Apr 11 2023

Satellite Broadband Brings Internet Connectivity to Remote Locations

Could satellites in low Earth orbit be the key to closing the digital divide?

Internet connectivity has long been plagued by accessibility issues. Reliable connectivity can be expensive or nearly impossible to achieve in rural or low-income areas, which only extends the digital divide. In higher education, students who live in areas with unreliable internet access have a harder time completing schoolwork or attending remote classes.

Satellite internet access has been available for a couple of decades with the use of geosynchronous satellites, which orbit the earth at a distance of about 22,300 miles. However, this large distance from the earth creates high latency, or a long delay in receiving a signal.

Yet, the recent introduction of satellites in low Earth orbit has stirred up a lot of hype. LEO satellites orbit at a distance of only 300 to 1,200 miles from Earth, which allows for low-latency, high-speed internet access. With this, users can participate in uninterrupted, real-time communications, including video calls, virtual worlds and gaming.

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Satellite Broadband Has Potential, but Affordability Issues Remain

Companies from around the world have entered this new LEO “space race,” but only one — Starlink — is already functional and offering internet service. Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to make broadband connectivity more affordable for underserved communities around the world, but its service may not be functional for at least three years; its first set of satellites will launch in 2024 and the rest by 2026. UK-based OneWeb will have launched about 700 satellites by 2024, although its internet service will be provided to telecom companies rather than consumers. China also has plans to launch its own system of 13,000 satellites over the next few years.

Dan York, director of internet technology at the Internet Society, explains that while the potential of LEO satellites is “incredibly exciting” — including the recent development of mobile connectivity (from a moving truck, train or boat) — challenges certainly exist.

Providers must arrange and pay for expensive and sometimes unsuccessful satellite launches, and they must secure regulatory approval in each country they wish to operate in. Perhaps most important, this tech needs to be affordable if it is to have any effect on closing the digital divide.

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“It’s a huge amount of work,” York says. “We don’t know if these LEO systems will be affordable to the people who need the connectivity the most. The initial equipment costs and the monthly costs may be out of the range of many college students on a limited budget. To make it affordable, students may need to find subsidies from their institution or government. I’m hopeful that increased competition will make connectivity more affordable.”

Lisa Parks, director of the global media technologies and cultures lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says using satellites to ensure internet access to underserved communities “is more a government policy issue and local cost concern than a technological fix. There are multiple geosynchronous satellites and satellite constellations in LEO that can be used to provide broadband access, but it is often very challenging for people in rural and low-income communities to afford the $500-plus shipping and $100-a-month service fee for Starlink, for instance.”

$8.2 billion

The value of the global satellite internet market in 2022

Source: Grand View Research, “Satellite Internet Market Size, Share & Trends Analysis Report,” December 2022

Reliable Broadband Connectivity May Rely on Increased Competition

While many challenges exist, LEO satellite internet providers are just getting warmed up. Within the next five to 10 years, there could be as many as 90,000 satellites in LEO. Geosynchronous providers such as HughesNet and Viasat are also expanding their capacity by partnering with LEO providers and launching satellites into medium earth orbit.

This new space race is also forcing terrestrial internet service providers to “up their game and speed up deployment of fiber and broadband. All of this should hopefully bring about increased competition and provide better internet access so that we can connect the unconnected and bring the opportunities of the internet to everyone,” says York.

Courtesy of SpaceX

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