Satellite showdown: OneWeb vs. Starlink vs. Project Kuiper
The battle for dominance in the fast-developing satellite internet market is growing more competitive as companies jockey for the right to provide rural broadband access to billions of potential customers from above the clouds.
As remote work starts to look as though it will continue to persist long after the pandemic, and the global economy digitalises at an ever-increasing rate, the provision of fast, stable internet services to rural and remote areas is becoming even more of a necessity.
With terrestrial carrier networks still experiencing “not spots” across large areas of the world, and faced with prohibitive costs associated with delivering cutting edge connectivity coverage like 5G to more far-flung parts of the world, satellite internet companies are rushing in to fill the void, racing to deliver fast, low-latency internet from space.
While not the only competitors in this new telecom arena, the leading (read: highest profile) companies currently fighting for a piece of the pie are UK-based OneWeb, Elon Musk’s Starlink, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
OneWeb: Back in the Fight
For a while last year, it seemed as though the number of competitors in the satellite telecom space had shrunk, with UK-based provider OneWeb declaring bankruptcy in March of 2020, due to issues securing the necessary funding to get its array of micro satellites into orbit. OneWeb’s primary investor, SoftBank, reportedly pulled funding - part of a wider decision by the Japanese investment giant to pursue a more risk-averse strategy following a series of bad bets, including but not limited to the disastrous fallout surrounding We Work.
The firm was bailed out in November of last year, when the British Government and Indian telecom firm Bharti Global poured $1bn of fresh equity into the company, which immediately resumed satellite launches, putting a further 36 satellites into orbit aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, which OneWeb purchased from the European aerospace firm Arianespace, the following month.
Now, OneWeb is decidedly back in the mix, with a new CEO and is well on the way to delivering a massive network of 650 low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to support its broadband offering. The involvement of the UK Government definitely increases OneWeb’s gravitas as a safe bet.
UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Alok Sharma, commented last year: “Access to our own global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect people worldwide, providing fast UK-backed broadband from the Shetlands to the Sahara and from Pole to Pole. This deal gives us the chance to build on our strong advanced manufacturing and services base in the UK, creating jobs and technical expertise.”
Roscosmos, Space Center Vostochny, TsENKI - OneWeb
Starlink: Bigger and Bigger
Never one to do anything by half measures, Elon Musk is adopting a policy of total LEO domination at his own satellite internet firm Stalink (currently a subsidiary of SpaceX, although Musk has hinted at an IPO once the company "has its affairs in order"). Just this month, the company put 240 more micro satellites into orbit above the atmosphere, with plans to grow the company’s network to as much as 10,000.
Once fully operational, Starlink could become a massive revenue driver for SpaceX, although for now supply chain issues (some customers are experiencing wait times of multiple months for home antenna kits), concerns from the scientific community (astronomers have recently complained that Musk’s satellites, which he painted cherry red, because of course he did, are seriously impacting their ability to observe the night’s sky), and high prices for basic services mean that this sleeping giant has yet to fully awaken. When it does, however, a satellite network of the kind of scale and scope that Musk is promising could turn Starlink into a truly global telecom carrier.
Announced in the Spring of 2019, Project Kuiper is Amazon’s own entry into the satellite internet ring. Much like with Starlink, the near-infinite resources Amazon can bring to the table mean that the planned satellite constellation that will support this network is, well, astronomical in scale.
Kuiper gained FCC approval to begin satellite launches in July of last year, and has reportedly invested $10bn into getting its 3,236 satellites space-born. “A project of this scale requires significant effort and resources, and, due to the nature of LEO constellations, it is not the kind of initiative that can start small. You have to commit,” wrote Amazon in a press release.
Amazon execs are pitching Kuiper as the global solution to remote work issues. “We have heard so many stories lately about people who are unable to do their job or complete schoolwork because they don’t have reliable internet at home,” said Dave Limp, Senior Vice President at Amazon. “There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all. Kuiper will change that.”
Jeff Bezos and Musk have clashed in recent months over the FCC’s rulings on satellite distribution. Musk took to Twitter in January to “blast” Bezos and the FCC over Amazon’s claims of interference with its plans to bring several of its satellites into a lower orbital path than previously agreed upon. “It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation,” tweeted Musk.
Amazon's response was delivered via a tersely worded press statement the following day: "The facts are simple. We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system. Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers. Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems. It is clearly in SpaceX’s interest to smother competition in the cradle if they can, but it is certainly not in the public’s interest."
