Tag Archives: satellite broadband

Starlink’s beta test beats DSL, but still has a long road ahead

by Steve Blum • , ,

Starlink launch

Beta testers are getting reasonable speeds from Elon Musk’s nascent Starlink satellite broadband system, according to test results posted on reddit.com. It’s faster performance than most DSL service, and in the same ballpark as older cable systems.

Reasonable, but not spectacular.

In the couple dozen results reported, download speeds were between 16 Mbps and 114 Mbps (discounting a partial measurement of 11 Mbps), with most clustered in the 40 Mbps to 60 Mbps range. Measured upload speeds varied from 5 Mbps to 42 Mbps, with 10 Mbps to 20 Mbps typical. There was a wide spread in latency – the time lag for data to make a round trip. Fastest response was 18 milliseconds and the slowest was 94 milliseconds.

Starlink is a low earth orbit (LEO) system, which means that the path up to the satellite and back down to the ground is only a few hundred miles. That means it takes a lot less time for data to get to where it’s going than it would via traditional geosynchronous satellites, which are tens of thousands of miles away.

Low earth orbit also means that the satellites move quickly overhead, and accessing them requires much more complex equipment. Each Starlink satellite is considerably smaller and less powerful than the geosynch birds. Put it all together and Starlink will certainly have serious capacity limits relative to terrestrial systems – something Elon Musk is quick to acknowledge – and it will likely have considerable variation in the speeds delivered minute to minute, as the test results imply.

Those kinds of numbers aren’t likely to win any subsidies in the Federal Communications Commission’s upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction either. Starlink is very much a work in progress. In order to move out of the proof of concept stage and into full commercial availability, the company will have to launch a lot more satellites and develop new technology. Both are doable, but neither are guaranteed.

But it’s looking like Starlink, and perhaps other LEO constellations, will have at least a supporting role to play in filling some of the world’s intractable broadband gaps.

Globalstar’s terrestrial WiFi will help satellite customers too

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Won’t have to party like it’s 1999 anymore.

Globalstar is the latest satellite operator to discover the possibility of boosting return on investment by using assigned frequencies on the ground (h/t to David Witkowski for the heads up).

Globalstar has slice of spectrum immediately adjacent to the 2.4 GHz unlicensed band that’s heavily used for WiFi. The thinking is that customers can do a quick software update to extend a WiFi device’s frequency range a bit and then use Globalstar’s channel to access the Internet via a pay wall.

They’ve asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission. Since Globalstar’s circumstances have more in common with DISH Network’s successful request to repurpose satellite spectrum than Lightsquared’s unsuccessful one, they have a reasonable chance of getting it.

By limiting the service to urban areas where there’s relatively little use of its satellite service (which is little enough used as it is), Globalstar figures to avoid interference. That means, however, that the new channel would only be available via access points installed or blessed by Globalstar. So it would be a premium service targeted to specific market segments such as business travelers, large entertainment venues or crowded urban areas.

Contrary to some speculation, this plan wouldn’t do much to relieve wireless data congestion. Although smart phone users rely heavily on WiFi off-loading, they prefer free and easy hotspots to paid services, even when they’ve already paid for those services.

There are probably enough well-heeled customers out there who would pay for a premium service that worked transparently to make the business case for Globalstar. Since it would have to closely control the technical specifications of its access points, Globalstar could design them with “just works” functionality. There’s also an incentive to add WiFi and VoIP capability to satellite phones, making Globalstar’s core products more useful.

It could be enough to save the struggling company, making it a win-win play for both terrestrial and satellite broadband customers.

Stingy data caps throttle ViaSat subscribers

by Steve Blum • , , , , ,

Download speeds don’t mean much when the price of a byte goes orbital. For the first time, a satellite Internet service provider, ViaSat, was included in the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America report. Satellite Internet subscribers live in severe broadband poverty, according to the FCC’s data.

Based just on ability to actually deliver advertized speeds, ViaSat was the clear winner in the testing. The download speeds experienced by users were, on the average, 37% better than promised. Fiber to the home systems were 15% better, cable modems were nearly at par and DSL services averaged 15% worse than advertised.

But, the FCC report pointed out, in contrast to other technologies that have high data caps and define service tier by download speed, “ViaSat offers a single service rate and provides service tiers in the form of data caps.”

As a result, the FCC data shows that satellite Internet subscribers do not receive anything close to the benefit delivered by other technologies.

“The satellite business model does not support large data caps, and this is evident in the behavior of the satellite consumers who participated in the study,” the report concluded.

