Satellite-based internet possible by year-end, says SpaceX

Amazon, Tesla-associated SpaceX and OneWeb are emerging as just some of the potential suppliers of a new kind of data-friendly satellite internet service that could bring broadband IoT connectivity to most places on Earth.

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With SpaceX’s successful launch of an initial array of broadband-internet-carrying satellites last week, and Amazon’s surprising posting of numerous satellite engineering-related job openings on its job board this month, one might well be asking if the next-generation internet space race is finally getting going. (I first wrote about OneWeb’s  satellite internet plans it was concocting with Airbus four years ago.)

This new batch of satellite-driven internet systems, if they work and are eventually switched on, could provide broadband to most places, including previously internet-barren locations, such as rural areas. That would be good for high-bandwidth, low-latency remote-internet of things (IoT) and increasingly important edge-server connections for verticals like oil and gas and maritime. Data could even end up getting stored in compliance-friendly outer space, too. Leaky ground-based connections, also, perhaps a thing of the past.

Of the principal new internet suppliers, SpaceX has gotten farthest along. That’s in part because it has commercial impetus. It needed to create payload for its numerous rocket projects. The Tesla electric-car-associated company (the two firms share materials science) has not only launched its first tranche of 60 satellites for its own internet constellation, called Starlink, but also successfully launched numerous batches (making up the full constellation of 75 satellites) for Iridium’s replacement, an upgraded constellation called Iridium NEXT.

Potential competitor OneWeb launched its first six Airbus-built satellites in February. It has plans for 900 more. SpaceX has been approved for 4,365 more by the FCC, and Project Kuiper, as Amazon’s space internet project is known, wants to place 3,236 satellites in orbit, according to International Telecommunication Union filings discovered by GeekWire earlier this year. Startup LeoSat, which I wrote about last year, aims to build an internet backbone constellation. Facebook, too, is exploring space-delivered internet.

Why the move to space?

Laser technical progress, where data is sent in open, free space, rather than via a restrictive, land-based cable or via traditional radio paths, is partly behind this space-internet rush. “Bits travel faster in free space than in glass-fiber cable,” LeoSat explained last year. Additionally, improving microprocessor tech is also part of the mix.

One important difference from existing older-generation satellite constellations is that this new generation of internet satellites will be located in low Earth orbit (LEO). Initial Starlink satellites will be placed at about 350 miles above Earth, with later launches deployed at 710 miles.

There’s an advantage to that. Traditional satellites in geostationary orbit, or GSO, have been deployed about 22,000 miles up. That extra distance versus LEO introduces latency and is one reason earlier generations of Internet satellites are plagued by slow round-trip times. Latency didn’t matter when GSO was introduced in 1964, and commercial satellites, traditionally, have been pitched as one-way video links, such as are used by sporting events for broadcast, and not for data.

And when will we get to experience these new ISPs? “Starlink is targeted to offer service in the Northern U.S. and Canadian latitudes after six launches,” SpaceX says on its website. Each launch would deliver about 60 satellites. “SpaceX is targeting two to six launches by the end of this year.”

Global penetration of the “populated world” could be obtained after 24 launches, it thinks.

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