This year could be a make-or-break year for broadband internet from satellite in low Earth orbit (LEO).
WE ARE IN THE MIDDLE OF ANOTHER SPACE RACE. This time, the goal isn’t to get to the moon or Mars but to connect the world’s people who don’t have internet access or enough access. A 2020 report describes how several companies are working to build and use “mega-constellations” of thousands of satellites to bring affordable high-speed internet to businesses, governments, schools, and people worldwide.
These companies want to provide a wide range of possible uses, including:
- The transportation industry needs better connections (ships, trains, planes)
- IoT devices need communication backbones for tasks like fleet management and remote maintenance.
- Infrastructure or backhaul for mobile phones used by other communication companies
- Services for the direct-to-consumer market, including areas with inadequate to zero networks.
- Government, education, and emergency response teams
As part of these emerging networks, hundreds of satellites are already in orbit, and hundreds more are set to launch this year. So even though there are a lot of technical and business problems, the question is, who will be the first to find a solution that will work and make money?
The industry is moving at a breakneck speed. Since our Predictions 2020 report came out, a number of new things have happened:
SpaceX now runs the biggest group of satellites in the world. As of this article, the company has launched a total of 300+ Starlink satellites. The company’s leaders want to start providing service by the end of this year and are planning up to 24 launches in 2020.
OneWeb is speeding up the rate at which it launches satellites. It recently sent 34 satellites into orbit from Kazakhstan, bringing the total to 40.3. Executives have said that they plan to start offering service in 2021.
As Amazon waits for the US Federal Communications Commission to give its final approval for Project Kuiper, its team is moving to a permanent location in the Seattle area. OneWeb and Amazon will have to speed up their efforts to catch up and compete with SpaceX.
Lastly, some of the biggest players in the industry are having trouble with legal and wider regulatory issues, such as getting more satellites approved. And also, other things could possibly slow down progress.
How will people use user terminals to connect to these constellations? That is still not clear. The terminals have an antenna, a receiver, and other networking equipment. They must be highly reliable and physically strong. They must also be technologically advanced, easy to install and use, and cheap. Companies have done a lot of research and spent a lot of money on this piece of the puzzle, but not much is known about it. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently said that Starlink’s antennas are easy to install and use and look like “a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick.” We need a lot more information to get a better idea of how much it will cost and what it can do.
Organizations shouldn’t wait until all of these systems are in place before taking action. Now is the time to look at how direct access to high-speed broadband internet could help your business. Could it improve services in a huge way? Make new things possible? Business models, that are already in place?
LEO satellite-based broadband solutions will likely be on the market within the next year. These solutions will offer higher speeds, lower latency, wider global coverage, and better end-user equipment than existing satellite solutions. And also, If these new businesses can get past the technical and financial hurdles.