The new space race is on, and things have changed since the sprint to the moon in the 1950s and 1960s. This time, low Earth orbit is a destination rather than a pass through, and the starting lineup has grown to include China, India, and private space exploration companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic.
The quest to explore and discover is alive, but in a shaky economy, exploration is fueled by practical goals that solve problems and attract investors. To this end, many companies are using space to expand the limits of Earth-based technology and enhance communication systems via low Earth orbit satellite systems. After all, internet data is one thing the world just can’t get enough of.
Satellite internet operators, in particular, are making leaps in technology as they launch massive satellite constellations into low Earth orbit. With the benefit of these satellite communication systems, people all over the world will be able to access the internet, including the 10% of the world’s population who live in areas without mobile phone service or internet access.1
But, will LEO-based internet really improve our world? Let’s take a look at how satellite internet beamed down from low Earth orbit could affect our future.
First things first: where is LEO?
As the name implies, low earth orbit (or LEO) is the nearest orbit to the surface of the Earth. It starts at 160 km above the Earth (99 miles), which is the closest objects can be placed into orbit, and goes out to 1,000 km (621 miles). Just to give some context, keep in mind that the moon is over 238,000 miles away.
LEO is too high up to bump into airplanes (planes soar up to 7.2 miles above the Earth), and much lower than the Van Allen radiation belt, but that doesn’t mean it’s lonely up there. Thousands of satellites are located in LEO, including imaging, weather, communications, and government satellites, as well as the International Space Station (ISS). And every month, dozens more satellites are launched into orbit in LEO.
Communication satellites are getting closer to Earth—and that’s a good thing
For the past 15 years, satellite internet has been delivered to Earth using large, school-bus-sized satellites in high Earth orbit, approximately 23,000 miles away from Earth. This transmission system still works surprisingly well, given that it’s been around for a few decades. Data is transmitted via radio waves and travels at the speed of light. Sounds, fast, right? But there’s this little problem of distance.
Even traveling at the speed of light, it takes a second or so for data to zoom from your home satellite dish, all the way out to the satellite 23,000 miles away, then back to Earth to a ground station (where it fetches the info you need from a server), and then back to your computer (by way of the satellite way out in space). Each big leap takes time, which is compounded by pauses at servers and ground operation centers to add up to delays.
So, due to the distances involved with satellites in space, satellite internet has traditionally been much slower than land-based internet like fiber or cable. And even faster service plans always have this issue of high latency (or delay). You’ll notice this if you ever try playing fast paced games like Fortnite or Apex Legends on satellite internet. You click your mouse to shoot another player, but by the time your action has registered, the other player has moved away. And maybe, you’ve been annihilated in the meantime. Slow speeds are a big disadvantage to more than just gamers, though. In a world looking forward to self-driving cars, smart farms, and the Internet of Things, fast response times are critical.
How low Earth orbit is faster
Low Earth orbit satellites are much closer to Earth, which solves many of the speed and latency issues satellite internet is known for. For example, to reach a Starlink satellite in low Earth orbit, data travels a mere 200 or 300 miles, which is a far cry from 37,000. That means that satellite internet systems in low Earth orbit can deliver faster speeds and have a much lower latency (or delay) than other satellite internet systems in high Earth orbit. Satellite internet delivered from satellites in high Earth orbit can be as high as 624 milliseconds (or 0.6 of a second). Meanwhile, satellite internet delivered via low Earth orbit offers super low latency of 20 to 40 milliseconds.
Pros of LEO satellite internet
- Lower latency (or delay)
- Faster upload and download speeds
- Per satellite cost is small
- Quicker and cheaper to deploy satellites into orbit
- Potential for global connectivity
Cons of LEO satellite internet
- Thousands of LEO satellites are needed to provide internet coverage
- Higher possibility for collision (LEO is getting crowded)
- Could contribute to accumulation of space junk
- Can interfere with astronomy observations
Companies investing in LEO satellite internet
There are dozens of companies around the world that are vested in the plan to bring internet data to Earth with low Earth orbit satellites. Although Starlink has the lead on building out their satellite constellation, Starlink is not the only player. Private companies like OneWeb, Project Kuiper, and others are working on building ground stations and launching satellites to deliver the internet to Earth. Some are working on satellite constellations to deliver data specifically for the Internet of Things. Governments are getting involved, too—China has dubbed satellite internet as a new part of the country’s infrastructure and the government is investing millions into satellite constellations.3
Starlink (a division of SpaceX) has been launching satellites into LEO since 2018, with regular launches occurring since late 2019. Starlink satellites are launched into low Earth orbit in batches of 60. The satellites are launched using partially reusable rockets developed by SpaceX, which lowers the cost and environmental impact of each launch. SpaceX is working on a rocket called the Starship which could be able to launch 240 or more satellites at once.6 Currently, Starlink satellite internet service is available during a public beta phase to customers in parts of the UK, US, and Canada. As more satellites are launched, the Starlink constellation will fill out and Starlink’s service area will expand until it is eventually available globally.