How to expand the cloud-native technology workforce
The telecom market is in a state of flux. The ongoing pandemic has inflated global Internet traffic by up to 60%, increasing demand for bandwidth and adding more pressure on operators to continue to provide reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity. This has challenged operators’ future-ready and efficient network infrastructure perspectives, leading them to question the way they have deployed and operate their networks. While telco technology has remained stagnant for decades, we have now reached the precipice of a shift towards disaggregated, cloud-native networks – with industry bodies like the TIP Initiative leading the way.
The market is now seeing a move towards a cloud compute approach, and away from the traditional monolithic legacy hardware that has dominated the sector since its inception. With this comes a demand for new skillsets. Just as the dot-com boom of the 2000s brought the rise of coding bootcamps and a push towards retraining employees for the new age, the cloud-native overhaul of the 2020s will lead a push towards new skillsets within the industry. These new “cloud native engineers” will have to embrace software-centric, cloud native and disaggregated networks, from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to the edge and 5G core. They need to able to understand and navigate the world of cloud with ease and take an application from a repository through a continuous integration and delivery pipeline, and into a new operational environment.
The challenge now is that there is a skills gap for both in-house and outsourced staff. There is already a shortage of technicians who can properly install fibre, power and radio equipment on telecommunications sites, let alone engineers with the expertise to accurately navigate the new cloud native environment. So, how can we expand the next cloud native technology workforce?
Adapting to cloud native environments
In the telecom world, the term “cloud native” is used to describe various functions within networks that have been developed as software from the outset and run on independent hardware. Of course, a cloud native design like this brings many advantages, with independent microservices deployed and running in containers. If a new function or an update is required, a corresponding microservice is supplied by the software developer, which updates or adds the respective feature within milliseconds without interrupting the service. This way, route processing, updating, and restarting are 20 times faster than with conventional router operating systems. If open interfaces are also available, network operators can even develop and implement their own functions.
However, the implementation of a cloud native environment – as well as the code and processes that sit on top of regulating functions and management – must be done by engineers with new skills. Compared to older legacy fixed networks and hardware, cloud native engineers must understand how container architecture functions to allow microservices and APIs to work together in a loosely coupled approach for maximum flexibility and development agility. They must also possess skills pertaining to the operation of routing software that turns bare-metal switches into IP/MPLS carrier routers, often in different areas of the network, such as broadband access, edge or core. For engineers, bridging the gap to the new cloud native environment is not easy, but can be achieved through training and experience.
New ways of building cloud native expertise
Of course, traditional routers and dynamic control systems are challenged by new concepts such as disaggregation and distributed SDNs. They are promising significantly faster implementation, automated control, and a shorter time to market. For future router designs to meet these challenges, fundamentally new router hardware and software must be developed, and modern software architectures and paradigms introduced.
A cloud native engineer must have software skills, such as coding, testing, design, architecture, etc., whilst also knowing how to adopt applications to leverage cloud platform services for maximum impact. The best way to build this wide knowledge base is through training programs and hands-on experience. Training typically includes learning about Docker and Kubernetes in production use cases, writing complex cookbooks from scratch, transforming existing applications to cloud native oriented applications etc. Unfortunately, most training is currently focused on the legacy engineer, deployed and tasked in the field to replace radio equipment or repair newer 5G stations. Not enough is being done to promote this new cloud native path at the grassroots level – in universities or further education colleges.
Leading the charge in re-training the existing workforce for the cloud native future
Most operators understand the case for a cloud native approach, since the improved flexibility in deployment, roll out of services to field and cost-savings are plain to see. However, they’re bogged down with thousands of operational staff that – rather than looking towards the future – have been trained to solve yesterday’s problems. Imagine the electric car industry came along and said: “We’ve designed this cool electric car, but we don’t sell the engine, or the batteries that are running it”. This is exactly what is happening now with the cloud native approach. Operators are not used to building networks this way, so they’re having to tap into other workforces to execute their plans.
To build talent, the first place an organisation should look is within its own ranks. Sure, some employees may balk at having to start over with a challenging skillset. But there are plenty of young, bright, hungry-to-learn engineers that would be eager to pick up new cloud native skills if given the opportunity. Also, this approach allows for a hybrid model of expertise that can be beneficial to operators, depending on the project being implemented.
Looking more broadly across the UK and Europe, investment in engineering skills is essential to giving these markets a competitive advantage for decades to come. The best way to do this is to start young – in schools, universities, colleges and through apprenticeships – and provide practical, project-based education that allows young engineers to develop both individually and operationally