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12/23/2014
08:36 AM
Howard Anderson
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Honk If You See A Dead Satellite

Satellites, balloons, and drones -- oh my! Today's tech wunderkinds have found the answer to global warming.

Let's talk satellites. About 2,500 of these birds are flinging about in earth orbit, half of them as dead as disco. Honk if you see one. Are satellites going to take over from cell towers? Remember that cable television was originally just a wire down the center of your street, but eventually that wire was fed by satellites compliments of HBO, Ted Turner, etc.

Now in case you hadn't noticed, the tech world is going nuts. Facebook paid $22 billion for WhatsApp. Uber has a valuation of $41 billion. Airbnb is worth more than any hotel chain. (My kid, who toiled in venture capital for Sequoia, asked me if I was going to be home this weekend. "Why? Do you want to borrow the house?" I asked him. "No," he answered. "I want to rent it out on Airbnb!" Note to self: Cut kid out of will.)

Mark Zuckerberg has thrown down the gauntlet on the next great technology movement. "Let's get high-speed access for EVERYONE! NOW!" About 43% of the world's population is connected to the Internet, but most of them connect at speeds that you would sneer at.

So imagine that you have the world's technology at your beck and call in order to solve the Internet access problem, and you had an almost infinite budget. What would you do?

[We have plenty of technology. What we don't have is enough money. Read Aging Of America: Internet To The Rescue.]

Satellites are great for point to multipoint. They're terrific if you're out of range of cell service. If you're a fighter pilot and your plane crashes, you're so happy to have an Iridium phone. But will they be bringing you high-speed Internet access to your iPhone n?

You've got a few choices. If you're like low-earth-orbit satellite operator Iridium, you have 66 of these birds flying overhead. Kind of like teeing off a golf ball in your tile bathroom. But you know what -- those suckers, which fly about 500 miles straight up, start falling six years after launch! (Duck!) Bill Gates was talking about launching low-earth-orbit birds 15 years ago, and it didn't make sense then and it doesn't make sense now.

Second choice: Launch fewer birds, but put them into high orbit, at 22,300 miles, and have them follow the earth. Here you need only three. But there's a problem: You have to send a message up and then send it back down -- that's roughly half a second. Zuckerberg can break lots of laws if he wants, but there are some laws of physics even those with $33 billion in net worth can't break. Another problem with these birds is that you need real rockets to get them up 22,000 miles, and that costs real dollars.

My brother-in-law who works at Iridium tells me that global warming has opened up that northern route over the ice cap -- and merchant ships need Internet access and communications -- so you're going to see a lot more geostationary birds in the sky. (Well, if you're a polar bear you'll see them. The rest of us will have to just trust that they're up there.)

(Image: Wikipedia)
(Image: Wikipedia)

OK, so launching birds in either low-earth or high-earth orbit is costly even for those who count their net worth in scientific notation. Any other solutions? If Jeff Bezos can deliver a book by drone, why not Internet by drone? But what's a drone? It's a stationary device held up by battery power. What's better than that? And cheaper?

Balloons, like the Hindenburg. Well, kind of … think of hot air balloons that get WAY up there, fueled by helium. And launch lots of them, like Google is doing with Loon. Let them float about a dozen miles straight up, way above where commercial jets fly. And let the winds carry them … much cheaper than having to use rockets. And when they fly away too far, launch another. And another.

Or you can launch some Really Big Drones -- as big as 747s -- and just let them sit up there, bouncing high-speed communications down to us earthlings. That's what Zuckerberg and Google are playing with.

"How will we power them?" you ask. How about solar panels? It just might work. There aren't a lot of clouds up there in the ionosphere.

Or maybe an intermediate solution is medium-earth-orbit satellites, the kind Royal Caribbean is now starting to use to beam high-speed Internet access to its cruise ships. Instead of 22,000 or 500 miles up, how about an elevation that's "just right" -- satellites that hang at 5,000 miles straight up. They wouldn't be coming down as quickly as the LEOs.

It just dawned on me: What Zuckerberg and Bezos and the Googletwins are doing is solving global warming! Yes, they're going to launch enough satellites and balloons and drones to block out the sun. No more sunblock needed! The ice caps are coming back … but so is nuclear winter.

