The Space Race for the Internet. There’s a contest to bring… | by Vincent Tabora | 0xMachine | April 2022

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(Source: SpaceX)

There is a competition to bring high-speed Internet access to the world via satellites. Although satellites have been used in communications for decades, they were not ideal for high-speed data transfer in today’s interconnected world. Things have changed with the design of satellites, and they now have the ability to transfer data at high speed.

SpaceX became the vanguard of high-speed Internet access via satellite. Their product of Stellar Link is now available (for select areas from 2021), providing fast internet access to areas inaccessible to service providers. Amazon has signed agreements to launch Kuiper Project Internet satellites. The retail giant is getting into satellite internet service because of its potential to tap into a much larger and underserved market around the world.

More inclusion on the Internet

According to world Bank, the world needs more inclusive internet access. Internet has now become a necessity in our daily life. It was originally a tool for finding and sharing information. It then became used to communicate with friends and to keep in touch with loved ones. It also provided entertainment through streaming videos and music, as well as playing video games. Most importantly, it is 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 why not everyone has internet access has to do with many factors, but one important reason relates to the provision of internet service. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be very difficult due to geography or terrain, especially in rural areas (even in developed countries like the United States and Canada).

As satellite internet service becomes increasingly available, people in rural areas will be able to access it. It is sometimes difficult for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide services in these areas as it may not be economically viable (expensive) or it may be difficult to build infrastructure there. (Photo credit by Allen Daryl Castillo)

Most of the time, rural areas remain underserved because there is no commercially viable reason to offer service in these areas. When an ISP surveys an area, they are also checking the market. Sometimes an area may only have a few people, while operating costs may be higher than what the supplier has to earn. If the cost of building infrastructure in these areas is not justified based on demand, then it is not feasible. It would be better for governments to initiate such projects to provide broadband services, but sometimes the terrain can still be a challenge.

Although the government can offset the costs of building the infrastructure, private companies will always be the best at providing Internet services. It would be impractical to have to run more cables, so using a satellite network would be more ideal for wireless delivery of the Internet. That’s where SpaceX and Amazon come in, to provide much-needed internet access to people living in those areas.

Internet satellites

Satellites are known to latency when it comes to data transfer. This is called a propagation delay, in which the data sent suffers a brief delay in transit. This is why satellite broadcasts are usually not live. For high-speed service, that’s not exactly ideal. Internet video from streaming services will suffer, which will also affect video quality.

Today, the majority of the Internet is delivered via undersea cables that lie on the bottom of the ocean. A vast network of these cables are interconnected to provide Internet service around the world. The backbone of undersea cables uses fiber optics for fast, low-latency data transfers, rather than copper cables which are prone to EMI (electromagnetic interference). This is how content created in the United States reaches viewers around the world.

A network of submarine cables provides internet around the world (Source: submarine cable map)

Satellite technology has improved over the years. In the past, satellites used the Earth’s geostationary orbit (35,786 km). Satellites are launched there because it is a stable place where satellites can orbit in place, following the Earth’s own rotation. It takes longer for the signal from a terrestrial location (Earth’s surface) to reach the satellite, hence the delays.

Comparison of GEO and LEO satellites by their altitude (above the Earth’s surface).

SpaceX launches its satellites into a lower orbit (LEO (Low Earth Orbit). The downside here is that the satellite doesn’t stay in place while it orbits the earth, so a network of satellites is needed. Starlink satellites communicate with each other, exchanging data and relaying it to the correct destination. Since the distance is closer to the Earth’s surface, the signals do not experience a significant delay compared to those satellites at higher altitudes.

The “Sky-Fi”

Satellite Internet service is provided as Wi-Fi from the sky (i.e. “Sky-Fi”). It can reach areas where it is difficult to install wired service or where it is feasible for service providers. Most of these areas are outside the cities, in the rural countryside. A Sky-Fi provides internet to the user through a satellite transceiver and then connects other devices using a Wi-Fi router.

This will help extend 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. Although it provides internet, it can be expensive for most users. With prices adjusted for inflation, a subscription to the service will be increased to $110 per month (May 21, 2022). It would cost $1,320 per year.

Challenges

While it looks like the problem of including the internet will be solved by launching LEO satellites, there are also issues that need to be overcome. The most obvious is the cost of satellite service. Starlink is used primarily by people who can afford the service, but the majority of users who live in rural areas (especially 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 for personal use by a user or household. A company may provide the service as a means of bringing the Internet to the rest of the community. A fast satellite broadband connection can provide download speeds of up to 130 Mbps. Bandwidth can be shared by many people, but the costs must be much lower for the service to benefit the less fortunate.

A more serious question is how a network of LEO satellites might affect working astronomers. The problem here is that the astronomer’s view from terrestrial telescopes can be obstructed by satellites. There are also fears that more satellites will contribute to space waste. These are issues that satellite providers will need to address to ensure they don’t affect astronomical research or contribute to pollution in space.

The only thing that could stop the service would be government policies that want full control over everything internet related. This is another freedom of information concern. Some jurisdictions might not be too friendly in allowing their citizens access to the internet unless it is regulated by their own agency. This could require providers to register with a regulator or government agency in order to provide their satellite service.

Synopsis

The space race is on to bring fast internet to unserved or underserved areas around the world. This comes from using a satellite network from LEO rather than geostationary orbit. Those who live in rural areas will benefit the most, as they are the ones who do not 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 places in the world with internet access.

Digital nomads who work remotely around the world will have more internet access (Photo credit: mentatdgt)

What is needed is wider coverage, especially for those living in developing countries, and the price of the service becomes cheaper. Those who live in urban areas will not have too many problems accessing the Internet. Broadband internet is widely available and 4G LTE and 5G networks for mobile users. For the rest of the world that lives outside of cities and developed areas, it’s a way for them to get internet access for the first time.

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