The future of connectivity: space edition

With the coming implementation of 5G, expansions in traditional fiber optic cable networks, and plans to deploy vast satellite internet constellations, improved connectivity seems to be one of the most far reaching trends of our time. Although most of us are familiar with 5G and traditional internet networks at this point, I wanted to take the time to introduce a new internet offering in the midst of approval and deployment. I’m sure many of you know that satellite internet already exists, however the current model is plagued by high latency, unreliable connections, and low throughput to end customers due to large satellites orbiting far above Earth’s surface. Current satellite internet is provided from standalone satellites orbiting the Earth at an elevation of approximately 22,000 miles, which provide coverage to large geographic areas. Using a single satellite to provide coverage over a large area limits the amount of bandwidth these providers are able to offer customers and often leads to slow speeds and unreliable connections. In order to solve these issues, SpaceX and at least three other competitors have made plans to launch constellations of satellites in a low earth orbit (otherwise known as LEO) to provide uninterrupted high-speed internet across the globe.

            The basic dynamics of the technology are easy enough to follow – many small satellites will be launched into orbit anywhere from 350-1200 miles from the earth’s surface and use connections to each other and ground stations to redirect internet connection to the satellite dishes of end consumers. Since the signals will travel much shorter distances from ground stations to satellites, and back down to customers, latency will be reduced, and the connection should become more reliable than current offerings. In addition, using many more satellites will improve the total capacity available to end consumers and should alleviate many of the pains associated with current satellite internet.

The first in depth rendering of the proposed SpaceX LEO constellation.

           But so what? What is the value in improving satellite internet if we already have reliable substitutes in fiber and wireless alternatives? The International Telecommunication Union’s 2018 report estimates that just over half of the Earth’s population has access to the internet – the other half is lagging behind. Once up and running, a LEO constellation can essentially serve any household in the world without the need for additional incremental investment. Although the majority of these people are located in rural areas or developing nations, this still presents an immense market opportunity for the companies pursuing LEO constellations as levels of disposable income and quality of life improve. In addition, building a functioning constellation requires a large up-front capex investment but avoids many of the expenses and logistical difficulties of installing wired solutions to these underserved areas individually.

           Beyond offering high speed internet services to the ~4 billion people currently without access, LEO satellite internet constellations promise to offer improvements across a number of industries. One of the most important impacts appears to be on IoT and the future of autonomous vehicles. In order to improve the safety and efficiency of autonomous vehicles, they will require access to connectivity at all times, not just in urban centers with reliable wireless connections. If LEO internet can be successfully deployed at the claimed speeds, it can act as a complement to terrestrial networks and allow autonomous vehicles to maintain connectivity almost anywhere in the world. This would improve the safety of autonomous vehicles on long haul trips through access to software updates and machine-to-machine communications. These applications would be extremely beneficial for industries such as long-distance trucking which will likely be one of the most disrupted industries by autonomous vehicles. With uninterrupted connectivity, autonomous trucks would be able to access remote locations safely and increase the efficiency of this industry.

           Additionally, LEO constellations are likely to reduce latency between distant access points as connections are passed along a mesh of interconnected satellites instead of through a network of weaving fiber optic cables. In theory, this has the ability to disrupt the high frequency trading operations of many financial institutions which rely on the fastest networks to capitalize on pricing discrepancies between markets – reducing latency by even milliseconds could offer a competitive advantage for traders. Of course, this advantage would quickly be mitigated as institutions adopt the fastest network – but these firms could serve as some of the largest clients to internet service providers offering the most competitive networks and serve as a major market for the justification of investment behind these networks.

           With the rise of fast response, competitive video games such as Fortnite, low latency, high speed internet is becoming necessary for people to play this style of game. Currently, most connections in rural areas are not fast enough to play these games without lag, and in turn reduces the total number of players with access. The reduced latency of proposed LEO constellations appears to be acceptable for these types of games and would potentially provide access to many, many more people. Not only will the popularity of gaming drive demand for this type of service in new markets, but the video game industry would be set to grow in a virtuous cycle. Elon Musk has reported that SpaceX’s prototype satellites already offer internet speeds capable of supporting this style of gaming.

            Although LEO satellite internet is not yet available and must first overcome many technical challenges, it will bring connectivity to a massive, underserved market, and should have positive impacts on many industries. SpaceX and others have already launched prototype satellites into orbit and claim that their services will begin to be rolled out by 2020 – this seems like an aggressive prediction due to the sheer number of satellites that must be launched, but they will likely become functional in the coming few years. I personally think we are still a long way from reliable LEO satellite internet access, but when it does arrive, it will have the ability to transform developing markets and many existing industries. Does this seem like a farfetched idea to beam high speed internet down from space, or a viable alternative in the near future? I’d love to hear any opinions or insights you may have!

