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Isn't Satellite Communication Old School Now

Space travel has and continues to fascinate us. As humans it will always be our intrinsic instinct to explore and discover whatever lies over the next horizon. Such was the motivation for the space race which ultimately provided the world with satellite communications amongst many other things. When we look back at the grainy pictures from that febrile time in history however what we see is a world which looks very different to that of today. Indeed most of the sci-fi of the 1960's was set around about now. As people of their future looking back it all seems rather quaint to us but the benefits we have enjoyed from satellite communications have been many and varied. Since the launch of Telstar, satellite communications has enabled us to beam the finger of mass communications to every corner of the planet

The above notwithstanding, our world today is criss-crossed by undersea cables between every continent and across every sea. Satellite communication (or SATCOM as we will refer to it moving forward) would seem to no longer be necessary... or is it? Lets take a look at the benefits it brought to us at its genesis.

Satcom is the ultimate mobile technology. It provides us with the possibility for cable free communications across the whole footprint of a beam. For some types of spacecraft such a footprint can cover many hundreds of thousands of square miles from only one beam. A single spacecraft can support many beams. That we can utilise this technology anywhere within the beam is such an enormous asset that it completely revolutionises our activity in the remotest areas of the planet. It is now possible to call your mum from a rowing boat in the middle of the atlantic ocean on mothers day, or indeed on any day. Such is the ease of use that is possible using technology no more byzantine than a satellite phone. 

Satellite comms is also relatively cheap although the person who owns the satellite phone may ask you to keep it brief whilst calling your mum. Mobile terminals are however cheap and cheerful when examined in the context of global communication methods. They can also be quite easily adapted to support voice, video or data or indeed all three at once. It is being used extensively as a medium through which to deliver broadband internet services to difficult to reach areas within developed countries not to mention those with a less ubiquitous infrastructure. The frequencies used for satcom are selected specifically because of their ability to resist absorption enabling them to cover the enormous distances required. On top of this it is impossible to ignore the enormous usage of satellite for broadcast media such as television broadcasting where the system is set up primarily for one way communication. In summary then satellite communications has and continues to deliver enormous benefits and has a number of key unique selling points.

 

The premise of this post however does not seek to confirm the obsolescence of Satcom but rather to examine its place in the ever changing telecommunications landscape. In today's world of wireless communications, high definition television and global access to the Internet, many people are unclear about the inherent advantages of satellite communications but they persist and are many. 

 

Cost Effective - The cost of satellite capacity doesn't increase with the number of users/receive sites, or with the distance between communication points. Whether crossing continents or staying local, satellite connection cost is distance insensitive. 

Global Availability - Communications satellites cover all land masses and there is growing capacity to serve maritime and even aeronautical markets. Customers in rural and remote regions around the world who cannot obtain high speed Internet access from a terrestrial provider are increasingly relying on satellite communications.

Superior Reliability - Satellite communications can operate independently from terrestrial infrastructure. When terrestrial outages occur from man-made and natural events, satellite connections remain operational.

Superior Performance - Satellite is unmatched for broadcast applications like television. For two-way IP networks, the speed, uniformity and end-to-end control of today's advanced satellite solutions are resulting in greater use of satellite by corporations, governments and consumers.

Immediacy and Scalability - Additional receive sites, or nodes on a network, can readily be added, sometimes within hours. All it takes is ground-based equipment. Satellite has proven its value as a provider of "instant infrastructure" for commercial, government and emergency relief communications.

Versatility and More - Satellites effectively support on a global basis all forms of communications ranging from simple point-of-sale validation to bandwidth intensive multimedia applications. Satellite solutions are highly flexible and can operate independently or as part of a larger network.

 

As we move froward and the need for ubiquitous communications becomes ever more embedded into the fabric of our lives, satellite communication will move into a golden age. Techniques and mechanisms with which to leverage the spacecraft as a communications platform are continually evolving and it is this swathe of new and exciting use cases that will take the communications satellite into the rest of the 21st century and beyond. 

Ingenious new techniques such as that envisioned by companies like Leosat and OneWeb demonstrate that the traditional paradigm of teleport-satellite-teleport communications is no longer de rigeur. As new business models seek to create optical meshed networks in the sky, new uses continue to emerge. Such networks will ultimately become the fastest communication links for distances over 10,000 miles because light travels faster through a vacuum than it does through glass. For applications which need to shave every possible fraction of a second from network delays (and there are many) these new networks will surpass the existing terrestrial networks no matter how few routed hops are required. The high speed world of financial algo trading, where microseconds cost millions will quickly move to these types of networks once they reach production.

As we move slowly away from the turn of the 21st century some may have expected that satellite communication may have been headed for its swansong given the ubiquity and reach of terrestrial networks. I'd appreciate your thoughts in the comments section below as to what the future may hold for satellite communication or indeed perhaps more broadly for spacecraft communication. I think its fair to say that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

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The Rise Of The Machines

One of the hot topics of the twenty teenies that was totally expected is the examination surrounding the ways in which AI or artificial intelligence will affect our lives and most specifically how AI will affect our jobs. For decades now, celebrated authors from Asimov to Zelazny have used robotics and AI as a key thread around which to weave a story.

