In large areas of the United States and the world, there are millions of people who do not have reliable internet access. These unrelated people are not only found in remote places like rural America, New Zealand or sub-Saharan Africa. There are many people living in dense urban centers struggling to access affordable broadband. The pandemic has brought new urgency to the problem, and while companies like Google and Facebook have launched distant ideas to solve this problem, the most promising Internet technology is also the one that has already been proven: satellite broadband.
In early March, just days before U.S. cities closed due to the Covid-1
Combined with improvements to existing technology such as DSL, cable and fiber, not to mention 4G and 5G cellular networks, the futuristic satellite broadband is set to bridge the digital divide in the United States and elsewhere. And as the pandemic has resulted in explosive demand for better and more widely available Internet connectivity, rapid progress seems more inevitable than ever.
Musk’s new satellites went online in early September, offering beta testers download speeds that rival that of terrestrial broadband. SpaceX has now put 700 Starlink satellites into orbit in the past 16 months and plans to deliver another 30,000 in the next few years. More satellites mean more bandwidth and faster speeds, and eventually, SpaceX says its constellations of low-Earth orbit satellites could deliver high-speed internet to all of the United States. Amazon, Facebook, and several startups have made similar promises in recent years.
The concept of satellite-based Internet service is actually decades old. However, the groundbreaking low-Earth orbit satellite technology developed by SpaceX and others could be essential, if not transformative, for everything from telemedicine to remote learning in places that aren’t already connected. Satellite broadband could also be very profitable for any company that discovers it first. You might imagine Amazon using satellite broadband to grow their Amazon Web Services (AWS) business, or Facebook using it to ensure more people log on and watch Facebook. And if Musk succeeds, his Starlink constellations will generate billions of dollars in profits to finance his mission to colonize Mars.
It all sounds futuristic, but satellite broadband is already a very real thing. In fact, if you’ve ever connected to wifi on a plane or cruise ship, you’ve probably used it. The basic idea is that internet-connected ground stations, known as gateways, can send data up to a satellite which then broadcasts the data to antennas somewhere else on the ground, or on a ship or plane.
The problem with this technological feat is that it’s all very expensive. Launching satellites into space can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and that doesn’t even take into account what it takes to overcome regulatory hurdles. Many companies have tried and failed to crack the business model over the past 20 years, but rather suddenly, the space Internet game has changed.
“The Covid-19 crisis has greatly accelerated attention and investment in satellite technology,” Babak Beheshti, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences at the New York Institute of Technology, told Recode. Beheshti added that the number of launches has increased tenfold from last year to this year. “Why? Because schools, local governments and others suddenly needed broadband Internet access in areas where there really was no infrastructure.”
This may seem like proof that satellite broadband is finally on track to resolve the digital divide, but the situation remains incredibly tenuous. When SpaceX began launching its Starlink satellites, Amazon received Federal Communications Commission approval in July to launch 3,236 low-Earth orbit satellites for its constellation called Project Kuiper. Meanwhile, longtime satellite broadband industry leaders like Viasat are failing to get new satellites into the sky fast enough to keep up with demand. And along the way, the federal government is pledging billions of dollars in subsidies to companies bringing broadband to rural America.
In a way, the dream of connecting everyone on Earth has never been closer. In other ways, it’s hard to say whether the latest innovative ideas will suffer the same pitfalls as those of past years.
Satellite broadband, briefly explained
Satellite broadband is exactly what it sounds like: broadband internet access provided via satellite. The basic idea hasn’t changed much since the heyday of satellite TV in the late 1990s, when businesses relayed internet connectivity to the same dish that received the HBO signal at speeds faster than dial-up but even faster. today’s broadband lens.
In 2020, there are two main ways companies provide satellite broadband. The key difference between them is how tall the satellites are in orbit. Geosynchronous satellites, which orbit about 22,000 miles above a fixed point on the Earth’s surface, are an older technology that companies like Viasat use for broadband connections. You have probably used this technology for aircraft wifi. Then there are low Earth orbit constellations, which are made up of hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller satellites that orbit between 300 and 1,200 miles above the earth. This is the approach that is receiving all the hype lately and what SpaceX and Amazon are taking.