OneWeb, which fell into bankruptcy during the COVID-19 pandemic, was purchased by the UK government and Bharti Global (an Indian telecom giant) in autumn of 2020.4 OneWeb may not be the frontrunner in the space race so far, but the satellite system it has in place offered speeds and service that trump Starlink. OneWeb tests confirmed download speeds of up to 400 Mbps, which surpasses Starlink’s maximum speed of 150 Mbps. In December 2020, OneWeb resumed satellite launches and is projected to have service in some parts of the world by the final quarter of 2021.5 OneWeb has indicated a plan to have satellite internet service available globally in 2022.
Project Kuiper, or Kuiper as it’s sometimes known, is a satellite internet constellation project funded by Amazon. Although Kuiper doesn’t offer satellite internet service yet, it too has reported higher speeds than Starlink—around 400 Mbps. Amazon released an update in December of 2020 regarding the development of an “affordable customer terminal” that can deliver speedy download and upload speeds with low latency.7,8 Having an affordable user terminal might be a big selling point for Project Kuiper as Starlink’s user terminal is priced at $499, which puts it way out of reach for most of the world’s underserved and unconnected population.
The future of satellite internet
A common question regarding LEO satellite internet constellations is whether we will all use satellite internet in the future. The answer is a little complicated. Yes, we will all benefit, but not necessarily by using Starlink or OneWeb for our internet service.
Before we get ahead of ourselves—let’s take a step back and remember that satellite internet won’t replace terrestrial internet providers anytime soon. Sometimes the excitement about Starlink and similar projects leads people to think that LEO satellite communications will be the best choice for everyone in the future. That simply isn’t true. People who live in urban areas can usually get internet and data services that are faster and cheaper from fiber, cable, and even cellular providers. This will likely remain true for many years.
In cities and urban areas, telecom companies utilized existing cable and phone infrastructure to provide internet service. Eventually, these lines have been replaced and upgraded to provide for faster speeds and greater capacity. As technology has advanced, fiber internet revolutionized terrestrial internet systems by offering speeds up to 2,000 Mbps. But what about all those homes and businesses in outer suburbs, small towns, and rural areas that aren’t connected to cable or landline phones? What do we do about them? That’s where satellite internet comes in.
Installing terrestrial internet infrastructure is expensive, costing about $27,000 per mile.9 Providing service to these same customers through satellite constellations is much less expensive. Yes, it costs billions, but not as much as it would cost to run cable lines underground and under the ocean to reach every farm, island, and rural outpost in the world.
Satellite internet service from low Earth orbit systems will be a huge boon for the millions of people who don’t have internet service. 10% of the world’s population lives in areas that don’t have cell phone service or internet options. And the rest of us are crammed into overcrowded cities because it’s harder to get an education, access healthcare, and earn a good living in rural parts of the world. Just think of the possibilities of global internet access—people could live and work from anywhere in the world. Small scale farmers could sell their crops at fair prices by leveraging real time data and communicating with people around the world. Remote workers in dozens of industries could live anywhere they want, revitalizing small towns and rural areas and lowering urban congestion and pollution. With global internet access, people in rural areas would have better access to education, healthcare, information, and financial opportunity.
But, that doesn’t mean that satellite data will only affect people living in rural or underserved areas. During natural or manmade disasters, terrestrial infrastructure and communication networks often fail. Having additional redundancies—beamed down from space, no less—will provide for a safer future. Emergency response teams, disaster recovery units, military operations, and scientific expeditions will all benefit from having satellite internet and data services available globally.
Everyone traveling through an area with poor cellular service knows the limitations of our current data networks. Cellular networks are like an invisible tether that keeps most of the world’s population close to cities. If that tether was clipped, and it was just as easy to send a text from inner Mongolia as London, then our world could change significantly.
Other uses for satellite data
The benefits of LEO communication satellites aren’t limited to internet access. Small satellite systems in LEO can also be used to send data between mobile phones.2 Satellites can also be used for phone service, self-driving cars, and for the Internet of Things. Smart farms in rural areas could “know” when to water themselves and when to be harvested.
Companies like Lynk and AST SpaceMobile are developing LEO satellite systems that can be used to send text messages from standard (unmodified) cell phones. This space-based data service could serve us in the future as a backup connection during natural or man made disasters. It could also be an affordable teleco option that could be available to everyone on the planet without the need for building millions of cell phone towers or running millions of lines of cable or fiber.
The final take
LEO satellite systems are poised to deliver benefits to almost everyone on Earth, either directly or indirectly. These constellations could create tangible solutions to connectivity problems millions of people face daily. Many parts of the world are disadvantaged by a lack of access to the internet. Low Earth orbit constellations can provide global service in a cost-effective way.
In addition to the 10% of the global population without internet access, billions more could also benefit from LEO satellite communications through the Internet of Things (IoT). Smart technology can change and evolve to utilize this new, space-based data service in ways that aren’t possible with terrestrial data systems. Additionally, LEO satellite internet and data services will provide safety measures through redundancies and support rescue operations and disaster services.