A new breed of broadband satellites could have you living on a desert island

satellites lead image

The ViaSat-1 satellite's launch.

Credit: ViaSat

New broadband-friendly satellites could change where we live.

What if I were to tell you that you could quit the burgs and move to an Alaskan hinterland cabin, then watch streamed movies all day, coupled with a touch of elk hunting for your sustenance, a la Discovery Channel?

Or you could slink away to a remote, thatched hut on the beach, hack a solar panel, nab a few flounder, and work like you’re in the middle of the city.

Nice idea, right? But the problem is, and always has been, bandwidth: you are at a competitive disadvantage in remote areas, because of trickling Internet.

Even the log-mansion sprinkled boonies, however seductive, are just not wired like the megalopolis. There aren’t enough consumers there to pay for it.

Pie in the sky or bird in the sky

Well, that all might be about to change. It’s because of a slew of satellite launches recently completed, and upcoming.

That splurge of new satellites could fill Internet gaps for adventurous dwellers.

The new satellites use Ka-band spectrum, which has significantly more capacity over older Ku-band. Better, and narrower spot beams, where data is economically squirted at the ground onto small footprints, plays too.

These new birds promise to bring more bandwidth, capacity and competition, followed by falling prices, one hopes.

Inmarsat

Inmarsat’s new mobile broadband service is called Global Xpress and promises 50 Mbps download speeds. Steerable beams allow capacity to be directed where it’s needed.

Its first super-satellite, the Inmarsat-5 F1, came online in June 2014 and currently covers Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Inmarsat reckons it will have a couple more craft up by the end of 2014, and have global coverage in 2015.

ViaSat

ViaSat’s Ka-band bird, ViaSat-1, went live in 2012. It provides fixed-location Internet service, over a slab of North America, through consumer-oriented sellers like Exede Internet.

Download speeds are up to 12 Mbps. The spot beam nature of ViaSat-1 means you can’t move around with the dish.

ViaSat is planning the launch of ViaSat-2 in 2016, which it says will provide “double the bandwidth economics,” which presumably means more bandwidth for less money, or more capacity, but in any case sounds like a good thing.

It’s also promising more coverage area, including outside the U.S. ViaSat-1 obtained increased capacity by reducing its coverage area.

Echostar Hughes

Hughes’s current HughesNet Gen 4 service uses the Echostar XVII launched in 2012, and offers speeds up to 15 Mbps.

A new Hughes’ EchoStar XIX is planned for mid-2016, with 50% more capacity than EchoStar XVII.

Infrastructure failings

The modern, '80s-style Fax machine ushered in a dream of remote toil, free of offices and cubicles. And it kind of worked back then, despite the fading paper. It was possible to operate businesses out of the suburbs, and some functioned half-way up mountains.

Today, though, we want bandwidth, and lots of it. MNOs, or Mobile Network Operators, and ISPs, don’t want to spend on infrastructure in population-sparse areas, because it’s not economic to hang wire where there aren’t any people — try driving around the Western U.S. making calls to see what I mean. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

A satellite system investment, on the other hand, is a roughly one-time expense, already hedged through aviation, military, government, maritime, enterprise, drilling, and at the end of the long road, the consumer. Essentially, whatever will stick.

Latency issues

One word of warning if you plan on low-latency-requiring beachside activities, like equities trading or opponent gaming: those satellites are way up there. The round trip, in the case of EchoStar XVII, is about 45,000 miles. So expect a half-second delay in any communication with servers from your tropical gazebo.

Wireless 4G, or fiber cables, which send and receive packets in the milliseconds, are faster pipes. But then you might not find wireless 4G or fiber cables on a deserted beach. No consumers to pay for it.

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