There are big plans afoot by big tech companies to launch low-earth orbit satellites that will replace the current internet and cable companies.
It’s said that in 5-10 years, there will constellations of satellites orbiting the Earth at high speed and providing fast satellite internet directly from space. That could mean that current providers could be abandoned for a system that “transcends regional monopolies, requires no visits by the cable guy, and follows you wherever you go,” (ref. WSJ). That’s probably the good news of this story; the bad news is that the companies who will provide this service are those that already form monopolies and dominate the big tech arena: Facebook, Google and Amazon. Many of the plans for these networks describe what eventually could be thousands of satellites, communicating with each other using exotic technologies like laser interconnects, as well as with the ground through new versions of electronically-steered antennas. The companies involved with this planning are those who want to bring their own brand of world-dominanace to a space which is currently occupied by Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T who are racing to bring ultra-fast internet to our homes and offices via fixed lines, 5G, and, eventually, satellite internet. Wireless communications from space began during the time of the big space race in the 1960s, with radio transmissions from the Sputnik “new moon” that furthered America’s ambitions for outer space. Thus, internet from space is not too-farfetched an idea, given what advances have preceded. And, there’s always the driving force of customer demand for more and faster and always-on connections to the internet. Enabling technologies will be those microelectronics that steer radio beams along with big declines in the cost of things to be put in space as well as the cost of satellite placement in outer space. Companies like OneWeb are aiming to put a network of satellites in space that will give the world an internet service that’s different and better than the expensive and slow version currently in operation. This will be of particular interest to people in remote areas – those living in remote parts of Alaska pay approximately $300./month for a couple of megabits per second of internet access from a satellite. OneWeb has already launched its first six satellites and has plans for launching a total of 650. The plan is to connect to the ground from the satellites that pass in and out of view of antennas on earth every 3 minutes. Orbiting at 16,200 miles per hour, these satellites will have 16 independent radio beams, each with the ability to send and receive 400 megabits per second of data (ref WSJ). It remains to be seen if the service will become popular with users – there will definitely be more bandwidth but not an end to wireless bandwidth issues. Iridium is a company that already offers satellite internet from low-earth orbit. The service is expensive and slow and primarily connects airplanes, cruise ships and oil rigs in the North Atlantic. What is currently attracting companies such as Amazon. SpaceX and Facebook to the possibilities is the expectation of the wealth of revenue that will accrue once this service is used in smart connected cars of the future as well as homes and businesses. Those currently involved in a variety of processes – both exploratory and active – refer to these processes as “commoditizing space.” That all sounds a bit concerning, wouldn’t you say?