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21 August 2015

Samsung has loony ambitions to follow Google and Facebook’s LEOs

Samsung Research America has laid out its vision using of low-earth-orbit (LEO) micro-satellites to provide connectivity to internet users around the world. It’s an idea that will be familiar to most thanks to Google’s Project Loon, as well as Facebook’s ongoing Aquila solar-powered UAV initiative, but differs in that it plans to make use of proposed 5G millimeter wave spectrum that would be common to satellite, WiFi and cellular.

So while this won’t do much to dispel the ongoing criticism that Samsung likes to copy its rivals, the whitepaper from Samsung’s research arm is worth examining. While only a vision of the future ambition, Samsung’s impetus behind such a project would be providing guaranteed connectivity to the millions of devices it produces every year – which currently range from smartphones to washing machines, and will soon include a number of smart home devices via its SmartThings subsidiary, as well as connected appliances for IoT deployments in the business markets.

Titled “Mobile Internet from the Heavens,” and authored by Samsung Research America’s president Farooq Khan, the paper outlines the methodology behind using an installation of 4,600 non-geostationary LEO satellites to create a global communications network – which could provide internet access to the billions of people who still lack an internet connection, as well as provide connectivity to the millions of products that Samsung manufactures each year.

Called the Space Internet, the network would provide a Zettabyte of capacity per month, which translates to 200GB in monthly use for 5bn people. The paper says that the network would make use of the millimeter wave spectrum in the 5G plans, between 10.7GHz and 275GHz – split into a 57.75GHz package for uplink, 56.2GHz for downlink, and 38.75GHz for the inter-satellite communication.

This is no small feat, and Samsung plans to use its satellites to help backhaul the growing cellular and WiFi traffic – which it predicts will reach one Zettabyte per month by 2028. It notes that as next generation WiFi and cellular are expected to use millimeter wave spectrum, there is the potential to develop a single common protocol for wireless access and backhaul.

Such a large constellation is required to maintain seamless coverage, as the satellites are not fixed in position over the ground, and effectively move around the earth. The high-number is typically offset by the much smaller cost-per-satellite that LEO infrastructure entails. The much smaller distance between the LEO satellite and the ground (below 2,000 kilometers, compared to tens of thousands of kilometers required for geostationary orbit) also helps keep the latency of the signal low, which is a problem that continues to dog geostationary satellite broadband.

A core part of the paper is the “omnify” principle, which is the abbreviation of “Order of Magnitude every Five Years,” which describes how the demand for data increases ten-fold every five years, a hundred-fold in ten years, and a thousand-fold in fifteen years.

Consequently, the omnify principle justifies the need for new types of network such as a Tbps LEO constellation, which is something that Samsung has now shown it is contemplating – at least in its Research wing. However, a pressing concern will be that the satellites will run out of bandwidth in line with the omnify principle, meaning that you’d need to continuously swap out the satellites for faster versions – something that seems like a logistical nightmare, and one that could quickly become uneconomical. Whether Samsung wants or needs to build it itself is perhaps the bigger question, as it could achieve the same outcome via deals with MNOs and third-party platforms.

But Samsung has a real need for such a network, as it has promised to connect all of its portfolio to the IoT by 2020. Most well-known for its smartphones, the Korean giant also produces TVs, refrigerators, washing machines, air conditioning units, and has divisions that are involved in construction, shipbuilding and financial services. The company posted 2014 revenues of $305bn – it is a true giant, with a vested interest in connecting its portfolio.

By adding connectivity to its products, Samsung gains all the advantages of analytics and predictive maintenance – allowing it to spot patterns in returned goods or faults, as well as provide a service by alerting companies that a deployed product needs maintenance or repairs before a recognized fault causes a more expensive fix.

The other great benefit in connecting devices will be the ability to push software updates to them in the field – something that many customers might never get round to doing due to budget constraints. If Samsung has a global network and the ability to OTA patch vulnerabilities, thanks to that direct connection with its products, it will be able to improve the security of its ecosystem remotely. You only have to look at the sorry state of Android’s security patching (thanks to operator reluctance to push the necessary patches to their customers’ phones) to see why having direct control over the update process is a huge benefit for Samsung – and potentially a service it can generate recurring revenue from.

Even taking 1% of that monstrous full-year revenue to invest in a LEO project could have a huge initial upside for the larger Samsung devices – things like fridges and air conditioners that have enough space in the BOM cost to include the necessary satellite connectivity hardware. Greater miniaturization is likely needed before Samsung can begin including that hardware in the millions of SoCs it manufactures each quarter without adversely impacting the end-price, but it’s easy to see how Samsung has the scale to manage such an evolution.

However, in terms of concrete plans, nothing is confirmed. Initial diagrams suggest that the satellites will communicate with access points on the ground, which could be existing MNO infrastructure rather than new hardware, which will then communicate with the end devices – instead of a direct link from device to satellite. Antenna arrays at data centers would then receive the satellite throughput, with the satellites maintaining their own inter-satellite datalink to backhaul data around the globe before beaming it down to the required destination.

Using satellites present a more cost-effective way to install high-capacity datalinks globally, as the alternative is laying more fiber lines to backhaul from the access points. While partnerships with ISPs and MNOs would certainly be a viable way to achieve the same end-goal, if Samsung wants to keep the operation in-house and potentially monetize it by selling the platform’s bandwidth to third-parties, have total ownership of the assets makes this a lot simpler – although we’re sure that those with memories of the initially disastrous Iridium project are having flashbacks at that idea.

As for rival implementations, most recently, Sri Lanka said it would investigate using Project Loon to provide nation-wide internet access, and if Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, were to officially adopt Loon, it would be the first country to do so. It is the sort of niche use-case that Loon was designed for, which has so far focused on trials in the Southern Hemisphere, notably in New Zealand and using areas of Argentina as a landing pad for balloon recovery.

Separately, work from SpaceX with Google backing is still investigating a very similar plan to install LEO satellites, while a separate venture from OneWeb (WorldVu Satellites) is being backed by Qualcomm and the Virgin Group – which plans to use a special airplane to launch satellites at a low cost, rather than the reusable rocket approach that SpaceX is pursuing.

Whether these separate approaches consolidate in the near future will be watched like a hawk by the space-faring community. There are already prevalent concerns about the amount of bodies in orbit around the earth, and damage to satellites and spacecraft is only going to increase with the amount of debris and bodies up there. Adding another potential 15,000 satellites to the atmosphere could cause a lot of headaches, or worse, knock out communication networks in a cascading wave of impacts and debris clouds, as per the Kessler effect.