Geosynchronous satellites are the most mature and proven technology. Viasat and a company called Hughes, which is DirecTV’s former parent company, have been around for decades. (DirecTV actually used its antennas and infrastructure to offer a satellite internet service called DirecPC in the late 1990s.) Viasat and Hughes are also the two companies most likely to offer satellite broadband in remote parts of the states. United in this moment. If you are a person living in the wilderness of New Hampshire, where there are no terrestrial broadband options, you can get a version of DSL, which works on existing copper phone lines, which is essentially as slow as dial-up. Or you can subscribe to geosynchronous satellite broadband via Viasat or Hughes and get speeds comparable to basic broadband – around 25 megabits per second. Plans start at $ 40 to $ 50 per month and get more expensive if you want more bandwidth.
While reliable, these geosynchronous satellite systems have some problems. The main one is latency. Satellites are thousands of miles above the earth’s surface, so it takes time for data to travel and this could mean a slight delay between sending and receiving. This isn’t a problem if you’re just browsing the web. It’s a significant problem if you’re trying to stream video games or make video calls, which we’re doing more than ever. Just think of the remote news correspondents who have to wait half a beat between the moment the presenter in the studio asks the question and when they hear it in the headset, while the signal travels to a communications satellite and then returns to the surface.
Low Earth orbit constellations, such as those SpaceX and Amazon are building, promise to solve the latency problem. Since the satellites are closer to the ground, the data doesn’t have to travel that far. Musk says this means that SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which orbit about 340 miles above the surface, will offer high latency, thereby reducing the risk of lag. The latency issue is a big deal for the FCC and its decision to distribute billions of dollars in subsidies, among other things. The agency says it will prioritize networks that offer low latency when disbursing funding.
However, there are other unanswered questions about how fast and reliable the newly developed low-Earth orbit constellations will be. Unlike geosynchronous satellites, which are fixed above a point, satellites in low earth orbit surround the planet every 90-120 minutes. They are designed to stay connected to the ground station and the end user by staying connected to each other, but if this chain is broken, it will break the connection. These constellations are also made up of thousands of relatively small satellites – Starlink satellites weigh less than 600 pounds – which means they require multiple launches, which are expensive.
“As satellites grow, they optimize the network architecture,” explained Manny Shar, head of analytics at Bryce Space and Technology. “Over the next couple of years, we should see decent improvements in rural areas where capacities are really limited and there is limited competition to improve it. So at the very least, there will be an alternative option that rural users can take advantage of.” .
Shar’s view of limited competition is important. Many parts of the United States, for example, have access to slower DSL connections thanks to phone lines, but because upgrading that infrastructure is so expensive, the telecom companies serving those areas often have little incentive to do so. This leaves residents dependent on a mix of poor wired connections and often patchy cellular networks.
New technology like 5G could apparently bring faster cellular speeds to remote areas, but again, building that infrastructure takes time and money. Satellite broadband, meanwhile, can transmit fast, reliable, and potentially affordable Internet access almost anywhere on Earth. This also takes time and money, but what we’re seeing in 2020 is that the pandemic is attracting all sorts of investments in technology, meaning more satellites are launching.
Both geosynchronous and low-orbit satellite broadband systems have advantages and disadvantages. The first is already practicable, even if not perfect. The latter promises, even if not kept. Inevitably, however, to achieve the goal of connecting more people, it will all come down to money.
The slow march of progress
The future of satellite broadband largely depends on who can get the most bandwidth in space for the least amount of money. Each individual satellite, by design, can offer a limited amount of bandwidth, so companies are either producing many satellites to launch at the same time – this is what SpaceX is doing – or they are investing in technological improvements and launching new satellites every few years. . This is Viasat’s strategy and the company plans to launch a new satellite called Viasat 3 next year, which is expected to greatly improve its network. This satellite and others like it weigh tens of thousands of pounds, so these launches are expensive.
So you might see the appeal of launching many smaller satellites over time, especially if you’re a company like SpaceX and own your own rockets. Amazon and its Kuiper project, likewise, have the advantage of being owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns rocket maker Blue Origin. However, it is still unclear how Blue Origin could get involved in the Kuiper Project. In fact, Amazon has revealed very little about the project beyond its plans to offer affordable high-speed, low-latency Internet service via satellites in low earth orbit.
“There are still too many places where broadband access is unreliable or where it doesn’t exist at all,” Amazon Senior Vice President Dave Limp said in a statement following FCC approval of Project Kuiper’s first launch. . “Our $ 10 billion investment will create jobs and infrastructure in the United States that will help us bridge this gap.”
