Small satellites offer hope of true worldwide broadband

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Full, superfast broadband could be just around the corner for everyone on the planet, thanks to swarms of small satellites.

Despite all the advances that technology has brought about, there is a digital divide around the globe: those with connectivity and those without.

The reality is that no amount of technology will circumvent poverty, and the proper ‘levelling up’ of connectivity will only happen when the necessary hardware – namely a smartphone – is available for everyone. Theoretically, that’s possible, but even then not everyone has access to a network.

Space-based internet is set to resolve this problem. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) space is filling up with satellite constellations that aim, when complete, to give total broadband internet coverage around the world.

Starlink, which is a division of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, claims that both speed and latency could be at least equivalent to those currently experienced by superfast fibre optics – around 1Gbit/s and 10ns respectively, although a signal will always have to go from Earth to the satellite constellation and back down again, so reaching this latency target is going to be a challenge for the space-based systems.

Latency particularly becomes an issue for serious gamers, so it is not a deal-breaker given the bigger picture of giving everyone access to high-speed internet, even when the use of fibre is unfeasible. StarLink has satellites that orbit the Earth at only 550km, which is very low Earth orbit (defined as up to 2,000km) and consequently reduces the latency effect associated with satellites in a much higher orbit.

As recently as July 2022, Starlink added a further 53 satellites, taking the current constellation size to over 2,000 – enough to support space internet in 30 countries beyond initial roll-out in USA and Canada. Ukraine also is served by Starlink after a plea from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for help for his war-torn country earlier this year.

Starlink has permission for 12,000 satellites to go into orbit so it can complete its constellation and provide a truly global service.

UK government-backed OneWeb is building a 650-strong network, and Amazon plans to launch its first prototype satellites, under the banner of Project Kuiper, by the end of the year.

Inmarsat, which is being acquired by US rival Viasat in a $7.3bn (about £6.2bn) deal, has 14 satellites in higher level geostationary orbit – providing services for shipping, aviation, and governments – but is also planning its own small and targeted low-orbit constellation.

China too is making steps in satellite communications including plans for a 13,000-strong constellation of LEO satellites. As a vast country, it has many of the remote rural areas that would benefit from space internet, but details are typically vague.

Also vague is the timing of when all these systems will firstly be launched into space, secondly be able to offer internet service, and finally offer the full global reach that they promise.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper announced earlier in 2022 that it has secured up to 83 launches from three commercial space companies – Arianespace, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) – which should have enough capacity to carry into space the majority of the 3,236 satellites that make up its satellite constellation.

As mentioned previously, Starlink is already operational in 32 countries. In October 2019, the US communications regulator applied to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which coordinates the use of wireless frequencies, on behalf of SpaceX to bid for spectrum for an additional 30,000 satellites.

The US government has awarded SpaceX almost $900m in public subsidies to support the expansion of satellite internet coverage to rural areas.

While Starlink’s satellite internet coverage reaches most of Earth, service can only be accessed in countries that have licensed SpaceX to provide the service.

While not as mature commercially as Starlink, OneWeb is also operational. Many space projects have been hampered by the lack of access to Russian launch vehicles since the Ukraine war, but OneWeb has signed an agreement with SpaceX for launch access and hopes to resume completion of its constellation this year.

In June 2022, OneWeb and the European Space Agency, together with SatixFy (antenna technology provider) and CGI (5G services provider), achieved the milestone of demonstrating a high-speed, low-latency full 5G end-to-end link with OneWeb’s LEO satellite constellation and the 5G/6G Hub at ESA/ECSAT’s Harwell centre in Oxfordshire, in a project supported by the UK Space Agency.

Called the Sunrise Partnership Project, it will continue to conduct further testing to explore the system’s full capabilities with LEO and GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit) links for mobility services. After these tests are completed, the user terminal will be “fine-tuned’ and optimised for different mobility use cases, targeting a low-cost and effective system to provide OneWeb commercial services for land, maritime, and aviation markets.

Massimiliano Ladovaz, OneWeb CTO, said: “We are working together to connect those hardest to reach with new space-based LEO connectivity. The ground-breaking Satixfy electronically steered array antenna technology will, once in commercial production, enable mobility customers such as airlines, train operators, and coach companies to leverage the power not only of the OneWeb LEO network, but also terrestrial 5G and legacy GEO satellite networks. A hybrid, multi-beam, multi-constellation solution that ensures that passengers remain connected no matter where they are – be it mid-air, mid-ocean, or in the most remote corners of the world.”

There have been issues with space-based internet, although many of the technical ones appear to be resolving themselves as experience builds.

But also building is the amount of hardware floating around our planet. ‘Only’ about 10,000 devices have been launched into space since the first in 1957, but 30 per cent of those have been in the last six years. The numbers required to complete these satellite constellations will multiply this quantity many times.

There are, at least, two problems with this. Firstly, astronomers complain of satellite light pollution. The International Dark Sky Association claims that nowhere on Earth is now unaffected by light pollution from satellites.

Following these concerns and subsequent collaboration from the astronomy community, StarLink engineers have redesigned their satellites – specifically the materials used – to reduce reflected light to about a quarter that of its initial designs. It’s certainly not a problem solved, considering the number of satellites that are still to be launched, but it does show that commercial communications companies have an appreciation for the work of astronomers.

The second issue with this rapidly growing population of spacecraft is debris.

Of those 10,000 spacecraft circling the Earth, approximately a third are already out of commission; they are space junk. Latest European Space Agency figures indicate that there are nearly 129 million debris objects, ranging in size from 1mm to more than 10cm. Debris ranges from paint flecks, nuts, bolts and frozen satellite coolant to astronaut tools and rocket parts.

Due to high impact speed in space – some ~22,000mph in lower Earth orbit – even sub-millimetre debris poses a realistic threat to space flight. If something the size of a mobile phone was to hit a satellite, it would probably mean lights out for that satellite as well as a huge chunk of internet access down on Earth. Debris is very much a problem on the space industry’s radar, and it will only increase as the quantity of new spacecraft balloons.

Space-based internet does have its own technical problems. One launch in February this year saw 49 StarLink satellites delivered to space and positioned in orbit, only for 40 of them to be effectively destroyed by a geomagnetic storm. Although these satellites were not in active service, such an event, without additional technical protection, could leave the internet service vulnerable to such natural disasters.

And as a final cautionary note, space remains unregulated. The ITU governs the output of space-based systems, but in terms of the hardware up there and what happens to it, it is still an evolving environment, with those involved forging the rules.

Space agencies around the world promote responsible practice, but there are those who would say having half the satellites in LEO belonging to one man, however benevolent he may be, is not a healthy situation. Moreover, nationalistic ambitions could also make space a battleground, at least a technology one, with Chinese, American and European protagonists.

There are therefore still obstacles in the way of space-based internet, some technical and some political. It is also unlikely to offer a complete solution. Fibre-optic connectivity is, after all, very good and is already established in many of the places where the space internet is being introduced.

It seems likely, then, that hybrid solutions will be developed in mature markets, with fibre doing the bulk lifting and space internet filling in the gaps, while in the under-served areas that are the real targets for this technology, Elon Musk et al could be developing the solutions that really start levelling up the people of the world. 

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