World-class means world events

Editor’s Note:  The title of this piece was altered, upon reflection, from its original—”For the whiners”

Toronto’s a big city.  Big cities occasionally host big events and big personalities.  New York manages to have UN General Assembly meetings all the time and host world leaders without the city descending into chaos.  This is our first time, but more will come; this is what happens when you reach a certain level of wealth and renown.

If one doesn’t wish to be interrupted by the visit of world leaders, one might consider living in a smaller urban centre; i.e. the suburbs.  To live in large urban metropolis and complain that big-city events happen there is to miss the point on a cosmic scale.

For the wags suggesting web conferencing as way around these physical meetings, let’s think about this for a moment.  The physical meetings permit off-the-record discussions amongst many leaders and their advisors.  Web conferencing by definition will leave a record, and leave it in many places all across the globe in various ISPs and networks.  How many world leaders are going to candidly suggest something if any random sysadmin jackass from a foreign country can excerpt their traffic and dump it in his country’s media?

Most of us have experience with ordinary civil web conferences; which go over the civil internet and have some not-very-elaborate security measures.  Nobody much cares what the marketing department of MiniWidgetCo in Podunkville, YourCountry is up to, after all, which is why hackers never interrupt the tedium of your average office’s web conference.  But an awful lot of people might be willing to get their mitts on the thus far off-the-record remarks of world leaders candidly discussing major issues.  So right away you know that this notional G20 web conferencing is not going to travel over the ordinary (and easily degradable) civil internet.  It will go over a separate secure link, like the videoconferences that US unified combatant commanders have with the White House.  And that traffic, my friends, goes over SATCOM.

So what would a secure SATCOM connection that can provide live audio-video feeds to a multitude of spots on the globe end up costing?  Fortunately we have some idea because the US Dept. of Defense has built just such a system; it’s called Wideband Global SATCOM (formerly Wideband Gapfiller Satellite) and its program cost (including R&D) is estimated to have reached $2 billion for its 3-satellite constellation.  Now we won’t have to re-invent the wheel, so let’s assume we’ll buy three Boeing 702 WGS birds at USD $400 million each; or 1.2 billion just for the hardware.  Keep in mind you’ll have to replace this hardware every few years as it fails or runs out of gas (manoeuvring to avoid debris, solar storms, and so on).

Then we’ll have to get these WGS birds into space somehow—why not use the Delta IV launcher that USAF uses to put its WGS birds on orbit?  Each launcher costs between USD $140-170 million, and we’ll need three—so that’s $420-510 million.

Now you’ll need a place to launch it from.  Oh, your country doesn’t have a launch facility?  Well, it costs USAF $400 million annually to maintain Vandenburg Air Force Base’s Space Launch Complex 6.  You could build one of your own for several times that, or maybe just chip in on the rent.

Now, does your country have a facility to track and monitor orbital assets?  No?  DND’s Joint Space Project (a contributor to the United States Space Surveillance Network) used to have a budget of CDN $1.2 billion to monitor Canadian space assets and preserve our space situational awareness.  That budget has fallen in recent times to $625 million, but it’s still a big chunk of change.

And we have not even begun to examine the program costs of building ground stations to handle this secure SATCOM traffic, plus retrofitting various governmental buildings, facilities and residences with the ability to handle it.  Nor have we introduced the salary and entitlement costs of all the personnel required to work on, maintain and secure these programs, their hardware and their facilities.

When you think about all of that, $1 billion for an event we likely won’t host for another decade is not too big a deal.  And certainly not untoward for a city that constantly likes to assert it is “world-class”.  World-class means world leaders come to visit every once in a while; deal with it.

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