Cloud providers Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are building relationships with satellite companies at a rapid clip, working on two distinctly different objectives. Commercial satellite constellations generate loads of data which needs to be stored, processed, and analyzed, making them prime customers. Meanwhile, the expansion of edge computing beyond traditional terrestrial network connections is driving direct connections between data centers and satellite broadband ground stations to reduce latency and increase application speeds.
Given the early days and budding relationships between satellite broadband networks and cloud providers, it’s premature to talk about winners and losers, especially since more partnership announcements and new innovations are sure to come in the months and years ahead. Each cloud provider has a distinctive satellite strategy influenced as much by corporate style and pre-existing relationships as much as strategic vision.
Amazon: Big Data Today, World Connectivity Tomorrow
Seattle-based Amazon has not been shy about its ambitions to be the go-to cloud provider for satellite companies. In 2017, it convinced imaging firm Maxar to move its then-100 petabyte (PB) library into the Amazon cloud, a customer that now adds more than 80 TB of data per day from a fleet of high-resolution satellites. Amazon today lists IoT firms Hiber and Myriota, ship/plane tracking and weather data company Spire, and radar imaging satellite company Capella Space among its aerospace customers.
Two factors bringing satellite customers to Amazon are the AWS Ground Station (GS) satellite management service and the AWS Aerospace and Satellite Solutions dedicated business team. AWS Ground Station enables operators to send commands directly to satellite fleets and download large amounts of data from them straight into other AWS services, such as storage and AI/ML processing. Amazon provides a one-stop shop for satellite operations, able to provide spacecraft communications and control together with seamless cloud processing capabilities of downloaded data through one company instead of them having to build separate ground station networks and cloud operations.
Project Kuiper, Amazon’s future satellite broadband network, is the company’s own creation but will take a while to build and put into commercial service. Amazon is investing $10 billion to build and deploy an initial fleet of 3,236 broadband satellites along with ground equipment and low-cost high-speed end-user equipment. First satellite launches may occur in 2023 with initial service availability in 2024, but the company has not announced a formal timetable.
If Amazon has a weakness in its space strategy, it’s the lack of a satellite partner to provide bandwidth in the short-term until it gets Project Kuiper up and running. Microsoft and Google are teaming up with satellite broadband service providers to provide connectivity directly from the cloud to the edge in a seamless fashion, while Amazon doesn’t (yet) have partners it can work with.
Google: Investments Driving Space Relationships
Compared to Amazon and Microsoft, Google doesn’t have a large space project portfolio. Its current satellite relationships are rooted in long-standing investments rather than a larger business strategy.
Once upon a time – 2014, to be precise – Google agreed to buy an imaging satellite startup company known as Skybox Imaging. Renamed Terra Bella, the subsidiary operated a small fleet of high-resolution imaging satellites for Google. Three years later, Google had reorganized into Alphabet and was cleaning up its portfolio of not-Google companies. Terra Bella and its fleet of satellites were sold to Planet with Google agreeing to a multi-year contract to buy Earth imaging data from Planet, a win-win for both parties.
Less loudly trumped was Planet buying Google services. In 2020, Planet co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Robbie Schingler said the company had a “long-term good deal” with Google as its primary cloud supplier. The imaging company is in the process of upgrading its 140-plus Dove satellite fleet to SuperDoves, increasing Planet’s daily satellite data generation from 10 TB/day to 40 TB/day. Storage, image processing, and AI/ML routines to examine growing catalog of of imagery for changes over time all occur on Google Cloud, adding up to petabytes of storage and CPU-intensive value-added services.
SpaceX’s announcement in May that it would directly connect its Starlink satellite broadband network to Google Cloud by putting ground stations at Google Cloud data centers seems obvious in retrospect. The financial relationship between SpaceX and Alphabet dates to 2015, when Google invested $900 million into SpaceX. Google also gained a SpaceX board seat that Google President of Global Partnerships and Corporate Development Don Harrison still holds as of 2021.
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Roughly a year ago, Google was advertising for a “Partner Manager” to support satellite broadband service providers, helping to productize a solution and make it available to other satellite broadband ISPs. Is SpaceX partner number one? It would appear so.
Enterprise customers and edge computing platforms will be able to reach Google Cloud in a single hop from the SpaceX Starlink network, providing direct access to Google Cloud services with reduced latency and better overall performance and security. Enterprise customers with large geographic footprints, ranging from public sector agencies with rural offices to the U.S. military, will have access to low-latency high-speed broadband to connect them directly to Google Cloud resources.
Google Cloud plans to sell the combination of its services with SpaceX Starlink connectivity together for enterprise customers, according to a Google Cloud spokesperson, with details being worked out as the two targeting a formal launch in the second half of this year – an event that Microsoft may not be happy with, since it earlier announced it would offer SpaceX Starlink satellite connectivity as an option to connect Azure Module Data Centers in the field.
