LEO Satellites Become Viable Internet Connectivity Option
The private space flight company SpaceX recently began launching its second-generation Starlink communication satellites into low-Earth orbit. It’s the first phase in a broader strategy that could change the way millions of people access the Internet.
On February 27, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried 21 Starlink V2 mini satellites into space, where they were added to the company’s existing constellation of about 4,000 first-generation satellites. SpaceX will launch a total of 7,500 second-generation satellites as part of its Gen2 plan approved by the Federal Communications Commission in December.
In approving the plan, the FCC noted that the expanded Starlink constellation will “bring next-generation satellite broadband to Americans nationwide, including those living and working in areas traditionally unserved or underserved by terrestrial systems. Our action also will enable worldwide satellite broadband service, helping to close the digital divide on a global scale.”
Removing Traditional Limits
For years, satellite has provided last-resort Internet access in remote and rural areas that lack broadband connectivity. However, price and latency issues have always kept it from being a realistic alternative in more populous areas with well-established communication infrastructure.
Satellite Internet is more expensive than cable or DSL plans for fairly obvious reasons — it costs companies hundreds of millions of dollars to build a satellite and then rent a ride on a rocket. Latency issues have also been unavoidable with Internet requests traveling 22,000 miles up in space to a geostationary satellite, then back to the operator’s network operation center and finally to the Internet backbone. The average latency for satellite Internet is about 600 milliseconds, compared to about 30 milliseconds for a cable signal.
This Starlink® strategy that could change the way millions of people access the Internet.
Starlink fundamentally changes the math. Because SpaceX owns and operates its own fleet of rockets, launch costs are dramatically reduced. The Starlink satellites are much less expensive as well because they are smaller and designed to orbit only about 300 miles above Earth. Analysts expect the cost of building low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites may soon fall below $1 million.
Crucially, LEO constellations also dramatically reduce latency due to their closer proximity to Earth. With round-trip latency reduced to about 40 milliseconds, Starlink’s LEO satellites can deliver peak download speeds of up to 200 Mbps. That makes it a competitive alternative to cable, fiber, DSL, Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity options. Additionally, SpaceX reports the new V2 minis feature powerful “phased array” antennas that reduce power consumption and add about four times as much network capacity per satellite compared with first-generation satellites.
SpaceX has plenty of company in the LEO space. Telesat, OneWeb, Globalstar, Space Systems Loral and BAE Systems are among other private companies with LEO constellations. Government entities are also getting into the game. The European Union in February announced plans to launch an LEO constellation to support government services and defense applications across Europe and Africa. China and India are also reportedly exploring state-operated LEO constellations.
Meanwhile, Amazon will soon have a major presence in the satellite Internet arena. In February, the FCC approved a plan by Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Systems to deploy and operate 3,236 LEO satellites. Many of those will be launched on rockets built by Blue Origin, a private space flight company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Although satellite Internet isn’t likely to supplant terrestrial connectivity options in most businesses and homes, LEO constellations are clearly helping close the digital divide in remote and underserved areas. As speed, capacity and throughput continue to improve, satellite will be an increasingly viable connectivity alternative in a wide range of environments.
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