Satellite broadband will soon be way above fibre optics

Miniaturised electronics make it possible to build smaller satellites, which are cheaper to send into space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX company is days away from launching dozens of internet broadband satellites into orbit.

It’ll be beamed back to us much more efficiently than it can be transmitted via underground cables, writes Niall Smith.

The announcement that the National Broadband Plan (NBP) will be rolled out later this year should be a cause for celebration. Yet concerns expressed by the secretary general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform about the cost of the project, and about the lack of compatibility with the spatial strategy outlined in Project Ireland 2040, make for uneasy reading.

The accepted plan will use tried-and-tested technologies. Most Irish internet consumers will be connected using fibre-optic cables carried in ducts underground or alongside existing electrical and utility lines. The wisdom of a fibre backbone infrastructure is that it will remain future-proof for 35 years. 

In rural regions, new routes for fibre cables will incur additional expense and be time-consuming for the provider to install. For many of the most isolated communities, a wireless technology system will supplement the fibre backbone.

While, for the past four years, we have been deliberating who should install our fibre broadband network, the global space industry has been taking leaps and bounds towards a new way of achieving the same goal without using fibre. We ignore this at our peril. 

As we have engaged in the excessively leisurely rollout of fibre-based broadband below our feet, above us, a revolution has been raging. In space. Or in low-earth-orbit (LEO), to be more precise, somewhere from 350km to 1,000km high.

Traditionally, it has been very expensive to put satellites in space; they have tended to be very big and very heavy. 

The advent of miniaturised electronics has made it possible to build smaller, lighter satellites and this has attracted private industry into a domain that was once the preserve of governments and their agencies. Some companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ (founder of Amazon) Blue Origin, have been developing new rockets to take these small, but powerful, satellites into orbit. 

They saw the possibility of putting not one, but tens of small satellites on a single rocket. And, from a commercial viewpoint, that starts to get very interesting, as economies of scale begin to make space commercially viable. With lots of small satellites in orbit, you can do many things that have real impact back here on Earth.

One of the most interesting is the provision of high-speed broadband services to low-density and rurally isolated areas, transforming the lives of billions of people in India and Africa.

But with this model, the same satellites that provide broadband to Africa can beam broadband to Ireland as they fly overhead. 

In much the same way that we use cloud services where the servers are in various locations across the world, without our knowing it, we will, in the future, be able to take advantage of satellite broadband systems servicing much larger markets than our own.

Many of us may be familiar with some of the antics of Elon Musk — sending a Tesla car towards Mars is an illustration — but this is mere window-dressing to a relentless determination to use space for commercial purposes. Which is why, on May 15, SpaceX is set to launch dozens of internet broadband satellites into LEO in the ONE launch. 

To put this into context, in 2015, as the bids were being sealed for our NBP, the number of internet broadband satellites launched in the whole year was less than 10, with each one requiring its own rocket. 

And these were in high orbits, where the round-trip time (so-called latency) was up to one second (think of the delay on those TV broadcasts from reporters in US or Asia, for example). 

The new SpaceX LEO satellites have latencies that are ten times smaller, comparable to fibre (although, this week, I heard a minister refer to latency as a reason not to select satellite broadband as part of the NBP, which seems to refer to older broadband satellite technologies). 

The May 15 launch by SpaceX represents the first element in a “constellation” of broadband satellites, numbering 4,425, that has already received permission from the US Federal Communications Commission to operate. This number is planned to rise to more than 12,000 by 2024. Both Google and a company called Fidelity have invested $1bn in this venture. 

At the same time, Amazon is planning to launch 3,236 satellites and another company, OneWeb, is rolling out their one-satellite-a-day production line and a target of 2,000 satellites. All to bring high-speed internet to new markets … sound like a familiar objective?

Although at a relatively early stage, the development of satellite broadband seems inevitable; notwithstanding there will be winners and losers along the way. 

The pace of technological change, and the scale of commercial opportunities, are simply too great to imagine a future without it. Yet we seem to have a blindspot when it comes to considering these disruptive broadband technologies.

Perhaps it’s too late to change the NBP, perhaps the Government will use some of the flexibility in the funding to stay abreast of developments in space internet, but if I was a broadband provider, or a government, I’d be keeping one eye firmly on what’s happening above and worrying a little less about what’s happening below.

Niall Smith is head of research at CIT and head of Blackrock Castle Observatory. He is also a member of the steering group for the National Space Strategy for Enterprise.

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