Expect the Google Cloud/SpaceX Starlink partnership to tout single hop access to Google services and low broadband latency as the two key advantages of the combination, but there’s some fine print involved. SpaceX’s current generation of Starlink v1.0 satellites don’t have laser communications cross-links except for a limited number of polar orbiting spacecraft, with nearly all of the 1,500 currently in orbit simply moving data between users and the closest Starlink ground station in range, sending it along via a terrestrial network once on the ground.
To get the full one-hop advantage out of the Starlink broadband network, nearly all of the current 1,500 plus satellites will have to be upgraded with laser communications links so traffic stays within satellite network before being sent down to a Google Cloud data center with an on-premise Starlink ground station. SpaceX officials have said all polar orbit satellite launched this year and the next generation of Starlink satellites will include laser cross-links to keep data traffic within the network for faster transmission, but the company hasn’t discussed how fast the current fleet will get replaced.
Microsoft: Strategic Partnering to the Edge
Microsoft’s focus on enterprise and edge computing have placed satellite broadband as a key component in meeting the needs of its largest and most lucrative customers. It is also encroaching on Amazon’s play to be a one-stop-shop for satellite operators, adding Azure Orbital to offer “Ground station as a Service” competition with AWS GS. Azure Orbital offers the same functionality as AWS GS, enabling satellite operators to manage their own spacecraft through a single console instead of having to build out separate ground station facilities for control and data downloading.
Unlike Amazon and Google, Microsoft is publicly teaming with several aerospace-facing partners such as KSAT, ViaSat, and US Electrodynamics to provide a broader network of worldwide ground stations along with SES and SpaceX to provide satellite broadband connectivity to the edge for enterprise-class resources such as the Microsoft Azure Modular Data Center. SES is colocating ground stations at Microsoft Azure data centers to support the expansion of its O3b mPOWER medium earth orbit (MEO) broadband network, so Microsoft will be able provide direct one-hop access between its cloud and edge computing resources.
High-speed satellite broadband capability is essential for Microsoft to support government customers, such as the $10 billion JEDI Department of Defense cloud services contract. O3b and its mPOWER expansion can provide symmetrical broadband speeds up to 10 Gbps at latencies around 140 milliseconds (ms) anywhere in the world, from established base locations in Europe to ships nearly anywhere at sea.
SpaceX advocates will point out that Starlink’s low earth orbit (LEO) constellation can provide lower latencies of 20 to 40 ms because its satellites are closer to the earth and with the future potential to deliver up to 1 Gbps speeds, but SES O3b services are a proven commodity in operation over the past five years while Starlink is still in beta and only expected to reach downlink speeds of 300 Mbps and uplink speeds of 20 to 40 Mbps in the second half of this year.
But Microsoft is doing more than satellite broadband-data center integration, continuing integration work to real-world edge computing projects. Working with Ball Aerospace, Microsoft recently validating satellite-linked edge solutions for the Department of Defense. In a series of demonstrations, simulated data from imaging infrared imaging satellites was fed to Microsoft Azure cloud resources and processed using Ball-developed event driven software and delivered to multiple endpoints, according to a May 21 Microsoft press release.
A final demonstration used Telesat’s Lightspeed LEO demonstration satellite to directly move Azure-Ball processed data to a Ball-built Ka-band phased array antenna mounted on a tactical vehicle (i.e. a big SUV) and into an Azure Stack Edge device to prove Microsoft cloud information could be delivered directly to the field and processed there.
Future Partners and Connections: Edge Computing in the Sky
Both U.K. government-backed OneWeb and privately-owned Telesat are building out high-speed low latency LEO satellite networks for enterprise use. OneWeb is connecting its network to numerous telecommunications exchange points around the globe to ensure its customers have low-hop low-latency connections to Amazon, Google, and Microsoft while Telesat has discussed how it will build similar connections, using high-speed direct fiber connections between its ground stations and exchange points. Both companies may be examining ways to equal or better the Google Cloud-SpaceX connections, perhaps by working with Microsoft or cutting a short-term deal with Amazon to provide its corporate customers with multiple satellite connectivity options.
Placing edge computing resources on satellites is under consideration for some established cloud vendors and for many ambitious startups. NTT Docomo and satellite operator Sky Perfect JSAT announced a collaboration to build a “space integrated computing network” that would include a space data center built around satellites with high-capacity communications and computing while several new companies such as OrbitsEdge have discussed putting off-the-shelf servers into customized satellites for edge computing anywhere, either in orbit to process imaging from an Earth observation satellite or available overhead for users on the ground in places not suited for the footprint of a Microsoft Azure modular data center.
There’s no clean answer today as to the final mix or makeup of satellite-cloud connections. Will new higher-speed low-latency satellite broadband connections promote more edge backhaul and less edge computing? Or will there be a more balanced hybrid of edge computing and satellite-cloud connections? Data centers in space sound pretty hip, but what are the supporting business models to start throwing loaded racks into orbit? Nobody knows yet and there are many intriguing speculative scenarios.