly between the satellites in orbit.

Among the questions that will be raised is how the new venture will get rights to use spectrum.

But LEO satellites are lighter, less expensive to launch and require less operating power than geostationary satellites typically used to provide services such as DirecTV and Dish Network, for example.

In addition, LEO systems can use from smaller and presumably less-expensive ground stations. All those attributes, plus lower latency, play a part in thinking that LEO satellite fleets can solve the problem of infrastructure for billions of people not within reach of Internet access networks.

Latency performance is a major advantage. Satellite latency makes use of applications such as Skype, online gaming, and other cloud-based services a bit of a challenge.

“Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date,” Musk said. That sounds like Elon Musk.

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