A New Generation of Geostationary Satellites
Access to the Internet means the world’s information is at your fingertips, and it’s a superpower that mankind has been able to successfully bestow upon half the world’s population so far (except of course for the Chinese who refuse to accept Google as their Lord and Savior). We often take for granted how useful it is to ask the Internet just about anything and receive an answer, all for a fair price. During our recent foray into the Alaskan wilderness, we learned that $500 a month for broadband may not be a fair price, but it’s what the majority of rural Alaskans are stuck with. That’s all changing though because of technology, and a number of companies have banded together with plans to launch just a few satellites into orbit that will triple the bandwidth available to rural Alaskans at a third of the price.
In our last article on Affordable Broadband Internet For Everyone in Alaska, we talked about how an Alaskan company called Microcom became fed up with the fact that 39 percent of the state’s population is under-served with broadband. The founder of Microcom, Chuck Schumann, told us how he took matters into his own hands and formed a startup called Pacific Dataport which has now landed a firm contract in the many tens of millions of dollars to connect all of Alaska to broadband. It’s called the Aurora Project.
Founded in 2015, Alaskan startup Pacific Dataport has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop a project that will increase Alaska’s broadband availability by 3X while cutting prices by a third. The project involves launching two new-generation geostationary satellites that will each provide redundancy to the other while providing a broadband pipeline of 7.5 gigabits per second, enough to more than triple the broadband capacity that is available in Alaska right now. Once the new satellites are in place, Microcom will offer small business and residential retail broadband services and Pacific Dataport will handle business-to-business and wholesale broadband contracts. It’s a project that’s now underway with tens of millions of dollars invested in the seven-year operation.
While Pacific Dataport is responsible for bringing the whole project together, Mr. Schuman’s other company, Microcom, plays a key role in rolling out the broadband to the 100,000 satellite communication systems they have deployed while providing support through a customer service channel that’s received nationwide acclaim for getting customer service right. Nobody else in Alaska installs statewide at the volume that Microcom does, and they’ve won national awards for the quality of their customer service.
And one more player is involved, Astranis, which is tasked with building one of the geostationary satellites which is part of a new generation of geostationary satellites that are lighter, use less energy, and are highly configurable.
Founded in 2015, San Francisco based startup Astranis emerged from stealth in early 2018 with $13.5 million in Series A funding, led by Andreessen Horowitz, to develop a new generation of satellites that promise to improve the quality of life for people around the world by bringing them access to the world’s information. We sat down to talk to the Co-Founder and CEO of Astranis, John Gedmark, who originally hails from Kentucky, a state where more than a million people have no access to broadband Internet. A lack of broadband access is a problem worldwide, but much more problematic in the USA where people might assume such a problem would have been resolved decades ago. Mr. Gedmark believes the highest priority item here is the ability to bring value to people with a new class of satellites that can be built, launched, and operated at a lower cost than we’ve ever been able to do. Alaska is a great proving ground for the concept which plans to use smaller low-cost satellites to bring the price down.
With a prototype already in space, these small GEOstationary satellites will enable companies like Pacific Dataport to build viable business plans around serving smaller markets that could not be justified with larger, more expensive satellites. The small GEO approach is an economical way to concentrate the satellite’s capacity over a small area with high power levels. It also can be built quicker. Astranis plans to build and deploy small satellites much faster than the 3 – 5 years it takes today. Imagine an assembly line churning out satellites that can be configured in orbit. That ability to configure in orbit is something that Astranis has been working on for over three years now.
New Geostationary Satellites
The technology is called “software defined radio,” and it helps deal with the complex rules associated with how satellites operate on frequencies that are specific to location and region. The first advantage this brings is flexibility to change – while in orbit – what frequencies you’re operating on. The second key advantage is flexibility as to where you’re applying bandwidth. The old analog technologies require these settings to be pre-defined and configured while in the factory. Imagine not being able to change these settings once you’re in orbit. That lack of configurability means higher inefficiencies which translate to a higher cost to the customer.
Over 60 people are now working on the new satellite Astranis is building which includes other cool technologies like lithium-ion batteries which now have the required power density to replace traditional propellants which are used to keep a satellite in the proper location or move it in case of a space junk collision. While fuel can run out, solar panels can harvest energy from the sun and store it using hall effect thrusters to move the satellite as needed. Having a smaller satellite means less mass to move. Up until now, satellites that run out of fuel become useless. That helps explain why the number of working satellites orbiting the earth (1,738) is dwarfed by the number of satellites in space that are not working (2,897).
Astranis plans to remove all inefficiencies from the entire process of building satellites to deploying them. They’re confident that means from signature on the purchase order to launch-ready in under a year. At that point, the only constraint is how fast the newly created GEOs can get space on a rocket. If all goes as planned, Alaskans can expect to be using an Astranis satellite for broadband in under two years. It’s worth noting that Pacific Dataport plans to provide a backup satellite from another provider for contingency purposes along with the Astranis contract which is a seven-year lease of broadband capacity. Should this pilot prove to be successful, there are other areas to expand – like Western Canada.
Update 02/13/20: Astranis has raised $40 million in Series B funding to help launch its first commercial satellites, the bedrock of its future internet service offering, aimed at connecting under-served populations around the world. This brings the company’s total funding to $103.6 million to date.
35 percent of Americans — roughly 113 million people — say they don’t have broadband at home. The ability for all Americans to access broadband Internet ought to take priority over the desire to capture 3 billion more Daily Active Users (DAUs) from places across the globe where there are more pressing needs on the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Pacific Dataport forecasts demand in Alaska to be massive because bandwidth has been constrained for so long, both on price and availability. The combined efforts of these two startups promise a better life for rural Americans and that’s something we should all be able to get behind.