Mega-constellations: will they bridge the digital divide?
Image credit: Nasa
Thousands of telecommunications satellites are expected to blanket the Earth within the next five years and usher in an era of digital equality and omnipresent high-speed broadband.
When Adam moved to the island of Saint Helena four years ago, his life completely changed. Not only did he trade busy, over-crowded London for the slow-paced remote island with a population of only 4,500, he also got a taste of a permanent digital detox.
“I was told the internet on Saint Helena was bad before I arrived but I did not expect it to be as bad as it was,” Adam says. “It is noticeably slow, depending on what package you get. You have a maximum of 21GB a month for £162, to a paltry 750MB a month for £13.50. This can run out very quickly due to the nature of modern webpages being image and video heavy or if your computer automatically updates itself.”
The more expensive packages are out of reach for many islanders as the average wage on Saint Helena is a meagre £6,000 a year.
For Adam, it meant the end of Netflix, Spotify and BBC iPlayer. Skype video-calls with family members in the UK became nearly impossible.
When the local internet provider started offering unlimited bandwidth from midnight to 6am, Adam, who at that time worked as a secondary school teacher, noticed a worrying trend. “Many students were tired in the mornings because they had been staying up late into the a.m. using the internet,” he says. He believes the students weren’t just browsing or killing time playing online games as their counterparts in the well-connected parts of the world frequently do. They were doing their school research instead of getting a good night’s sleep.
The Saint Helenians are among the 3.5 billion people from all over the world who live either with limited or no internet access at all, according to a 2016 report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). That means 47 per cent of the global population not being able to benefit from the knowledge gathered on the worldwide web or partake in digital economy.
No internet means limited education opportunities, isolation from the rest of the world, but also limited access to specialised healthcare for those living in secluded communities, the ITU says.
It’s not only remote ocean islands and developing African countries that suffer from digital isolation. According to a 2016 report by Cable.co.uk, ‘internet black holes’ still exist in the UK with internet speeds below those at the Mount Everest base camp.
According to the ITU, bridging the digital divide is a key element of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations in 2015, which include ending poverty and hunger, securing education and healthcare for everyone, promoting equality and ensuring security and justice all over the world.
For American entrepreneur Greg Wyler, connecting the world’s unconnected is something of a life’s mission. After selling his first business, a company building heat sinks for PCs, in the 1990s, Wyler met the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame and got inspired by his vision of a better Africa - an Africa that provides opportunities through education and better access to information.
Wyler then spent the early 2000s laying fibre-optic cables in rural Rwanda and building mobile telecommunications networks, but it was a struggle.
“Fibre is wonderful as long as it’s all nicely packed together, you have nice roads and it’s nicely laid out,” Wyler commented last year during a lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. “Once the population density gets further apart, these technologies, which were designed for high GDP (gross domestic product), high-population density, don’t really work in low GDP, low-population density, so we needed something else.”
That’s when Wyler turned his gaze to the sky. He certainly wasn’t the first one to do so. According to Yvon Henri, who heads the ITU’s Space Services Department, the union has hoped satellites would one day connect the world’s unconnected since the mid-1990s. At one of its quadrennial conferences, the ITU decided to set aside a portion of the radio spectrum it manages for exactly this purpose.
However, technology needed to mature. Satellites have been providing some internet access since the 1990s but prices were high, bandwidth limited and the connection slow. “To ensure we really connect the unconnected, you would have to have a terminal that is almost free of charge,”says Henri. “And this is the challenge in fact – to have those constellations working but with some ground terminal for people which has a price that is as low as possible.”
The first low-orbiting constellations such as Iridium and Globalstar were focusing on professionals working in remote environments rather than on low-income users in developing countries.
In case of geostationary satellites, which orbit the Earth at the altitude of 36,000km, signal latency of up to 700 milliseconds further complicates users’ convenience.