Cumulative distribution of monthly user traffic, by technology. Source: FCC.

The chart above shows that the median DSL user downloaded about 17 GB of data a month, with cable and fiber customers doing about 39 GB and 35 GB a month, respectively. In clear contrast, the median ViaSat customer only received 1.2 GB per month.

ViaSat’s deficit in delivered service is even starker when you look at the heaviest users. The most that any satellite home received over the course of a month was 15 GB. In comparison, DSL customers maxed out at 807 GB and cable subs at 1.2 TB. The top fiber customers took 1.6 TB per month, more than 100 times what satellite homes received.

The California Public Utilities Commission is considering a proposal from ViaSat to subsidize satellite Internet service over a vast swath of the state, including areas that have wired broadband providers. Current rules would effectively prevent upgrades to that infrastructure for years to come.

Stranding those Californians on the wrong side of a hundred-to-one divide is the wrong thing to do.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including some that are impacted by ViaSat’s proposal. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Broadband speed matters, so does quality, quantity and cost

by Steve Blum • , , , , , ,
Tube in the 1000 Watt standby transmitter for CKCI 1350 AM Parksville. (now gone and replaced by CIBH 88.5 FM) This was once the standby transmitter for CKEG 1350 AM Nanaimo.
Copper costs pennies, glass even less.

There’s more to measuring bandwidth than simple speed. The number of bits per second a customer can send and receive is the defining characteristic of most services. But to be meaningfully compared with alternatives, solutions – particularly satellite-based ones – also have to be evaluated on other metrics such as data caps, variability, capacity limits, latency and reliability.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) did not explicitly make that distinction when they relaunched the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) infrastructure grant and loan program last year, and extended eligibility to include qualified satellite companies.

However, they did require applicants who proposed satellite-based service to “prove functionality”. Elsewhere in that decision, the commission discusses specific satellite-related issues such as latency, robustness, reliability and cost. The CPUC seems to have given itself enough leeway to consider those factors when evaluating proposals from satellite companies.

One such was filed by ViaSat earlier this month, giving the commission and its staff an opportunity – sought or not – to define what qualifies a broadband service as functional and fundable.

They should start with an independent technical evaluation of real-world service levels, including the likely speeds actually delivered when the system is fully loaded with subscribers. Latency and quality of service fluctuations should be measured, along with the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.

The next question is how to factor data caps into an assessment of speeds, and how to balance, say, effectively unlimited copper or fiber-based service with severely capped satellite packages. Bandwidth is a two-dimensional question: how fast the bits arrive and how many you can actually get.

There’s a difference between a gigabyte that costs pennies and one that costs $5 (ViaSat’s price). The CPUC has to decide if it wants to use its economic and regulatory clout to develop the former or lock some Californians into the latter.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including some that are impacted by ViaSat’s proposal. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

ViaSat’s California broadband subsidy plan targets wired homes

by Steve Blum • , , , , , ,

Viasat stakes a claim from the Klamath to the Colorado.

A satellite Internet service provider, ViaSat, asked for $11.1 million in the latest round of California Advanced Service Fund (CASF) grant requests. They want to provide subsidized broadband service over a huge swath of California that begins at the border with Mexico and runs up the western half of the state all the way to Oregon, plus a few detours to the east.

They’re not asking for money to serve every household in that area, only about 178,000. Which are presumably the homes in scattered census blocks that are eligible for funding. Some have no broadband service, but many are considered “underserved”, which means they’re currently reached by terrestrial providers.

The proposal contains little detail about what they’re asking the CPUC to pay for and what kind of a deal they’re going to offer eligible homes. Simply dividing the grant request by the number of households claimed gets a total subsidy of $62 per subscriber. But they might not be figuring that way.

Last fall, they tried and failed to get a CASF grant for a few remote and sparsely populated areas of Monterey County. Back then, they asked for $362,000 to serve about 700 homes. Which would have been a subsidy of about $500 each. If they’re thinking the same way this time, they’re only planning to sign up 22,000 customers, a take rate of about 12%.

The deal they talked about for Monterey County was vague, but would have given subsidized homes a discount – $10 was mentioned – on monthly fees that range from $50 to $130 depending on total data traffic. Those caps – 10 GB a month for the cheapest tier – are controversial. At ViaSat’s claimed download speed of 12 Mbps, it would take less than two hours to burn through a month’s allotment.

There are other problems with satellite Internet service, such as latency and performance drops due to overloading or weather. ViaSat has done some impressive engineering to mitigate those weaknesses, and would likely satisfy the average consumer on most counts.