A difficult truth here is worth pointing out. Selling affordable satellite broadband to individual customers in rural areas will not generate enough revenue to send the necessary satellites into space. Again, each launch costs hundreds of millions of dollars, and the sale of services for $ 40 per month to individual families cannot cover the startup costs. And even then, not everyone who needs Internet access can afford it. This economic challenge is part of why the dream of offering satellite internet service to anyone on Earth – or any other type of reliable, high-speed internet service – has been so elusive.
This is also why companies that have been successful in building broadband satellite networks have approached the challenge from different angles. Viasat, for example, has spent years building a business, selling bandwidth to the military and governments, not to mention helping you get Wi-Fi on planes. Now, the company says demand from the consumer market is on the rise and simply exploded after the pandemic. And that question doesn’t necessarily come from the most remote areas.
“It turns out that much of the demand tends to be around major metropolitan areas,” said Mark Dankberg, CEO of Viasat. “In the markets with the highest demand – in the Midwest, in the Southeast – we have run out of bandwidth for two years. So we can’t have many more customers until we have our next satellite.” Dankberg added that Viasat is developing technology that would involve linking its existing geosynchronous satellites with its own satellites in low earth orbit, as well as cellular networks, for faster connections and with lower latency.
As Recode’s Emily Stewart recently explained, broadband access isn’t just a problem in rural Montana. Even in urban centers and suburbs, the infrastructure to offer high-speed Internet access does not exist or is too expensive for many people. This means that new options, including the space Internet, could connect millions of Americans faster than would be needed to expand existing ground-based infrastructure.
This makes providing access to those residing in remote regions no less a priority, and government subsidy programs are helping to make this happen, albeit slowly. Coincidentally, just as the pandemic pushed the country into lockdown, the FCC launched its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will provide up to $ 16 billion to telecom companies that expand internet access in rural areas. SpaceX has applied for funding, although it has to prove that its service offers the low latency and high speeds required by the agency to get the money. Last year, Viasat received $ 87.1 million in funding from a similar FCC program.
Again, in the absence of government funding, companies like SpaceX and Amazon are in a unique position to take the lead in the satellite broadband industry because building such an infrastructure will come in handy for other reasons. SpaceX is in a unique position to deliver its satellites into low Earth orbit. The advantage of Amazon having its own broadband satellite network also seems evident. When online, the Kuiper project could be an immediate boon to the company’s AWS business.
“Essentially, Amazon will become its largest customer to really prime the pump for the revenue stream,” said Beheshti, who is also a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “And then, of course, the additional revenue streams would come from individual residential consumers.”
The benefits of satellite internet services have been evident for years. However, for years, companies have struggled to realize these ambitions. It is not for lack of attempts and also of creative approaches. Alphabet continues to pursue a project called Loon, which started as a Google experiment about 10 years ago. Loon involves the use of high-flying balloons that broadcast internet access in rural areas. After being deployed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, a fleet of Loon balloons began providing services to millions of people in Kenya in July, marking the first commercial application of the technology.
Meanwhile, Facebook has had its own far-fetched plans. His initiative called Internet.org which aims to connect the entire planet suffered a major setback in 2016 when a SpaceX rocket carrying a satellite designed to provide internet access to sub-Saharan Africa exploded on the ramp. launch. There was also the Eagle Project, which involved sending solar-powered drones 60,000 feet into the atmosphere to connect rural areas. The company abandoned the project in 2018.
Even big internet companies like Facebook and Google have faced backlash for their lofty connectivity projects. While projects like Loon and Internet.org are advertised as charitable initiatives to serve the public good, critics say they violate the principles of net neutrality and serve the best interests of companies, rather than that of the public. After all, a free or low-cost Internet service from Facebook or Google could simply direct billions of people to Facebook and Google’s products and services, balancing the Internet as we know it.
With all these efforts, there will certainly be more failures and perhaps more setbacks in the future. Elon Musk’s goal to deliver high-speed broadband to everyone on Earth is very high. We know that such a thing is technically possible. It is expensive, and many smart people are trying to figure out how to pay for it, while other promising technologies, like 5G, continue to roll out. But if anything could motivate such a huge upheaval in the Internet services business, the pandemic should. Never before have we depended so much on connectivity. We may have to leave planet Earth to get it.
Help keep Vox free for everyone
Millions of people turn to Vox every month to understand what’s going on in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial showdown to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our life. Our mission has never been as vital as it is right now: empower you through understanding. But our hallmark of explanatory journalism requires resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recover, your support will be a key part of supporting our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If not, consider helping everyone make sense of an increasingly chaotic world: Contribute today starting at as little as $ 3.