Until today, satellite technology has not been up to the task. The Saint Helenians, for example, share a satellite internet connection of 20Mbit/s, which is about a fifth of what a single household in most European cities can enjoy, according to the Connect Saint Helena Campaign, which is pushing for a fibre-optic cable to be laid to the island.
“I just thought: what if we could bring the satellites closer?” Wyler said. “I am not a satellite engineer so I didn’t know it was hard.”
Wyler wasn’t the first to come up with this idea, but he did so at the right time.
In the mid-1990s a company called Teledesic, backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, envisaged a constellation of more than 800 satellites in the 700km orbit that would provide uplink speeds of up to 100Mbit/s and downlinks of up to 720Mbit/s all over the world. However, the cost was high and the project never took off.
Wyler’s first shot at bridging the digital divide with satellites was the O3b constellation. The name stands for the Other 3 Billion, referring to the half of the world’s population unconnected to the internet. Launched in 2013, the constellation currently operates 12 satellites at 8,000km altitude covering mostly equatorial regions.
For Wyler, O3b’s reach was not enough. He left O3b, which is now owned by SES, and embarked on a mission that is hailed by many as the real breakthrough in satellite internet connectivity.
“2012 comes along and 54 per cent of the world’s population still don’t have internet,” said Wyler. “I was retired for the fourth time or so and I started thinking – this really has to change. We must do something. It’s really still too big an issue and I started coming up with a vision – what does success mean?”
For Wyler, success meant a solar-powered satellite terminal providing voice services and at least 50Mbit/s of data on every school in the world by 2022 – a terminal that would be so cheap and simple that even a school child would be able to install it and build a local telecommunications network.
“There are two million schools that have no internet,” he said. “That’s a lot of kids and they have very limited opportunities for education because of that.”
Wyler launched OneWeb, a project to deliver affordable high-speed internet access through a constellation of 720 low-Earth orbit satellites in 2014. At that time, many thought the venture would follow in the footsteps of Teledesic and never come to pass. However, while working mostly quietly and out of the media spotlight, OneWeb has been moving fast and appears on track to start launching first satellites in early 2018.
‘There are two million schools that have no internet. That’s a lot of kids with very limited opportunities.’
In 2015, a group of high-profile investors jumped aboard including chip-maker Qualcomm, aerospace giant Airbus, global drinks business Coca-Cola and satellite operator Intelsat. Airbus was tasked with building OneWeb satellites – each costing less than $500,000 and weighing some 140kg. To build the whole constellation in the desired timeframe, the main challenge for Airbus was to develop manufacturing processes that would make it possible to churn out spacecraft at a pace previously unheard of in the satellite industry.
OneWeb later changed the architecture to include 640 satellites in 18 orbital planes circling the Earth at 1,200km. During the Royal Aeronautical Society lecture, Wyler announced that the company, which had a few months prior to that secured a $1.2bn investment from Softbank, was considering adding a further 2,000 satellites at different low-Earth orbit altitudes in later stages.
The satellites will transmit signals from terrestrial gateways spaced approximately 5,000km apart to user terminals all around the globe, providing Wi-Fi, 3G and LTE coverage. The user terminals will smoothly transition from one satellite to the next as they appear within their reach, relying on next-generation high-throughput Qualcomm chipsets, Wyler explained.
During the lecture, Wyler insisted that the constellation doesn’t aim to compete with fibre and ground-based cellular infrastructure but rather complement both.
“We don’t want people to stop running fibre, we don’t want them to stop putting in microwaves,” he said. “We will just pick up whatever is remaining.”
In addition to connecting the 3.5 billion unconnected, OneWeb satellites will provide coverage for Internet of Things applications, connected air and cruising aircraft.
“We can cover pole-to-pole gate-to-gate connectivity at hundreds of megabits per second: the same quality of connectivity that you have in your living room,” said Wyler.
The relatively short distance from Earth allows OneWeb to reduce latencies to 30 milliseconds compared to the 700ms of the geostationary satellites.
For Saint Helenians, OneWeb brings hope. But the journey will be more complicated. The island, known mostly as the place of exile of the defeated French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, is too far from any satellite ground station that would allow the satellites to deliver internet connectivity to the remote outpost.