But the economics of satellite communications make stringent data caps necessary. ViaSat’s birds might be the best on orbit, but they are very expensive and have extremely limited capacity compared to terrestrial technologies. To get a decent return on investment during a satellite’s relatively short life span, as many subscribers as possible have to be packed in. So you end up paying about $5 a gigabyte.

There’s an argument to be made that satellite bandwidth is the best that some truly remote areas can hope for. But Viasat’s land grab isn’t limited to otherwise unreachable households. Given the way the program works, many homes that can get wired or terrestrial wireless service would be ineligible for CASF funded infrastructure upgrades, now and in the future.

They would, in effect, be unnecessarily locked in to costly and parsimonious satellite service. Californians deserve better from CASF.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including some that are impacted by ViaSat’s proposal. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

We’ve got to get moving: FCC commissioner vs. DoD on freeing up government spectrum

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai wants government agencies to clear spectrum and auction it off to the mobile telecoms industry. Now. That puts him on a collision course with federal agencies, particularly the Departments of Commerce and Defense.

In his MobileCon keynote, Robert Wheeler, a USAF major general and DoD information infrastructure honcho, said that the current goal of freeing up 300 MHz of government spectrum for civilian use by 2015 and 500 MHz by 2015 is “tougher than you think” and said the people working on it are shifting focus to sharing rather than just clearing spectrum and auctioning it.

Pai doesn’t completely rule out sharing, saying “it can be a useful tool,” but it’s not a solution that will address the spectrum shortage that’s holding back private sector wireless broadband deployment.

“For goals that incentivizes investments in mobile networks, nothing beats clearing,” he said.

He takes issue with the claim by the Department of Commerce that clearing off of the 1755 to 1780 MHz band will cost $18 billion, calling it “not verified.” Instead, he points to the potential of auctions generating revenue for the federal government, saying that auctioning that band could generate $20 billion or more.

Clearing will result in more competition, Pai believes, and calls sharing “untested.” Big carriers could handle the problem of coordinating with hundreds of federal users, but not newer and smaller entrants.

Goverment spectrum isn’t the only source of commercial broadband spectrum – Pai also sees potential in broadcast, AWS and WCS allocations. But it’s a prime target. “We should use every power we have” to reach the 500 MHz goal, he said. “We’ve got to get moving.”

Enterprise mobility defined by the guy who does it for the (real) USS Enterprise

by Steve Blum • , , , , , , ,

The clearest explanation of what enterprise mobility means did not come from the line-up of B-list industry speakers who have graced the MobileCon stage this week, but from an Air Force general.

Major General Robert Wheeler is the deputy CIO for C4 and information infrastructure capabilities at the U.S. Department of Defense (c4 stands for command, control, communications and computers), and he was the final speaker at this morning’s keynote session.

Instead of a marketing department-written and legal staff-vetted multimedia presentation, Wheeler treated us to a clear and quick military-style briefing on how the DOD views mobile communications and how they intend to work with the industry.

Don’t confuse a military briefing with what you see government spokescritters doing on TV. Officers are trained to deliver life and death information to troops who will literally live or die based on how well they understand. It’s a tough audience, one that has a low tolerance for BS and a high expectation of accuracy, clarity and efficiency. Wheeler’s keynote was a good example of that genre, light on production values but direct with the facts.

Start with what DOD wants to get out of mobile communications. The goal is “a highly mobile workforce equipped with secure access to information and computing power anywhere at anytime for mission effectiveness,” according to Wheeler. That’s what enterprise mobility is, period. Doesn’t matter if you’re the First Bank of Boston or the First Infantry Division.

Part of Wheeler’s job is trying to free up 500 MHz of government spectrum for civilian uses, particularly mobile broadband service. He was direct about setting expectations, saying that at least some of the bandwidth will be shared with the mobile industry, but not completely handed over. The problem is that DOD has some very expensive hardware with long lifetimes – satellites, for example – that can’t be simply retuned to another band.

Going forward, the solution is to develop satellites and other high ticket telecommunications assets that are more frequency agile and adaptable. For now, though, everyone will just have to get along.

Wheeler seemed deadly sincere about making the military’s side of this prospective partnership work, once again driving to the heart of the matter by declaring “the strength of our nation is our economy and that is the true defense of our country.”

Any questions?


Satellite, DSL projects seek “unserved area” subsidies from CASF

Two DSL extensions and one satellite project are asking for a total of $651,622 in grant funding from the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The two DSL extensions, proposed by WillitsOnline LLC and its subsidiary company, Rural Broadband Now! LLC, would bring ADSL2+ to homes in the Westport and Boonville areas of Mendocino County. The proposals request $161,500 and $128,000 respectively. Satellite Internet provider ViaSat, Inc. is asking for $362,122 to reach about 700 homes in rural pockets of Monterey County.

