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Is it time for satellite broadband to take off once more?

Satellite Broadband

After a false start in the 2000s, satellite broadband is back in style, with several companies promising applications for industry, military and rural connectivity. What can – or can’t – these systems offer compared with terrestrial systems?

For those living in rural areas who are likely to be waiting for some time to receive fibre-to-the-home, satellite broadband offers the promise of high-speed Internet without costly infrastructure. Just like with satellite TV, an orbiting satellite bounces a signal from its point of origin to a dish fitted at the target property, without the need for costly underground cables. And with satellite TV subscriptions falling as the likes of Sky trial delivery of TV services via broadband, those increasingly redundant dishes bolted to the front of properties may have a new lease of life.

Back in 1990, Teledesic was the first company aiming to offer broadband using a constellation of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, thanks to investments from Motorola, Boeing and Bill Gates himself (then worth only a measly $12 billion).

The slow service and high cost was, however, unable to compete with the leaps and bounds that wireless terrestrial broadband was making in the time Teledesic was taking to build and launch its prospective constellation – only one test satellite was launched before the project was abandoned in 2002.

For decades, weather forecasting and satellite TV & radio services have been provided by geostationary satellites (GEO), orbiting at a fixed point above the Earth at an altitude of 36,000km. They provide a wide angle of coverage at this height, thus requiring only a few deployments. However, the distance that the signal must travel between relay sites and other GEO satellites produces a longer latency period, meaning that they’re somewhat ineffectual when it comes to instantaneous communications.

Now, providers such as Starlink, OneWeb and Project Kuiper are racing to blanket the Earth with vast, next-generation networks of their own, ushering in a renaissance period for commercial satellite broadband.
Their LEO networks, composed of tens of thousands of small satellites deployed less than 1,000km from the Earth’s surface, provide the faster connectivity required for real-time services.

Though a single satellite only covers a small area, a network of them provides unbroken global coverage, with inter-satellite laser links ensuring that no downlink is needed to transmit data directly between satellites.

Starlink currently has a fleet of 1,600 satellites orbiting Earth, with 12,000 satellites being the target goal. As of this summer, the company was reporting almost 100,000 users, with ambitions to bring average speeds of 50-150Mbps to billions of people worldwide, largely in sparsely populated regions.

Starlink’s big advantage over competitors is its sister company, SpaceX, which solves the problem of how to get its satellites into orbit, as opposed to hitching lifts on other launches.

For now, though, prohibitive costs may prove the greatest barrier to customers, particularly those in the developing world. A Starlink subscription is £84 ($120) per month, though onboarding costs covering installation of the satellite dish and router add a further £439 ($600) up front – but still provided at a loss to customers.

In fact, Starlink has been operating at a loss for some time now, and with thousands more satellites still to be built and launched, this is unlikely to change any time soon.

The answer to increasing revenues could lie in targeting new urban customers – however, most would likely instead opt for a traditional fibre-based provider that will get them higher speeds at the same price. What’s more, Musk has stressed that Starlink will not compete with telcos for customers in urban areas, citing the unreliability of services in high-density areas.

Keeping Starlink on its toes is OneWeb, which was rescued from bankruptcy in 2020 with a $1 billion investment from a consortium including the UK Government and Bharti Enterprises, adding to the existing backing of SoftBank and Airbus.

As the UK distances itself from the EU and its proprietary Galileo system, the government hopes to augment this network to create a 2-in-1 satellite broadband system and national GPS, thanks to the input of the French-based Eutelsat, who threw their money – $550 million for a 24% stake – into the OneWeb ring in April.

OneWeb's most recent launch via Soyuz rocket back in May put the company’s fleet in orbit at 218 of an intended 650 satellites, making it the second largest network behind Starlink. But rather than targeting individual customers, OneWeb will cater to businesses, governments and MNOs, having recently inked a deal with AT&T to service government contracts in the US – on Starlink’s home turf.

Hot on their heels are Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is aiming for 3,236 satellites by the end of the decade, and Inmarsat’s ORCHESTRA, which combines GEO, LEO and 5G in a single dynamic mesh network.

Despite decrying the “too many players and a fragmented market”, Rajeev Suri, CEO of Inmarsat wants to “enable ground-breaking new services in new places for global mobility customers in maritime, aviation, government and enterprise”, allowing customers to act as nodes in a network and direct traffic to and from other customers.

For more specialised industrial purposes, companies such as Swarm – recently acquired by SpaceX – are targeting the IoT market with their 120-strong satellite network, capable of everything from tracking cargo and monitoring pollution to measuring soil quality and crop yields.

However, until these LEO networks become more commercially viable, many of the early adopters are likely to be military.

The US Army is already experimenting with replacing their geostationary satellites with Starlink’s network, addressing the twin issues of high latency and climactic interference in a theatre of conflict – when quizzed as to how regulation would play in such a country without a local downlink, Musk said:

In another tweet, former UK government adviser Dominic Cummings said the UK government’s part in the acquisition of OneWeb was “for commercial & classified reasons, a good bet.” More than just a UK-wide navigation system, OneWeb is expected to be the crux of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance’s alternative to the US’s GPS system and strategic rivals’ systems such as China’s BeiDou and Russia’s GLOSNASS.

LEO satellites may well become an important tool in the sphere of telecoms, but will likely remain a niche service even in the long term, as the offerings of the small pool of satellite ISPs remain inferior to terrestrial broadband services – with the added trouble of having to co-ordinate orbits so as to avoid both collisions and interference with other radio-based services.

Onboarding costs remain high, spectrum availability is low, and signal quality can be affected by a number of factors, from bad weather to pigeons roosting in users’ satellite dishes, as one UK-based customer of Starlink discovered.

In its current form, price and service quality means satellite broadband poses little threat to fixed-line broadband, outside of the novelty factor. Customers are unlikely to be switching out their former satellite TV dishes for broadband receivers any time soon – though they will at least make fine birds’ nests. Nevertheless, satellite broadband will, one day, prove a powerful tool for getting the entire planet online with reliable, cost-effective connections.

About the author

Adam Hughes


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