According to Christian von der Ropp, who leads the Connect Saint Helena campaign, the next generation of OneWeb satellites might feature inter-satellite laser links that would allow beaming internet from one satellite to another. For the first generation, however, the satellite needs to be at the same time within the line of site of the user terminal and the ground station to be of any use for bi-directional links.
Von der Ropp has been campaigning for an extension of a proposed submarine fibre-optic cable between South Africa and Brazil to link to Saint Helena since 2012. He is trying to persuade OneWeb and other emerging satellite operators to build a satellite ground station on Saint Helena that would lease a portion of the capacity of the prospected submarine cable and help the economically malnourished island to cover the cost.
Saint Helena is part of a British Overseas Territory that also covers its nearest neighbours Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. “The island is largely reliant on the financial aid from the UK,” von der Ropp explains. “Every year the UK government spends about £20m on the island and basically funds everything there. There is no real economy.”
The extension of the cable would cost some $15m, which for Saint Helena is a lot of money.
With the cable connection, though, the islanders could get unlimited data allowance with a bandwidth of at least 16Mbit/s and OneWeb would be able to cover the whole Southern Atlantic including Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, according to von der Ropp.
“Also the maritime sector would benefit,” von der Ropp says. “And the aeronautic sector. All the airlines look to connect their aircraft so that passengers have internet access. There are oil rigs as well.”
Von der Ropp says OneWeb, as well as several other projects, are keen on the idea.
OneWeb may be the front-runner in the mega-constellation race but there are already others lining up with bold plans to blanket the Earth with hundreds and thousands of satellites.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is one of them – working quietly on a rumoured constellation of more than 7,500 satellites in non-geosynchronous orbit with the same aim to provide broadband coverage all over the globe.
According to ITU’s Yvon Henri, little is known about SpaceX’s plans, although the company has hinted it may launch a test spacecraft shortly and commence regular launches in 2019, only a year after OneWeb.
In 2016, American aerospace manufacturer Boeing announced similar ambitions. Canadian Telesat proposed a more modest 117-satelite fleet.
“OneWeb is the one that is the most advanced in terms of the development of the constellation,” says Henri. “We haven’t heard so much from the others but for OneWeb it’s certainly happening. They will be the first real response to bridging the digital divide.”
According to Henri not all projects will make it from the drawing board to orbit. The most important resource for such constellations – the radio spectrum – is limited and will only accommodate a few.
“There are certainly more projects than, in reality, the frequency sharing would allow,” says Henri. “Let’s be optimistic that two systems should be able to share the bands. That would be really good for the competition.
“Being overly optimistic but very cautious, I would say three might be possible but with a lot of question marks.”
ITU allocates the spectrum on a first-come, first-served basis and every newcomer has to ensure it will not interfere with previously launched systems.
OneWeb has a clever business plan and hopes to reach the remotest places on the planet through a partner that has done it before – Coca-Cola. With 39 million points of distribution, the fizzy-drink maker has the largest reseller network in the world, according to Wyler.
“When they did some studies in Africa, they found that if they add internet connectivity as a proposition to their resellers to sell to their customers, you are increasing their income,” said Wyler.
“Some of these studies have shown a $50 increase, which for people in these areas is a lot of money.”
Experts worry that this increasing number of satellites will intensify the problem of space debris, which has been getting out of control. A study by the University of Southampton indicates that the number of orbital collisions could increase by 50 per cent if constellations are not managed properly. Every collision creates a large number of uncontrolled fragments that further threaten other satellites.
According to ESA, there are currently 23,000 objects in orbit larger than 10cm and hundreds of thousands of smaller fragments that are not catalogued or tracked.
For the orbital environment to remain useable, mega-constellations would have to have measures in place that would allow removal of satellites from orbit soon after their end of life.
OneWeb says it will be able to deorbit its satellites within five years, which is considerably faster than the current recommendation of 25 years.