Although 5G promises to revolutionize the internet, the next wave of broadband may actually come from satellite technology. Amazon, SES Networks and OneWeb, to name a few, have plans to launch constellations of small satellites that are designed to deliver telecommunications and internet services. Flying less than 1,000 miles above the planet in low-Earth orbit (LEO), these networks of hundreds, and eventually thousands, of small satellites will blanket the planet in beams of broadband internet.
Origins of a Space-Based Internet
Companies like Dish Network and DirecTV have satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), about 22,000 miles up. Although this is a traditional space for telecommunications satellites, the distance creates too much of a signal delay, or latency, to provide high-speed broadband internet.
In 2007, Greg Wyler founded the company O3b Networks with the intent of sending internet satellites into medium-Earth orbit (MEO) — about 5,000 miles above Earth, reports Bloomberg. At that height, latency is less of a problem than it is for satellites in GEO. Signals from MEO satellites take just 0.15 seconds to travel down to a gateway on Earth and back up again, compared to nearly half a second with satellites flying in GEO. The gateway connects to internet providers, who then deliver the signal to customers.
Wyler sold the company in 2016 to SES, which has put 20 satellites into MEO to date. In an interview with Space News, the company’s CEO John-Paul Hemingway called MEO a “sweet spot” for space satellites. They’re high enough that the spacecrafts can cover wide swaths of land, but low enough that their latency isn’t an issue. In LEO, satellites cover smaller areas of land, which forces them to route their signals through multiple stops to achieve long-distance communications; that takes time and creates delays, Hemingway said.
But not everyone is convinced that LEO isn’t efficient, including Wyler. After he sold O3b Networks to SES, Wyler founded OneWeb with plans to launch internet satellites into LEO. In February 2019, the company rocketed its first six satellites into space, according to a press release. OneWeb is sending more than 650 satellites into orbit and aims to provide full global coverage by 2021. According to CNBC, the company also announced it had secured its first customer, Talia, which delivers consumer broadband internet and community Wi-Fi to regions in Africa and the Middle East.
Internet Space Race Is On
Nearly half of the world’s population lacks high-speed connectivity, according to a 2018 report from the International Telecommunications Union. Building out fiber networks in rural areas, or in countries that lack a reliable electrical grid, is expensive and creates an unreliable network. Luckily, a boom in commercial space ventures has raised competition and lowered the price of rocket launches as much as 25 percent, according to Bloomberg, igniting a new space race.
Amazon is following on the heels of SES and OneWeb. In April, the company announced that it was in talks with international regulators to gain spectrum rights for a constellation of about 3,200 satellites. The network, called Project Kuiper, would have three layers of orbiting satellites, one at 366 miles (590 km), one at 391 miles (630 km) and one at 380 miles (610 km), according to Space News. It has yet to secure FCC approval and has not yet set a deadline for deployment.
Companies able to deliver satellite-based broadband to the billions of people who lack it will open up new markets and completely change the future of the internet.
Challenges of Satellite Technology
Although thousands of new satellites orbiting Earth promise to deliver high-speed internet to people who need it the most, the abundance of spacecraft creates a considerable amount of orbital congestion. More than 4,000 intact spacecraft already orbit our planet along with 500,000 bits of debris, according to NASA. Adding thousands more satellites would greatly increase the risk of collisions. Concerned, the agency released a report in 2018 arguing that 99 percent all satellites would need to be taken out of orbit within five years of completing a mission. Making that happen is fairly straightforward. Controllers lower the altitude of a satellite’s orbit so that it’s pulled by Earth’s gravity into the atmosphere, where it burns up.
In the next few years, the future of the internet will change dramatically. As satellites begin beaming high-speed internet to the Earth, terrestrial providers will need to scramble to compete. Billions of people will come online, gaining access to the apps, services and information so much of the world takes for granted. A major challenge will be ensuring that the space above our blue planet does not become heaped with the kind of junk and debris already clogging our lands and precious oceans.