Oct 15, 2019

Satellite broadband's boom

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

While satellite pay-TV services are in a death spiral, modern satellite-powered broadband services are raising big investments and a lot of high expectations.

Why it matters: Access to broadband is essential in today's economy, but roughly half of the globe's population still lacks reliable access to it. Companies well-positioned to build and deploy satellites see an opening to provide that service to a world hungry for fast connections.

What's happening: Historically, satellite communications services have been seen as a last-resort option for people in remote areas or, in pay-TV's case, for consumers who wanted a lot of channels.

  • But as more and more cord cutters are relying on all-purpose broadband connections and get the bulk of their small-screen entertainment via streaming options, satellite TV companies Dish and DirecTV are languishing.
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Data: MoffettNathanson; Chart: Axios Visuals

What's new: As the pay-TV market dwindles, a new crop of satellites are being launched to beam down broadband services to wider swaths of populations on Earth.

  • The nascent services by SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and ViaSat are all planning to launch fleets of satellites aiming for the same goal — getting enough low-Earth orbit satellites into space fast enough to provide a broadband alternative to terrestrial services from the likes of Verizon or Comcast.

The catch: Launching satellites is an expensive proposition, and the market is getting crowded — as is space itself. It's unlikely all the companies will succeed in signing up enough subscribers to cover those expenses, let alone make a profit. Consolidation is all but inevitable, analysts say.

Between the lines: The satellite industry is undergoing a sea change.

  • Satellite TV was popular in the '80s and '90s as subscription channel bundles became more sophisticated — and before the advent of the consumer internet.
  • Now as streaming over super-fast broadband is supplanting pay-TV, the next generation of satellite fleets is banking on building a business by providing the same service that is ultimately killing its satellite predecessors.

How it works: There are different technologies involved. While satellite TV companies rely on expensive satellites in high orbits, the satellites designed by Amazon, SpaceX and others are expected to be small and in relatively low orbits.

  • But the closer the satellites are to Earth, the narrower the signal beam. So providers need more satellites to cover a broad area.
  • Even with more advanced launch strategies, deploying thousands of satellites is still a pricey and logistically complicated proposition.

The FCC is already issuing licenses for these new constellations.

  • SpaceX, which received its initial license in 2018, has since launched 60 of its Starlink satellites with another batch expected to launch as soon as this month.
  • OneWeb's plans were approved in 2017, and the company sent its first satellites to orbit earlier this year.
  • Amazon's Project Kuiper filed with the FCC earlier this year.

In theory, the designs of these constellations should allow the companies to provide high-speed broadband globally and give them flexibility in design and coverage.

  • SpaceX, for example, needs 400 satellites in orbit to provide partial coverage, but 1,000 satellites will make the constellation "economically viable," Elon Musk said in May. The company hopes to launch about 12,000 Starlink satellites.

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Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 5,410,228 — Total deaths: 345,105 — Total recoveries — 2,169,005Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 3 a.m. ET: 1,643,499 — Total deaths: 97,722 — Total recoveries: 366,736 — Total tested: 14,163,915Map.
  3. World: White House announces travel restrictions on Brazil, coronavirus hotspot in Southern Hemisphere Over 100 coronavirus cases in Germany tied to single day of church services — Boris Johnson backs top aide amid reports that he broke U.K. lockdown while exhibiting symptoms.
  4. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks headed into Memorial Day weekend Report finds "little evidence" coronavirus under control in most statesHurricanes, wildfires, the flu could strain COVID-19 response
  5. Economy: White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election — Public employees brace for layoffs.
  6. Federal government: Trump attacks a Columbia University study that suggests earlier lockdown could have saved 36,000 American lives.
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Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

U.S. coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios. This graphic includes "probable deaths" that New York City began reporting on April 14.

The CDC is warning of potentially "aggressive rodent behavior" amid a rise in reports of rat activity in several areas, as the animals search further for food while Americans stay home more during the coronavirus pandemic.

By the numbers: More than 97,700 people have died from COVID-19 and over 1.6 million have tested positive in the U.S. Over 366,700 Americans have recovered and more than 14.1 million tests have been conducted.

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Japan's economy minister outlined plans on Monday to end the nationwide state of emergency as the number of new novel coronavirus cases continues to decline to fewer than 50 a day, per Bloomberg. Japan has reported 16,550 cases and 820 deaths.

By the numbers: Over 5.4 million people have tested positive for the virus as of Monday, and more than 2.1 million have recovered. The U.S. has reported the most cases in the world (over 1.6 million from 13.7 million tests). The U.K. is reporting over 36,800 deaths from the coronavirus — the most fatalities outside the U.S.