And they talk about the Law of Unintended Consequences.

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Howard Anderson is on the faculty of the Harvard Business School. He was the founder of the Yankee Group and co-founder of Battery Ventures. He attempts to keep his rampant skepticism from morphing into galloping cynicism, a battle he seems to be losing. View Full Bio
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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2014 | 7:26:22 AM
Re: Satellites
I like Elon Musk's vision, really, but this is also the guy who was promising something much better than even the best mag lev trains just about a year ago.  That whole promise kind of fizzled out and we don't talk about it much.  I'm not holding my breath waiting for him to cut through the red tape required to put objects in orbit.  I'm not even sure how he would immediately make money putting the satellites up unless it is purely from the delivery stand point with SpaceX.  I don't see him making much money delivering satellite internet access to every Tesla sold.
nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2014 | 2:18:21 AM
Re: Riddled with errors
@ Mark:

> there will be geostationary satellites over the North Pole.  You DO know that's physically impossible,

Pardon my ignorance about geostationary satellites over the North Pole. Why is that impossible?

Thanks for your thoughts in advance.
nasimson
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nasimson,
User Rank: Ninja
12/29/2014 | 2:13:43 AM
space pollution
First we got water pollution, then soil pollution & air pollution and now space pollution. More and more junk we leave in space, more difficult it will be for our future generations to continue accident-free space endeavors. They might be cursing us for leaving so much junk behind.

Next is lunar pollution!
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
12/28/2014 | 5:09:30 PM
Re: Satellites
I agree that drones aren't the long-term solution to internet access - Fiber optical cable is. But, there are parts of the world that don't even have clean drinking water or reliable electricity, so a fiber-optic network is only a wonderful dream. The reason I like the idea of drones over satellites is that they can be launched with very little muss or fuss, and they can be launched and operated locally, giving locals a chance to get in on the fun and to hone their tech skills. Space is starting to get very crowded, especially geosynchonus orbit. Also, drones impose less latency, which can be a factor in other things besides video gaming. Finally, the simpler solution is usually the more elegant solution, and who doesn't like elegant solutions?
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
12/28/2014 | 1:48:26 PM
Re: Project Loon
@tzubair: Well, nice idea, but high speed networks at remote locations would mean higher costs for the network provider. If the network provider does not have the confidence of numerous companies willing to make their offices at remote locations, then they won't be providing high speed networks.
SachinEE
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SachinEE,
User Rank: Ninja
12/28/2014 | 1:46:02 PM
Re: Satellites
"It seems that one of the problems is that are very few regulations of any sort governing the operation and use of Drones."

There will be, if the market is ready for drones everywhere. Drones are not the long term solution to this problem anyway. Make bigger dishes maybe? That'll cost a ton to implement. 
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
12/27/2014 | 1:32:09 PM
Re: Satellites
It seems that one of the problems is that are very few regulations of any sort governing the operation and use of Drones.
tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
12/27/2014 | 10:34:55 AM
Re: Project Loon
"When the wires disappear then a lot of boundaries will disappear as well.  How many tech companies had to consider the availability of high speed connections before choosing their corporate office space?"

@SaneIT: I think that seems to be one of the biggest advantages. This would allow companies to even have offices at remote locations where the land may be cheap. This may eventually prove to reduce pollution in the cities.
tzubair
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tzubair,
User Rank: Ninja
12/27/2014 | 9:43:01 AM
Re: Satellites
 

"The problem with satellites is their very limited bandwidths. Drones don't cost megabucks to launch, they can be cheaply returned to earth for repair, and for the same amount of money they can carry far, far more data back and forth"

@Gary: Is there a rental that companies have to pay to any authorities to launch drones in the air for internet? If there are occupying air space then some authorities might be involved in controlling their use of the space.

 
PedroGonzales
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PedroGonzales,
User Rank: Ninja
12/25/2014 | 7:10:34 PM
Re: Satellites
I think outer space is going to become are crowded place very soon.  Putting more satellite up in space to provide more internet access is not as simple as zuckerberg think it is.  It would really expend internet access to remote and mobile locations
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