The first “space race” began in the mid-20th century as Russia and the United States raced to see who would launch the first human being into outer space. A new space race is on to connect everyone on the planet through a network of satellites.
Connecting Via Satellite
There are several plans afoot currently to launch massive satellite networks, including a project recently announced by French-owned Airbus SAS for OneWeb Ltd., a privately held company that would see up to 900 satellites launched beginning in 2018.
Projects are already underway elsewhere in the world. Investor/inventor Elon Reeve Musk through his company SpaceX is waiting on government approval in the United States for a similar project that looks to launch a staggering 4000 satellites into orbit.
Others are looking to bring internet connectivity to remote regions locally and on a smaller scale. In Australia, NBN Co. is about to launch the first of several satellites planned to bring the internet to rural Australia in the fall of 2015, with service planned for early 2016.
The fact that a new space race is on means that the internet should become a whole lot more accessible and affordable for everyone – quite literally. High-speed broadband access rates have been estimated at 10 terabits per second – although that may be optimistic. Real rates achieved by consumers are more likely to fall in the 2 to 50 megabit per second (Mb/s) range.
Signals from space: can a network of satellites really provide affordable access for all to the internet? Photocredit: Shutterstock/Tatiana Shepeleva
The Internet for All
After an initial boom in internet access, growth has actually been dropping off, falling below 10% since 2013 – and this despite the fact that less than half (roughly 40%) of the people around the globe are online currently.
The OneWeb and SpaceX projects, along with initiatives like Facebook’s internet.org and Google’s recently announced partnership with Virgin Galactic to launch 180 satellites along with other innovations like its Project Loon, which uses a system of antennas launched in balloons – look to fill the void.
Naturally, projects like these make good economic sense for companies like Facebook and Google which gain the more users there are in the world. The problem that is currently faced is affordability of broadband access in remote areas where incomes are low across the board. It is hoped these megaprojects will solve the issue.
Mega Satellite Networks
The real issue is likely to be operating such massive constellations of satellites. Backhaul technology – which interconnects the individual satellites – is a key component and must be both quick and relatively cheap to operate. Options include using laser beams or microwave beams operating at millimetre frequencies with a self-aligning system to manage fluctuations in position.
Another option might be to connect more closely to ground-based stations. In any case, ground stations and internet gateways form part of the network and for additional components to be managed. Other management challenges include factoring satellite downtime into the equation to avoid service interruptions.
With more and more of our lives and business occurring online, the gap between connected societies and those left out is widening by the day. A new space race is on to help narrow the gap in opportunity worldwide.