Boeing Open to Partnerships on LEO Broadband Constellation

Boeing building HQ

One of Boeing’s corporate offices. Photo: Boeing.

[Via Satellite 09-20-2016] Boeing is interested in having partners to join the company as it seeks to create a new Non-Geosynchronous (NGSO) satellite constellation for broadband services using V-band. The company first revealed intentions of fielding a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) system in June by filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asking simultaneously for permission to operate such a system and for the spectrum rights to make it possible. Now as Boeing continues to pursue this system, the company says making the constellation into a multi-party effort would be an ideal way forward.

“We would like to have somebody join us, but it doesn’t necessarily depend [on this],” Craig Cooning, president of Boeing Network and Space Systems, told reporters Sept. 14 at World Satellite Business Week. “It could be multiple partners, and clearly a lot of our existing customers, when they saw the filing, there was a lot of curiosity around it.”

In the filing, Boeing asked for additional uplink spectrum for Fixed Satellite Services (FSS), in the 50.4 to 51.4 GHz and 51.4 to 52.4 GHz bands, as well as for the authority to launch and operate an NGSO satellite system for low-latency, very high data-rate broadband across the United States and the world. Should Boeing operate such a constellation, it would greatly expand the company’s role in the satellite industry beyond manufacturing and launch. Cooning said Boeing has gotten the chance to meet with potential partners along with customers about the potential LEO system. He admitted some customers did show concern about doing business with a newfound potential competitor — which is similar in ways to satellite operator’s reactions to SpaceX’s LEO plans — but he said Boeing is optimistic that customers will see it more as a chance to work together rather than be dissuaded from buying Boeing satellites.

“We’ve had opportunity to talk to most of them at this point and they understand where we are going, they understand the opportunity for some sort of partnership as well, and we hope and we believe that as we get further into this project, that they will come along with us,” he said.

Boeing’s rationale for building and operating a LEO constellation stems from the frequently cited implacable rise in connectivity needs around the world. Between rising commercial demand and government-driven universal broadband service obligations, the company expects satellite could play a major role.

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“It really comes down to the insatiable demand for bandwidth that we see in the marketplace,” said Bruce Chesley, vice president and program manager at Boeing Global Broadband System. “The amount of bits being required by all of us is growing on the order of 20-something percent a year, and in order to meet that demand there are certain areas where satellite has advantages over terrestrial approaches.”

Chesley said the majority of Americans lack choice in broadband provider options, especially in rural areas, meaning there is room for more satellite broadband players to compete. He said Boeing does not have a set go or no-go date where they will decide whether or not to fully commit to building such a network, but in the meantime is making technical and regulatory strides to bring this concept to fruition.

On the spectrum front, Boeing claims in its FCC filing that the constellation could downlink information in the 37.5 to 40.0 GHz band on a shared basis with the proposed Upper Microwave Flexible Use (UMFU) service. Boeing says its constellation “will also not present a risk of interference to passive services such as Earth Exploration Satellite Service (EESS) or radio astronomy,” in the 50.4 to 52.4 GHz band by adopting the same out-of-band emissions limits that currently protect EESS and radio astronomy operations in adjacent bands, for V-band FSS. The company said it can employ exclusion zones around radio astronomy observatories as necessary.

“This new uplink spectrum will help create a five gigahertz block of uplink spectrum that, paired with FSS downlink spectrum in the 37.5 to 42.5 GHz band, will enable very high data-rate V-band satellite broadband services in the near future,” Boeing said in its FCC filing.

On the technology side, Chesley said Boeing would look at taking its digital payload technology and putting it into a small satellite form factor.

“We think that there is a definite advantage to taking the digital technologies that we’ve developed in our GEO satellite system and applying them to this V-band NGSO system,” he said.

Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International and VP of Commercial Satellite Systems, said Boeing’s digital payloads are scalable and can be sized up or down as needed. The company’s sixth generation digital payloads are currently flying on Intelsat’s first two EpicNG High Throughput Satellites (HTS) and on the U.S. Air Force’s upcoming Wideband Global Satcom 8 (WGS 8) satellite, which is slated to launch later this year. Startup company Global IP recently ordered a satellite equipped with the seventh generation that will have twice the capacity of generation six. Spiwak said Boeing wants to accelerate the rate of next generation payloads to shorten the time between each. From generation six to generation seven he estimated it was about four years.

“What we need to be able to do is shorten our development cycles and make sure we are bringing the next generation capabilities quickly and not have these long development cycles that have been in the past,” he said.

Spiwak said Boeing is currently conducting Research and Development (R&D) on generation eight to lower the cost of development and shorten technology cycles. The process, he said, involves continuous miniaturization in order fit more transistors on Integrated Circuits (ICs), or essentially bringing Moore’s Law to bear in space. This could dovetail well with the company’s LEO ambitions, as satellites in this orbit typically have shorter lifespans and therefore require less radiation hardening compared to 15-year geostationary satellites.

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