That it is prominent in the public consciousness is in no doubt but in recent years as science fiction has slowly begun to become science fact, it is how this technology threatens to directly affect us that has become the core of the discussion. Unsurprisingly the kernel of that discussion has been how it will affect our bank balance and it is here that the real story lies in terms of how the fragile and unweildy human psyche copes against the agile and indefatigable machine.

To properly begin to understand this subject it is important to establish a rather obvious but sometimes surprising baseline. Ever since man discovered the flint and invented the wheel, technology has been changing our lives irrevocably. Its a track we have been travelling for millennia and, as the changes have affected our societies, we've adapted accordingly. Sure there's some tech we'd probably like to have not invented such as the nuke but even that thought is surrounded by controversy as it's by no means certain that we wouldn't still be embroiled in the Second World War if it hadn't been made. Its important therefore to accept that all of the tech in our world today has made the world what it is today and very few of us would seek to go back to a subsistence agrarian and feudal societal model with all its attendant drudgery and disease. Yes we have unemployment in modern society but it is rarely helpless unemployment and by learning new skills, the individual can once again find a foothold in the employment market.

This, in my opinion, is the key fact regarding AI and robots. It's manifest human nature to believe that everything that has gone before was somehow different but the crisis yet to come will change everything because of its uniqueness. The laughable fact that the British during the reign of Queen Victoria believed that they had invented everything testifies to that sentiment.

Looking at more contemporary disruption such as the invention of the tractor and the factory robot, its clear to see that whilst jobs have obviously disappeared, others have emerged. It is probably fair to expect that this model which has been the reality for millennia will continue to apply. As our economies develop increasingly technological foundations the need for unskilled human labour will continue to diminish however will not necessarily end. The slightly disturbing concept of meatware which is used to describe humans doing menial tasks that are not able to be done more economically by robots has come into the dictionary. Notwithstanding this unfortunate niche, society will continue to develop as its technology does. 

The key in all of this is the adaptability and indeed the ability of the individual to adapt and learn new and increasingly complex skills. This, if anywhere is where the drawbridge may be pulled up on certain sections of society. AI may well have already arrived. Of that there is no doubt however autonomous AI which can continue to operate with no intervention from humans for decades or indeed indefinitely is still a long way off. This is where the future human workforce will ply its trade and it was ever thus. 

Another interesting area which opens up as a result of this discussion topic is that of human robotic augmentation. It may well be the destiny of the human race to slowly mechanise using increasingly powerful technological assistance which will gradually find social acceptance in its integration into our bodies. This may present us with enough of an edge that we can continue to compete with advancing technology or to some it may be the thin end of a terrible wedge which will find us all as barely conscious semi automata, trapped in a body that is not really ours and connected to the hive mind forever. 

The future is coming whether we like it or not and we cannot uninvent that which we have invented. Even the heavily regulated field of human embryonic manipulation is never at a standstill but rather is always creeping forward as taboos slowly dissipate over time. The ratchet of progress can go only one way and it never really stops. As a species we are masters of this planet because of our enormous ability to adapt and overcome the most difficult of environments and it is this core human skill which will be our greatest asset in the decades to come. If we cannot then the social upheaval may well become the biggest influencer regarding our future. Discrepancies of wealth and opportunity in societies are rarely allowed to exist for long and usually end explosively and it may well be therefore that the surest way for humanity to survive is to assure a certain minimum living standard for all as we pivot to a new model where ones ability to earn a living becomes less important. There are many possible futures out there and, as has always been the case, many are terrible and many are not. The future's not ours to see. Que sera sera...

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The Listeners

 
‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,   
   Knocking on the moonlit door; 
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses   
   Of the forest’s ferny floor: 
And a bird flew up out of the turret,   
   Above the Traveller’s head: 
And he smote upon the door again a second time;   
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said. 
But no one descended to the Traveller;   
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill 
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,   
   Where he stood perplexed and still. 
But only a host of phantom listeners   
   That dwelt in the lone house then 
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight   
   To that voice from the world of men: 
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,   
   That goes down to the empty hall, 
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken   
   By the lonely Traveller’s call. 
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,   
   Their stillness answering his cry, 
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,   
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky; 
For he suddenly smote on the door, even   
   Louder, and lifted his head:— 
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,   
   That I kept my word,’ he said. 
Never the least stir made the listeners,   
   Though every word he spake 
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house   
   From the one man left awake: 
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,   
   And the sound of iron on stone, 
And how the silence surged softly backward,   
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.
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Solitude

BY ELLA WHEELER WILCOX

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
    Weep, and you weep alone;
For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,
    But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;
    Sigh, it is lost on the air;
The echoes bound to a joyful sound,
    But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;
    Grieve, and they turn and go;
They want full measure of all your pleasure,
    But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;
    Be sad, and you lose them all,—
There are none to decline your nectared wine,
    But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;
    Fast, and the world goes by.
Succeed and give, and it helps you live,
    But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure
    For a large and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
    Through the narrow aisles of pain.

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Narrow Road

The months and days are the travellers of eternity.
The years that come and go are also voyagers.
Those who float away their lives on ships or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them.
Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years past have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind to ceaseless thoughts of roaming.

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