Building a distributed satellite ground station network (or not…)

My twitter intro says that I am an “enthusiast for enthusiasm”. When I wrote that, it was simply because there are some questions that I really think aren’t helpful at all. Questions like:

  • Why didn’t you just buy X instead of building your own?
  • Didn’t somebody do that years ago? Why are you playing with that old technology?
  • Why are you writing a program to do that, when you could just use Y, some program/framework/application that I use.

I hate questions like this because they aren’t really questions at all: they are simply trying to tell you that what you are doing is stupid or pointless. Here’s the thing: I mostly understand why I do the projects that I do, and I’m perfectly okay with you not understanding my rationale, or agreeing with it even if you do understand. The proper answer is “why climb a mountain?” isn’t “because it was there”. It’s not even “because no one has before”. The proper answer is “because I’ve not done it, and I enjoy mountain climbing.” Interestingly, most people won’t try to convince you that you shouldn’t like mountain climbing, but all sorts of people will try to tell you that your technical projects are a waste of time. This kind of conversation actually irritates me.

And with all this introduction, I’m going to now criticize a project, which is going to seem a bit hypocritical. Hang with me to the end, and I’ll try to resolve the apparent hypocrisy, at least partially.

The topic is the plethora of news stories about a talk given at the Chaos Communication Congress (28c3) recently held in Berlin. Some links to news stories:

Hackers aim to launch Internet satellite network, moon mission
Hacker satellite grid to counter Internet censorship??
Hackers Plan Satellite Network to Fight Internet Censorship

So, what’s my beef? After all, any reader to this blog knows that I’m interested in amateur satellite and communications, surely this is right up my alley?

And indeed it is. But the motivation is just… well… it’s stupid. Not stupid because fighting censorship is a bad idea: it’s a very, very good idea. Even essential. But the idea that satellites constructed by amateurs can play any role (much less any significant role) in fighting censorship is fantasy.

First of all, launching satellites is expensive. Really expensive. While the hardware of cubesats can be constructed quite economically, launches have costs which are multiples of ten thousand dollars, for masses which are less than 1kg launched into low earth orbit. Currently AMSAT has a project called FOX to develop a communication satellite that fits the cubesat form factor, but it’s capacity and power are very limited, mostly by the physical size and weight limitations imposed by available launch opportunities. To launch a satellite into MEO or HEO would require costs measured in the millions of dollars.

Secondly, you can’t get spectrum to operate a satellite network like they imagine. Amateur radio frequencies are subject to regulation and treaties just like any other spectrum, and the uses of such frequency are dictated by regulation and treaty. The governing international body is the IARU (the International Amateur Radio Union) and member nations enact local regulations to enforce treaty restrictions to comply with the regulations of the IARU. The purpose of amateur radio satellites must be to “(1) provide communication for the general amateur radio community and/or (2) self training and technical investigations relating to radio technique”. While these topics are fairly broad, they are not broad enough to provide a general replacement for the Internet. In fact, in the U.S. amateur radio is specifically prohibited from carrying “communications, on a regular basis, which could reasonably be furnished alternatively through other radio services.” You can’t get the frequency allocations. Nobody will launch a satellite without frequency coordination.

Third, if your concern is to bypass the censorship of governments, it seems odd to do it by launching a satellite, because governments tend to have very strict and tight controls over satellites and satellite technology. For instance, in the U.S. ITAR regulations essential prohibit the transfer of dual use technologies to other countries, even to our allies. This isn’t just a theoretical concern: American participation in the amateur satellite projects of other countries have been significantly stifled But even more basic than these issues are the fact that access to space is currently under the control of the very governments we are concerned about. While increasing commercialization is eroding that to a certain degree, we cannot rely on commercial entities to operate in defiance of the governments of the countries in which they operate. There is some possibility that an organization such as Copenhagen Suborbitals might be able provide launches, but these operations must operate within the regulations of the countries from which they operate as well, so I think the idea of access to space independent of governmental interference is a fantasy.

Here’s the bottom line though: if your goal is to prevent government censorship, every dollar that you spend could do orders of magnitude more benefit using more conventional earth-bound technology. Funding projects like the FreedomBox Foundation, HTTPS Anywhere or The Tor Project, or working to generate a mesh based Wifi capability in your area are much, much stronger ways to work to combat Internet censorship.

If you want to build satellites, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. But to try to sell the idea by saying that it provides a way to combat Internet censorship? That’s misleading at best.

Addendum: Here’s the actual talk at the Chaos Communication Conference. It’s actually got some cute stuff in it, mostly because it leaves behind the fantasy that a satellite communication network will provide a hedge against censorship in the first five minutes.

2 thoughts on “Building a distributed satellite ground station network (or not…)”

  1. Excellent post today! Agree 100% with the notion of doing things a certain way because we want to. Sometimes it’s the journey that counts, not the end destination… The hobbyist and Amateur Radio fields are full of examples where there might be a more modern way to do something, but it’s not as fun to do it the new way (phone call vs. morse code contact, etc.). Using rocket launched low power and limited comms capability is a really expensive way to communicate on an uncensored channel (measured in overall data bits capability vs. $$ spent per bit).

  2. On the initial annoying questions, my two cents…

    We hobbysts could always reply to them by saying:

    “Why do you keep having marshmallow sundaes for dessert? Other people
    did that before! And it is an old recipe…”

    For additional entertainment, replace “marshmallow sundaes for dessert”
    with “sex”, “baseball”, “babies”, whatever, and see their reaction.

    Hopefully they can grab the concept of “a good thing to do” (like Dennis
    Ritchie humbly said about his Unix creation – just another OS flavor,
    but one who changed things forever).

    And to whoever still criticizes us about re-inventing the wheel every
    now and then, it is not pointless to say that if even the wheel itself
    was not re-invented a dozen times, we’d still be using the ones in Fred
    Flintstone’s car.

    Great achievements are only possible sometimes when you focus just in
    reinventing stuff/techniques/theories, countless times if needed. That’s
    the way technology/science/art/mankind develops most of time.

    You don’t have to be original to be a valuable player in life. You don’t
    have to be Albert Einstein or Newton (and most likely you won’t be);
    ask Edison, Gates or Jobs – just to keep the examples in tech field.

    By the way, on a more personal view, our techie hobbies are not only
    plenty of pleasures, and a mind calming exercise, but they also stimulate
    our previously acquired skills (math, electronics, handcraftmanship,
    etc), useful by themselves.

    I adamantly refuse to allow those skills vanish from my mind, where they
    play an important role, just because I don’t eventually make a living
    of them. Which role, you could ask… I could answer in three ways:

    “La vida es sueño” – “Life is a dream” (La Barca), because my dream
    was, since I was a kid, to deal with science and tech – it is too damn

    “The feeling of power” (Isaac Asimov), because it makes me feel
    controlling, interfering, upgrading, enhancing things – not just using
    them like a plain consumer.

    And, last but not least, in honor to this fine Mr. VandeWettering blog:

    “There is much pleasure in useless knowledge.” (Bertrand Russell)

    Happy New Year everyone.

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