A SpaceX prototype satellite separates from the Falcon 9 rocket.

8 comments

  1. This is a fantastic topic! I think that bringing wireless, affordable internet to parts of the world where it’s prohibitively expensive to lay fiber is a phenomenal way of addressing global inequality. It would allow people in developing nations and markets all over the world to participate in and contribute to the digital ‘public square’. Hopefully, it would also help enable collaboration with and development of an enormous talent pool in these emerging nations. I view the internet as a great equalizer (which is why net neutrality is so important to me – but that’s a conversation for another time) and I can absolutely see the benefit a global satellite system would provide. My only concern with this technology is the centralized control and what it could mean for their oversight into web traffic.

  2. It’s incredible to think that satellites, one of the quintessential symbols of a tech era gone by, might soon be back in vogue – and resurrected by Elon Musk, no less! Reading your post reminded me of a lot of the research I did for my edge computing/data center presentation. It seems like LEO, when operational, will address many of the same concerns – exponential bandwidth traffic growth, increasingly higher stakes for latency, and the rise of 5G and autonomous technologies. In the same way that Vapor IO and Huawei are poised to control the edge data center market because of the huge capital expenditure and limited viable locations, LEO reads as a space that will be highly concentrated around no more than a handful of companies/providers (or perhaps a monopoly on the part of SpaceX)- I’m curious about how the major existing players in the satellite market (Intelsat, Iridium, etc) will respond or react. Do you think they will try to jump in by building out their own portions of LEO networks, or will SpaceX be a perpetual beneficiary of first-mover advantage?

  3. Great post. Looking forward to the presentation

  4. huang91j · ·

    This is an awesome topic that I did not know much about! One of first questions that came up while reading this is how will pricing even begin to work? What sort of companies would try to take advantage of this new technology and what would the adoption be like for essentially a continuous internet connection around the world. I think this technology has potential to bring the rest of the world into the modern age; with the right resources and regulations, it can really propel underdeveloped countries as they will have the internet as a primary resource to learn and power their communities. I do game occasionally and having the low latency and lag is a HUGE advantage over your opponents so I can’t imagine what LEO satellite internet would be like to provide that access. Again, as it is a new technology, my fear is that it will be quite expensive when it becomes introduced to the masses, but hopefully the regulations behind it can make it affordable for the average consumer.

  5. I think this is a great advancement with the increasing amount of smart cities and base of the pyramid investing plans that are starting to tap into these developing country markets. There is prospect for internet and 5G all over the world and having these satellites will allow for easier connection and higher internet speeds, which lets be real who doesn’t want. I’ve never heard about LEO satellites or educated myself too hard on this topic before because it can be a bit daunting. I think you did a great job explaining it and I’ll definitely be more aware of this topic!

  6. cynmzfigueroa · ·

    Super interesting — a topic I didn’t really have much insight into. Great idea to provide equitable access to the internet for an increasingly global community. Especially when the ability to interact and mobilize on social or online is something you see have a major impact in many undeveloped countries (for example I’m thinking of Honduran riots after their most recent presidential election was only something I found out about because of social versus news coverage). I do wonder how much if any of this can be intercepted by countries like some of the censoring and limitations on internet that China implements.

  7. masonpeterman · ·

    Woah…that’s all I kept thinking as I read this post, awesome topic. Talk about space-age stuff going on, I think the innovation coming out of SpaceX are so cool, and seem to be aimed at improving society as a whole. The idea of LEO satellite connectivity is awesome, after my research on 5G, it’s going to be difficult to get reliable performance all across the globe with small infrastructure needed almost everywhere. This provides a perfect solution which can make impacts globally. I think the most exciting aspect is the increased access to connectivity in developing countries. Finally catching up in the digital age, this could be the beginning of a lot of innovation and economic development coming out of untraditional parts of the world. The political and diplomatic aspects of this type of technology seem like a possible barrier. It’s difficult these days to get global cooperation, but space seems to be a subject that nations are willing to work on collaboratively. It will certainly be exciting to see if and when this becomes a reality. Great Job!

  8. I had never thought about LEO satellites bringing wireless access to communities in developing countries. I had always thought it was only going to be used for higher speed internet access. What a great use of the technology! Great job of explaining the ins and outs of the topic.

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