More Options for Cubans to Have Internet Connectivity

Friday, September 26, 2014
Earlier in the week, we posted "How Cubans Can Have Internet Access Overnight."

It's about the O3b Network -- a next generation satellite constellation that provides fiber quality Internet connectivity.

It was specifically created to service emerging and insufficiently connected markets in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, with a collective population of over 3 billion people (hence the name O3b).

Cuba is well within its service coverage.

The only obstacle for this low-cost, fiber-speed satellite network to provide quick and easy connectivity to the Cuban people is the Castro regime.

However, it's not the only option available (without empowering Castro's domestic telecom monopoly, ETECSA).

Over the summer, Dr. Larry Press, a California State University Professor, who has long studied global diffusion of the Internet and has closely followed Cuba, posted various other satellite ("extra-terrestrial") options.

(Note: None of these are prohibited by U.S. sanctions law.)

Below is his post.

One thing is for sure, the worst thing the U.S. could do is allow telecom companies like AT&T to invest in Castro's monopoly, ETECSA.  Similar foreign investments in the past have only proven to help the Cuban dictatorship.  

Monopolies are bad in open, democratic societies; they are even worse in closed, totalitarian ones.  

From Dr. Larry Press' CIS 471:

During the last couple decades, NGOs, governments and entrepreneurs have worked with four extra-terrestrial connectivity technologies:

1. High Altitude Platform
2. Low Earth Orbit Satellite
3. Medium Earth Orbit Satellite
4. Geostationary Satellite

Let's look at Google's projects in this context.

High altitude platforms (HAPs) are blimps, drones or balloons that hover or circulate in the stratosphere. They have cloudless access to solar energy and being above the weather helps with control, but their signals must travel through rain and clouds. They are the lowest flying technology, so packet latency is relatively small, but so is their "footprint" -- the area their signal covers on the ground. 

The most visible HAP Internet effort has been that of Sanswire, which has run well-publicized tests for over a decade. Sanswire has gone through bankruptcy, announced projects in Latin America that never materialized and faced complaints by suppliers and employees, but they are still working on Internet connectivity.

Google has two HAP projects, Project Loon, using balloons and a drone project using technology from recently purchased Titan Aerospace. There have been reports of Google blimp trials, but I've not seen any details on those. 

Most satellites -- like the Space Station and sensing satellites -- are in low Earth orbit (LEO). LEO satellites move relative to the ground, which means that either communication windows are intermittent or many satellites -- a "constellation" -- are needed to cover the planet. 

The first LEO Internet project I know of was used for intermittent connectivity in Africa during the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, a number of entrepreneurial LEO projects were announced. The most ambitious was Teledesic, which proposed Internet connectivity for the entire planet using a constellation of 288 satellites orbiting at 700 kilometers. Teledesic had high-profile backers like Bill Gates, Paul Allen and a Saudi prince, but the technology of the day was not up to the task and the company failed.

Today, the best-known LEO communication system is Iridium's satellite phone service, consisting of 66 LEO satellites. (Iridium was conceived by Motorola as an Internet project, but was scaled back to telephony, went bankrupt and reemerged as a phone service). 

This week, Google acquired Skybox Imaging, a company that has put a LEO satellite in a 600 kilometer orbit. The company was formed for data gathering, for example for providing real time video and images of traffic on roads, the sea and in the air, environmental monitoring, or map and earth imaging. 

This sort of imagery has both economic and military value, so it will provide Google both revenue and expertise in the short run. Might they be planning to parlay that into a constellation of Skybox communication satellites -- Teledesic II with modern technology -- in the long run?

Medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites are used for communication and navigation. Google recently announced a project with O3b Networks (other three billion). O3b currently has four satellites in 8,000 kilometer equatorial orbits and they plan to launch four more this year. They say those eight satellites will enable them to offer continuous service to all parts of the Earth within 45 degrees of the Equator. 

The project with Google is headed by two O3b executives and they speak of spending billions dollars and putting at least 180 satellites in orbit. When they speak of 180 satellites, one wonders whether they are considering a LEO constellation.

Today's commercial satellite Internet connectivity is provided by geostationary satellites, which are positioned above the equator and remain stationary with respect to the surface of the earth since they orbit exactly once per day. Their orbit altitude enables multi-country footprints, but latency and launch costs are high. 

Geostationary satellites have been used in rural areas and developing nations since the early days of the Internet, and the industry has remained viable as a result of technical progress in launch technology (public and private), antennas, solar power, radios and other electronics, as well as tuning of TCP/IP protocols to account for the 1/4 second latency due to the orbital altitude. (I've had surprisingly natural voice over IP conversations with people on geostationary satellite connections).

Have those technologies progressed to the point where HAPs and lower orbit satellites are now viable as well?

Google, along with Facebook, is a founding partner of Internet.org, which seeks "affordable internet access for the two thirds of the world not yet connected." Since the beginning years of the Internet, NGOs, government agencies and entrepreneurs has been working on the Grand Challenge of connecting developing nations. They have not succeeded, but Google, with improved technology, deep pockets, a long-range viewpoint and economic motivation (ads) may be able to pull it off. 

Finally, I cannot end this post without wondering whether Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, and Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic are eyeing those other three billion people.