The deadline for applications for projects targeting areas the CPUC defines as unserved was Monday, 1 October 2012. Only three proposals were received. A second application window closes on 1 February 2013 for projects in underserved and combined under/unserved areas.

An area is considered “underserved” by the CPUC if current broadband providers do not offer residents service of at least 6 Mbps down and 1.5 Mbps up. Service offered by mobile carriers counts in that assessment, but satellite service does not unless it’s from a project that has been previously funded by CASF (to date, there are no such projects). “Unserved” means that the only option available is either dial-up or satellite service.

ViaSat is asking CPUC to pay for customer premise equipment and installation in unserved pockets within seven census block groups in southern and coastal Monterey County. Although details haven’t been released, the general proposition is that ViaSat would offer discounted service for some period of time to CASF-subsidized households.

The Central Coast Broadband Consortium assisted ViaSat with the mapping required by the application. This help was provided as part of its CASF-funded project and is available to any prospective applicant on a neutral basis. Some CCBC members were involved in promoting the project, but the Consortium as a whole has not endorsed it.

The WillitsOnline projects are more traditional. From the applications:

WillitsOnline LLC and its subsidiary company, Rural Broadband Now! LLC, propose to deploy its Mega*Link ADSL2+ broadband service to Westport, CA. This project will employ the use of ADSL2+ to end user locations by deploying a hardened outdoor dslam colocated next to the ATT remote terminal that serves the Westport area. Middle mile connectivity will be provided by wireless microwave communications. Maximum attainable speeds will reach 24mbps down / 2mbps up, with initial service plans available of up to 6mbps down and 1mbps up.

WillitsOnline LLC and its subsidiary company, Rural Broadband Now! LLC, propose to deploy its Mega*Link ADSL2+ broadband service to Boonville, CA. This project will employ the use of ADSL2+ to end user locations by deploying in the ATT Central Office serving the area, and using a DWDM fiber middle mile component on leased dark fiber. Speeds available will reach 24mbps down and 2mbps up, with various service plans available tailored for business, residential and commercial users.

CASF also offers a loan program, but no loan applications were filed. The three grant proposals are subject to eligibility challenges by other providers. The challenge window is open for about three weeks. If no challenges are received, the expectation is that CPUC staff will provide their initial response by mid-November, while responses to challenges would come in early December.

Download application summaries:

ViaSat for Monterey County

WillitsOnline for Westport

WillitsOnline for Boonvile

New day at DISH

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The Direct Broadcast Satellite pioneer has a new management team, new logo and new products. The core of the company is still satellite television, but there’s a more coherent and seamless integration of the company’s other offerings, such as satellite radio, DVRs, Blockbuster movies and more.

Joe Clayton has firmly taken over the helm from founder Charlie Ergen. He’s brought over some key players from the team that launched what is now known as DirecTv. Back in 1994, Joe led RCA when it joined with United States Satellite Broadcasting and Hughes’ DirecTv unit to launch DSS – the Digital Satellite System.
Ergen launched DISH a year and a half later. It’s now the world’s largest independent satellite television company, but still shows its maverick roots. Less so, though, now that Clayton has banished the traditional casual shirts with DISH logos and put his team into suits and ties, old school RCA style.
Clayton only slipped once today, referring to DISH as RCA. But he was the same uber-salesman, walking into the press conference carrying a live, baby kangaroo (their new flagship products are called Hopper and Joey, represented by kangaroo mascots).
The Hopper satellite receiver is a home video hub, and the Joey is a thin client that connects to it. Several Joeys can connect to a Hopper, allowing subscribers to watch 4 different shows in four different rooms, while recording a half dozen shows simultaneously on the integrated DVR.
Hopper is based on a 750 MHz Broadcom 7420 chip and comes with a 2 TB hard drive. It supports MOCA, ZigBee, Bluetooth and RF4CE connectivity, and interfaces with DISH’s Sling service, which allows viewing on a variety of devices. It also supports photo sharing, satellite radio, Pandora and personal music collections. And, of course, Blockbuster Internet video.
Clayton wrapped it up by previewing an upcoming satellite broadband service, offered in conjunction with ViaSat and using new satellite capacity due to be launched this summer. The satellite data service is specced at up to 12 Mbps will be bundled with subscription TV packages. Starting price point is $79.99.