Why You Should Care about a Space-Based Internet

NEWS ANALYSIS: The ITU has just approved Amazon’s plans for a network of 3,200 internet satellites, while the FCC has approved constellations of nearly 12,000 for SpaceX and 650 for OneWeb resulting in global coverage.

Spacex.Satellite

Sometime in the next decade you can expect something on the order of 16,000 satellites to be operating in low Earth orbit and providing internet access to anyone with the ability to access them. Those internet satellites would be interconnected into a global mesh that would include a series of ground stations located around the world. If all goes according to plan, nearly everyone in the world would have access to reliable, low-latency, high-speed internet access whenever they wanted it.

Right now, two of the companies vying to provide orbital internet service, OneWeb and SpaceX, have satellites in orbit, and both of those companies have received Federal Communications Commission approval for their initial constellations. OneWeb has six satellites in orbit and plans to start offering 5G coverage to an initial round of customers in 2020, with full operation starting in 2021.

SpaceX has two test satellites in orbit, with plans to launch more of its Starlink satellites in May, according to a media advisory sent to eWEEK on April 5. Eventually SpaceX plans to have a massive constellation of nearly 12,000 internet satellites in orbits at three altitudes ranging from 350 to 400 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Amazon still needs to receive FCC approval for its planned constellation of about 3,500 satellites. FCC approval is about more than just the radio frequencies needed to control and operate the satellites and to provide communications services. The FCC also needs to approve each operator’s plans to deorbit satellites at the end of their useful life so that they don’t contribute to space junk or add to collision risks. Because of the plans to orbit thousands of new satellites, the FCC has announced plans to update its rules.

Goal: To Reach 95 percent of World's Population

Amazon’s plans call for its satellites to provide internet service to about 95 percent of the world’s population by using orbits that cover latitudes from 56 degrees north to 56 degrees south. This plan would exclude parts of Alaska and Canada, parts of Russia and most of Scandinavia. OneWeb is launching its satellites into a polar orbit that would cover the entire globe. SpaceX is also planning to cover the globe, but hasn’t said what sort of orbital plan the company has.

The FCC has also approved licenses for internet satellites from Telesat, Leosat and Kepler Communications.  Ontario-based Telesat already operates a constellation of 17 geosynchronous satellites, and the company has signed an agreement with Blue Origin, the rocket company owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for launch services. Blue Origin is also assumed to be the launch partner for Amazon’s 3,200 Kuiper Project satellites.

Amazon has already launched AWS Ground Station, which is a cloud service for space communications. With its own terrestrial communications capability already in place through AWS, and with the build out of Ground Station already under way, Amazon will be ready to provide services to customers once enough of its satellites are launched and in operation. Amazon did not respond to questions from eWEEK about when its satellites would be launched and placed into operation.

This anticipated growth in global internet services will have a profound impact on IT and enterprise communications in two ways. First, it will add an estimated 4 billion potential users to a global internet as both customers and as internet users. Telesat and OneWeb specifically state that part of their mission is to close the digital divide by providing internet access to unserved and underserved areas. The Canadian government is supporting Telesat’s effort in this area. OneWeb has connecting schools and students as a major point on its service timeline.

Amazon's Intentions Are Pretty Clear

Amazon’s motivations are probably clear, because more internet customers means more Amazon customers, and if an Amazon internet can provide the pathway, so much the better. SpaceX has already stated that it plans to use revenue from its internet service to pay for its space exploration missions.

The other way that these satellite internet providers will impact IT is by having global access to high-speed, low-latency communications, most of them operating as 5G sites. Assuming that they can deliver such communications reliably, this means that your organization will no longer have to worry about remote operations, communications with branch or field offices, or with employees when they travel. Your IoT devices will have reliable, high-speed access when they need it.

At this point, the important questions that need to be answered are how fast the communications links are, what they’ll cost and how secure they’ll be. Because there are several operators that will compete for your business, it’s likely that costs will be kept under control. But the cost of operating your end of the link remains to be determined. For example, using a satellite phone with a low-earth-orbit satellite must be done outdoors, because the signals won’t pass through the roofs of most buildings.

Likewise, satellite communications these days require an external dish or some kind of antenna besides what’s found in a cell phone. Will these new satellites be useful inside buildings? Will there need to be some kind of antenna system? Right now, we don’t know.

Why This Matters to Enterprises

These questions matter because you need more than the presence of a signal to close the digital divide. You also need affordable access to whatever equipment is required, and right now we don’t know what that might entail.

But for the enterprise, fast, low-latency, reliable and ubiquitous communications can fundamentally change how you do business. That capability will start appearing in a few years. It’s time to start planning for it now.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...