An estimated 3.8 billion people—half the global population—is still offline. A new breed of satellite internet companies aims to change that with constellations of hundreds or even thousands of low-flying satellites that beam access to all corners of the globe. That’s why space-based internet everywhere makes our list of the top-10 cloud technologies changing the world.
Communications satellites are nothing new. Telstar ushered in the era of TV delivered via satellite back in 1962 with coverage lasting 20 minutes or so as it passed overhead. Today, telecommunications satellites blanket the globe with TV, phone, and internet service.
But most of these satellites are limited by their extreme distance. They typically sit tens of thousands of miles up, in geosynchronous earth orbits (GEO) that allow them to track the ground at the same speed that the Earth turns. Effectively, they seem to hover above entire continents, covering thousands of square miles.
GEO satellites cut down on launch costs because fewer satellites are required to cover larger areas. But they also degrade the performance of two-way communications. That’s because as signals travel all that distance, latencies of more than half a second make phone calls just a bit awkward, and many cloud applications untenable. The relatively small number of satellites also limits the number of users who can connect at the same time.
But satellites that fly in lower orbits in greater numbers promise to put low-latency, space-based internet in range of just about everyone on Earth. Service is slated to start as early as 2020.
Falling launch costs and an influx of new investments are fueling a boom in internet service delivered via satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO). Orbiting only a few hundred miles up slashes the latency of broadband connections to just 25 milliseconds or so, on par with ground-based connections, but without the expense of cellular or wired infrastructure. That will bring high-quality broadband within the reach of people in rural and underdeveloped regions everywhere.
Here are three of the most prominent of the new providers.
In May 2019, SpaceX launched a whopping 60 satellites at the same time as part of its Starlink internet service venture. CEO Elon Musk says he plans to launch up to 12,000 satellites in all. That’s more than enough to alarm astronomers who fear that the satellites—which glow from reflected sunlight after dusk and before dawn—will drown out natural objects in the night sky.
OneWeb satellite constellation
OneWeb has six internet satellites in LEO, out of 650 planned in its initial rollout. The company plans to inaugurate its service in the Arctic in 2020 with 375 gigabits per second of total capacity covering wide swaths of Alaska and Canada.
Even online retail giant Amazon is getting in on the satellite broadband action. Its Project Kuiper satellite internet service, revealed in early 2019, will launch more than 3,200 satellites. “The goal here is broadband everywhere,” CEO Jeff Bezos said at a conference in June 2019.
Doubling the number of people online will require scaling up terrestrial infrastructure as well, most notably the data centers needed to carry all that new capacity.
Companies such as T5 Data Centers are already building new capacity as fast as they can to handle increasing demand for cloud services—even before the new satellites come online. As Jimmy Bailey, Chief Development Officer at T5 puts it, “There’s no end in sight to the growth in demand for the kind of reliable, secure connectivity that we can provide.”