The Space Race For The Internet
There is a competition to bring high-speed Internet access to the world via satellites. While satellites have been used in communications for decades, they were not ideal for the high speed data transfer of today’s interconnected world. Things have changed with satellite design, and they now have the capability to transfer high-speed data.
SpaceX has come to the forefront of speedy Internet access via satellite. Their product from Starlink is now available (for certain areas as of 2021), providing fast Internet access to areas where service providers cannot reach. Amazon has signed deals to launch Project Kuiper Internet satellites. The retail giant is getting in on the Internet satellite service due to its potential to capture a much larger under served market around the world.
More Inclusion To The Internet
According to the World Bank, the world needs more inclusion to Internet access. The Internet has now become more a necessity in our daily lives. It was originally a tool for research and sharing information. It then became used for communicating with friends and to keep in touch with loved ones. It also provided entertainment via streaming videos and music, as well as for playing video games. More importantly, it is being used to pay bills, submit resumes, attend video conferences and educate students remotely.
In the World Bank report, only 35% of people in developing countries have access to the Internet. In developed countries, it is much higher at 80%, but can still be improved. The reason not everyone has access to the Internet has to do with many factors, but one significant reason has to do with the delivery of Internet service. Unfortunately, it can sometimes be very difficult due to geography or terrain, especially in rural areas (even in developed countries like the US and Canada).
Most of the time, rural areas remain underserved because there is no commercially viable reason to provide service in those areas. When an Internet service provider looks at an area, they check the market as well. Sometimes an area may have only a few people, while operation costs can be higher than what the provider needs to earn. If the cost to build infrastructure to these areas is not justified based on demand, then it is not feasible. It would be best for governments to issue such projects to provide broadband services, but sometimes the terrain can still be a challenge.
While the government can offset costs to build the infrastructure, private companies will still be the best at providing Internet service. It would not be practical to have to lay out more cabling, so using a network of satellites would be more ideal for a wireless delivery of the Internet. This is where SpaceX and Amazon come in, to deliver much needed Internet access to people living in those areas.
Satellites are notorious for latency when it comes to data transfer. This is what is called a propagation delay, in which the data being sent experiences a brief delay in transit. This is why satellite broadcasts are not live for the most part. For high speed service, this is not exactly ideal. Video over the Internet coming from streaming services will suffer, and this also affects the quality of the video.
The majority of the Internet today is delivered via submarine cables that are at the bottom of the ocean. A vast network of these cables are interconnected to provide Internet service around the world. The backbone of the submarine cables use fiber-optic for fast and low latency data transfers, rather than copper cables which are prone to EMI (Electro-Magnetic Interference). This is how content created in the US reaches viewers from around the world.
Satellite technology has improved over the years. In the past, satellites used the Earth’s geostationary orbit (35,786 km). The satellites are launched there because it is a stable location where the satellites can orbit in place, following the Earth’s own rotation. It takes longer for the signal from a terrestrial location (surface of the Earth) to reach the satellite, thus the reason for delays.
SpaceX launches their satellites at a lower orbit (< 2,000 km), also called LEO (Low Earth Orbit). The drawback here is that the satellite does not stay in place while it orbits the earth, thus a network of satellites are needed. The Starlink satellites communicate with each other, exchanging data and relaying it to the proper destination. Since the distance is closer to the surface of the Earth, signals don’t experience a significant delay compared to those satellites at higher altitudes.
Satellite Internet service is delivered like Wi-Fi from the sky (i.e. “Sky-Fi”). It can reach areas where it is difficult to install wireline service or where it is feasible for service providers. Most of these areas are outside of cities, in the rural countryside. A Sky-Fi delivers the Internet to the user via a satellite transceiver, and then connect other devices using a Wi-Fi router.
This will help expand Internet service. Starlink already has customers using their service. The service has also been activated in Ukraine, where it can help with the disruption of service due to war. While it does deliver Internet, it can be expensive for most users. With prices adjusted to inflation, a subscription to the service will be increased to $110 per month (May 21, 2022). That would cost $1,320 a year.
While it seems like the problem of Internet inclusion will be solved by launching LEO satellites, there are also problems that need to be overcome. The most obvious is the cost of the satellite service. Starlink is being used mostly by people who can afford the service, but the majority of users who live in rural areas (specifically those in developing countries) will not be able to afford it.
Perhaps a third party can purchase the kits to help serve communities, rather than just for personal use for one user or household. A business can provide the service as way to bring the Internet to the rest of the community. A fast satellite broadband connection can deliver download speeds up to 130 Mbps. The bandwidth can be shared by many people, but costs should be much lower in order for the service to benefit the less fortunate.
A more serious matter is how a network of LEO satellites can affect astronomers at work. The problem here is that the astronomer’s view from Earth-based telescopes can be obstructed by the satellites. There is also plenty of concern that more satellites will contribute to space junk. These are issues that satellite providers will have to address to ensure it doesn’t affect astronomic research or contribute to pollution in space.
The only thing that could stop the service would be policies by governments who want full control of anything regarding the Internet. This is another concern regarding freedom of access to information. Some administrations might not be too friendly to allow their citizens to have access to the Internet, unless it is regulated by their own agency. This could lead to providers registering with a government regulator or agency in order to provide their service via satellite.
The space race is on to deliver fast Internet to non-serviced or underserved areas around the world. This is from the use of a satellite network from LEO rather than geostationary orbit. Those who live in rural areas will benefit the most, since they are the ones who don’t have access to broadband Internet service. Having access to a “Sky-Fi” will also benefit digital nomads who will be able to work in the most remote locations in the world with access to the Internet.
What needs to happen is wider coverage, especially for those living in developing countries and the price of service to become cheaper. Those who live in urban areas will not have too much problems with Internet access. There is broadband Internet widely available, and 4G LTE and 5G networks for mobile users. For the rest of the world who live outside cities and developed areas, this is a way for them to have access to Internet for the first time.