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The race for global broadband satellite internet is on

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Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are vying for superiority in the race for a global satellite broadband network (Image by Dan Jensen)

Several of the world's biggest tech companies are pouring millions into developing the best satellite-based broadband network, writes Paul Budde.

EVERY SECOND, 4.5 billion people using computers and other electronic devices send 100,000 gigabytes of information to each other. Around 60% of the world's population has an internet connection. North America and Europe have penetrations of 95% and 87%. But Asia and Africa do not yet get beyond 54% and 40%. On those continents, there are many remote areas where there is no internet yet. At least no affordable internet.

If there are no (fibre optic) cable or radio connections, there is still the relatively expensive alternative of satellite communication. Usually, these are geostationary (GEO) satellites that are positioned above the equator at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres. They rotate at the same speed as Earth. The footprint of such a satellite only covers part of Earth's surface and a computer bit takes a while to go up and down. Although the bit travels through the vacuum of space at the speed of light (300,000 km/sec), it still does half a second over a return trip.

On top of that, there is another half a second for communication between Earth's ground stations via fibre optic connections. There is also the refraction of the laser light in the fibre as the data speed is two-thirds of that of light. The total delay, the latency, of the telecommunications connection via GEO satellites is thereby a second.

This is a long time when we realise that a human being is already aware of a delay at more than 0.15 seconds. As a result, synchronous communication such as video conferencing becomes unpleasant due to interruptions of the conversations, especially when more people are talking simultaneously in discussions.

So, what is next? The solution to creating a global network of broadband internet services without delay is to use telecommunication satellites that orbit closer to Earth, the so-called Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites. They are not 36,000 kilometres above Earth, but orbit at between 200 and 2,000 km. The computer bit goes up and down faster, so there is much less delay. Depending on the altitude of their orbit, these satellites circle every 24 hours, 12 to 16 times around the Earth. Due to their low and fast orbits, LEO satellites have a fast-moving and small footprint. That is why it takes a lot of satellites for a global network.

The idea of developing such a satellite network was born a long time ago. The first attempt was made by the Iridium consortium. The first telecommunications service was launched in 1998. The aim was to build a network of 77 satellites. But within a month of the festive start, Iridium went bankrupt and U.S.$5 billion (AU$7.3 billion) had been lost.

Iridium collapsed because of problems with the financing of the venture. Other problems included poor quality of the indoor reception, the bulky user devices and the overall mismanagement of the project. Iridium has restarted and last year the last of the 66 satellites was launched. This revised satellite network now provides telecommunications services in remote places for the business market such as the oil industry, aviation and defence. So real niche markets, not a consumer market.

The second company that attempted to build a global satellite network to offer broadband internet services was OneWeb. This company went bankrupt in March last year because the Japanese SoftBank, which was one of the main financiers with a billion-dollar investment commitment, pulled the plug. Of the planned 650 LEO satellites that would run their laps at an altitude of 1,200 km, 74 were launched. SoftBank, which suffered a loss of $17 billion in 2019, blamed COVID-19. But there are also rumours that OneWeb could not develop a sound revenue model for its expensive consumer-oriented broadband internet services based on its “low delay” LEO satellite network.

There are still many ongoing projects, three of which are the most advanced. Telesat LEO, with 300 satellites, is developed by the Canadian telecommunications company Telesat. The second one is Project Kuiper (named after Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who died in 1973), the brainchild of Jeff Bezos's largest internet shopping company, Amazon, with 3,236 satellites. Finally, there is Starlink from Elon Musk's space company SpaceX with 42,000 satellites. There are also plans from Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook, his project is called Athena with a yet unknown number of satellites. Google does not want to be left out and launched plans for Google’s Satellite Constellation with “only” a thousand satellites.

Of course, most certainly, China also does not want to be left behind. Some of their projects include Hongyun (rainbow cloud) with 864 satellites and Hongyan (wild goose) with 320 satellites. The Russian state-owned company for space operations, Roscosmos, is also joining the race. Through the company Gonets (messenger), services are offered for commercial and military purposes. The satellite network now has 18 satellites in two orbits, the total plan is for 36 satellites in six orbits.

Of all these projects, SpaceX's Starlink is undoubtedly the most advanced. At regular intervals, SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets are launched, each with 60 Starlink satellites on board. By May 2020, 422 satellites had been launched into orbit. That should grow to 12,000 in the first phase and another 30,000 at a later stage. This still requires a lot of money and SpaceX will bring its spin-off Starlink Business to the stock market to raise money. Only last week did they launch the first-ever commercial crewed launch.

