Starlink – a global CSP disruptor

As SpaceX reach 180 starlink satellites in low Earth orbit; on the road to 12,000 once the network is complete, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Starlink is set to become a global disruptor in the telecommunications industry. Once complete, SpaceX’s network will be nearly global (except for polar regions) and will be ubiquitous. The diagram below illustrates the coverage area – basically 100% coverage of most of the populated regions of the Earth :

Starlink network coverage (approximate)

The big benefit that the Starlink satellite constellation over a traditional communications satellite sitting in a geostationary orbit is the time it takes for the signal to get from a point on Earth to another Point on Earth. The Starlink constellation at an altitude of 550km is much closer to us than a geostationary communications satellite at (approx) 35,700km. The Starlink constellation will transmit information between Starlink satellites before downlinking to the destination. In an example of a connection between Australia and the Middle East, the diagram below shows the Starlink connection in White, a Fibre (mainly undersea) connection in Red and the geostationary communications satellite connection in yellow. This is approximately to scale.

A scale comparison of Starlink vs Geostationary Satellite and Fibre connections (Melbourne to the Middle East)

The white Starlink connection can pretty closely approximate a great circle path and thus is a shorter path than the red fibre connection (which must travel where the undersea cables have been laid). Yes, there are potentially more hops in a Starlink connection than a traditional satellite connection, but the distances involved are MUCH shorter. The other issue with traditional geostationary satellite connections is because of the distances involved, the signal strength is relatively very weak and because of that, these signals suffer from higher data loss, which means that these comms don’t just use standard TCP/IP, rather they use protocols that have much greater error correction and parity capabilities – this has the cumulative effect of slowing down the connection. Combine this slow connection speed and high latency (because of the distances involved), traditional satellite carriers have a big challenge ahead of them when compared to Starlink which promises to deliver much greater speeds at much lower latency – competitive with fibre for all but the largest bandwidth consumers.

To give you an idea of the comparison between Starlink and Geostationary satellite communications, I built a quick animation – remember this is only half of the connection (one way only) ; a real connection would be double the times as the response needs to back to the initiator.

A visualisation of the speed difference between Starlink and traditional geostationary satellite communications

What about for connections between two systems in the same country, as opposed to international connections? Even local in-country CSPs face significant competition from Starlink.

If we look at the Telstra coverage map for Australia+, easily the largest Telco in Australia with the best coverage, and yet we have lots of space that has no coverage at all. Contrast that with a 100% coverage that Starlink would provide with lower latency and much higher throughput… what do you think ? Will Telstra or any other CSP in the world face a challenge from Starlink? I think so…

January 2020 Telstra Mobile Coverage Map

+ Yes, I know Australia has a very large area and has a relatively small population, so the problem is not as big in other countries, but just imagine 100% coverage 100% of the time and in any country you ever visit…

A tale of three National Broadband Networks

Originally posted on 21Feb10 to IBM Developerworks where it got  12,303 Views

Providing a National Broadband Network within a country is seen by many governments as a way to help their population and country compete with other countries.  I have been involved in three NBN projects; Australia, Singapore and New Zealand.  I don’t claim to be an expert in all three projects (which are ongoing) but I though I would share some observations and comparisons between the three projects.

Where Australia and Singapore have both opted to build a new network with (potentially) new companies running it, New Zealand has taken a different path.  The Kiwis have decided to split the incumbent (and formerly monopoly) Telecom New Zealand into three semi-separated ‘companies’ Retail, Wholesale and Chorus (the network), but only for the ‘regulated products’ which for the New Zealand government is ‘broadband’.  They all still report to a single TNZ CEO.  I have not seen any direction in terms of Fibre to the Home or Fibre to the Node, just defined the product as ‘broadband’.  The really strange thing with this split is that the three business units will continue to operate as they did in the past for other non-regulated products such as voice. 
As an aside, the Kiwi government not regulating voice seems an odd decision to me – especially when you compare it to countries like Australia and the USA where the government has mandated that the Telcos provide equivalent voice services to the entire population. Sure, New Zealand is a much smaller country, but it is not without it’s own geographic challenges in providing services to all kiwis, yet

Telecom NZ is now Spark

A key part of the separation is that these three business units are obliged to provide the same level of service to external companies as they provide to Telecom and it’s other business units.  For example if Vodafone wants to sell a Telecom Wholesale product, then Telecom Wholesale MUST treat Vodafone identically to the way they treat Telecom Retail.  Likewise Chorus must do the same for it’s customers which would include ISPs as well as potentially other local Telcos (Vodafone, Telstra Clear and 2Degrees).  This equivalency of input seems to me to be an attempt to get to a similar place to Singapore (more on that later).  Telecom NZ have already spent tens of million of NZ$ to this point and they don’t have a lot to show for it yet.  It seems to me like the Government is trying to get to a NBN state of play by using Telecom’s current network and perhaps adding to that as needed.  For the kiwi population, that’s not anything flash like fibre to the home, but more like Fibre to the node and then have a DSL last mile connection.  That will obviously limit the sorts of services that could be delivered over that network.  When other countries are talking about speeds in excess of 100Mbps to the home, New Zealand will be limited to DSL speeds until the network is extended to a full FTTH deployment (not planned at the moment as far as I am aware) 

Singapore, rather than split up an existing telco (like Singtel or Starhub) have gone to tender for the three layers – Network, Wholesale and Retail.  The government (Singapore Ltd)  has decided that should only be one network and run by one company (Nucleus Connect – providing Fibre to the Home), that there would be a maximum of three wholesale companies and as many retail companies as the market will support.  A big difference to New Zealand is that the Singapore government wants the wholesalers to offer a range of value added services – that they refer to as ‘sit forward’ services to engage the population rather than ‘sit back’ services that do not engage the population base.  Retail companies would be free to pick and choose wholesale products for different wholesalers to provide differentiation of services.

Singapore, New Zealand and Australia are vastly different countries – Singapore is only 700km2 in size, Australia is a continent in it’s own right and new Zealand is at the smaller end of in between.  This is naturally going to have a dramatic effect on each Government’s approach to a NBN.  Singapore’s highly structured approach is typical of the way Singapore does things.  Australia’s approach is less controlled – due to the nature of the political environment in Australia rather than it’s size and New Zealand’s approach seems somewhat half-hearted by comparison.  I am not sure why the NZ government has not elected to build a new network independent of Telecom NZ’s current network. 

In Australia on the other hand, the government have set up the Communications Alliance to manage the NBN and subcontract to the likes of Telstra, Optus and others.  The interesting thing with that approach (other than the false start that has already cost the Australian Taxpayers AU$30 million) and the thing that sets it apart from Singapore is that the approach doesn’t seem to have any focus on the value added services (unlike Singapore’s approach) – it’s all about the network, even the wholesaler plan for Australia is talking about layer 2 protocols (See The Communications Alliance Wiki.  All of the documents I have seen from Communications Alliance are all about the network – all very low level stuff. 

Of course, these three countries are not the only countries that are going through a NBN project.  For example the Philippines had a shot at one a few years ago – the bid was won by ZTE, but then a huge scandal caused the project to be abandoned.  It came back a while later as the Government Broadband Network (GBN) but that doesn’t really help the average Filipino.  It’s interesting to see how these projects develop around the world…