The expensive race for the global broadband satellite internet is especially fierce in the Western world, with a squeeze between macho techno-billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff  Bezos (the richest man in the world) and Mark  Zuckerberg, who is a bit behind but thinks the project is part of Facebook's mission statement ‘to bring the world closer together’. The business plans acknowledge a lot of investment needs to be made but predict that the proceeds will be huge.

For all these parties, there are at least four “bears on the road”. The first one is the battle for the required frequencies. The frequency spectrum is managed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is affiliated with the United Nations and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. Government. For example, SpaceX has objected to Amazon's attempt to participate in the first round of spectrum distribution, as the formal enrolment period has already expired. If Amazon, with this short cut, would be able to get a piece of the pie, it would come at the expense of SpaceX's lead. In short, we are witnessing a wrestling game between Jeff and Elon.

The second “bear” is the cost of ground reception equipment. Because each satellite can only be seen on a limited surface for a limited time, the antennae in the reception and transmitting equipment should be able to track the satellite overflying at 7-8,000 kilometres per second. That is quite a technical feat but could make the user's equipment very expensive. It is now thought to be $1,000 per device, but engineers hope the price will fall to $200.

The third “bear” is the opposition from the astronomical community against SpaceX in particular. All these satellites with their sun reflections disrupt scientific observations with terrestrial telescopes. Lately, SpaceX has been making a strong effort to reduce this problem of their Starlink satellites by, for example, changing the position of the various components of the satellite and providing the satellites with light-absorbing coatings. The latter can only be a limited solution because dark paint absorbs heat that causes the satellite to heat up too much. This means more is needed for cooling, which needs more energy and that needs more solar panels. This then increases the reflecting and it becomes a vicious circle.

The fourth “bear” is space junk. The number of man-made objects in space will be much larger because of these LEO satellite network projects. This increases the risk of collisions of satellites and rockets with space debris. The risk of such a collision was revealed in 2009 when a runaway Russian satellite rammed a then-active Iridium satellite, leading to a thousand new pieces of space debris.

It is, therefore, necessary to plan what should be done with the satellites if they are no longer active. One method that is now being applied is that after its active life, the satellite is directed to a lower orbit (de-orbiting). In such a lower orbit, the satellite encounters more resistance, which eventually slows down the satellite to bring it closer to Earth and finally disintegrates into the atmosphere and partially burns. Only last week, there was a spectacular light show above Australia when debris from a Russian rocket re-entered Earth's atmosphere where it burned off. NASA has recommended that 99% of LEO satellites should be taken to a lower orbit after their missions — a kind of palliative orbit for satellites.

The danger of possible collisions between the functioning and non-functioning satellites and space debris was revealed a few months ago. The Dutch-built Infrared Astronomical Satellite (IRAS), which has not been in use since 1983, sailed just metres past another satellite. The American company LeoLabs has built a system for tracking LEO satellite-based radar and a system of advanced algorithms. LeoLabs calculated that the two satellites would pass each other over Pittsburgh with only 15 to 30 metres between them. That is exactly what happened. In aviation, they call that a near miss.

Since the launch in 1957 of the first satellite, the Russian Sputnik 1, a lot of stuff has been shot into space. After some 5,500 launches, this has created a huge pile of junk in space around the Earth — about 34,000 objects larger than ten centimetres, one million of magnitude between one and ten centimetres and some 130 million smaller than one centimetre.

The European Space Agency (ESA) receives hundreds of reports a week of possible dangerous situations that need to be looked at more closely. On average, ESA must make at least one evasive maneuver per satellite a year to avoid collisions. Most of the time, it concerns impending collisions with space debris. This requires a manual process which is expensive and very time consuming and unsustainable in the long term.

No wonder ESA is advocating that machine learning techniques are developed for satellites that will be required to constantly transmit their position so that an automated traffic regulation system can be developed in space.

When looking at all the developments around delay-free global satellite-based broadband networks that provide affordable internet access, there is still a lot of work to be done. But if the big innovative entrepreneurs with deep pockets like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have set their sights on this, it could eventually work. But before that happens, there will still have to be a few technical, financial, regulatory hurdles to be braced. No doubt that in this hurdling, every now and then someone will make a fatal stumbling.

This article is based on a blog written by my Dutch colleague, Fred Kappetijn. We have worked together to present this to you.

Paul Budde is managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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