Race to Reach the Unconnected

This past week, Amazon and Verizon announced a partnership to offer satellite internet in rural areas. Amazon is working to expand rural broadband coverage with satellites, and Verizon will help improve the fixed wireless internet access in these places that may not have had internet available. Amazon is slated to have half its satellites in orbit by 2026 and 100% by 2029.

Why is this partnership announcement blogworthy? It symbolizes a race with SpaceX and others to bring internet/broadband to places around the United States and the world for the first time.

To understand this race, let’s first examine the internet access problem the world is facing and what companies are offering to do to solve the issue.

Not Connected

The pandemic has shown all of us how important having access to the internet is. From schools setting coursework online to offices being forced remotely with little warning, the internet has been the answer to many pandemic-related lockdown issues. But what about the people who don’t have access?

Globally, only 55% of households have an internet connection, according to UNESCO. In the developed world, 87% have access to the internet compared with 47% in developing countries. Only 19% of households have internet in the least developed countries. In total, 3.7 billion people have no internet access.

In the United States, over 21 million people do not have access to high-speed internet. A Microsoft project, Airband, has revealed that 19 million unconnected households in America are in rural areas. Microsoft’s research has found that more than 157 million American’s don’t use the internet at broadband speeds of at least 25Mbps.

SpaceX Starlink

Starlink aims to bring high-speed satellite internet to many of the 3.7 billion people on the planet who currently have no internet connection at all. While most satellite internet services today come from single geostationary satellites that orbit the planet at about 35,000km, Starlink is a constellation of multiple satellites that orbit the planet much closer to Earth, at about 550km, and cover the entire globe.

Because Starlink satellites are in a low orbit, the round-trip data time between the user and the satellite – also known as latency – is much lower than with satellites in geostationary orbit. This enables Starlink to deliver services like online gaming that are usually not possible on other satellite broadband systems.

Starlink is ideally suited for areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable. People across the globe are using Starlink to gain access to education, health services and even communications support during natural disasters.

Amazon Kuiper

Project Kuiper is an initiative to increase global broadband access through a constellation of 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) around the planet. The system will serve individual households, as well as schools, hospitals, businesses and other organizations operating in places where internet access is limited or unavailable. Amazon has committed an initial $10 billion to the program, which will deliver fast, affordable broadband to customers and communities around the world.

Project Kuiper will deliver high-speed, low-latency broadband service to places beyond the reach of traditional fiber or wireless networks. It is inspired by customers in every corner of the world: by families working and learning together from home; by scientists and researchers operating in remote locations; by first responders providing disaster relief; and by companies of all sizes moving their business online. Project Kuiper will serve individual households, as well as schools, hospitals, businesses and other organizations operating in places without reliable broadband.

OneWeb

OneWeb is a global communications network powered by a constellation of 650 LEO satellites. Headquartered in London, OneWeb enables high-speed, low latency connectivity for governments, businesses, and communities everywhere around the world. OneWeb’s satellites provide affordable, fast, high bandwidth, low-latency communication services.

In October 2020, OneWeb was acquired by UK Government and the Bharti Group, as well as additional investment from SoftBank and Hughes Network Group, a key technology partner.

Throughout 2021, OneWeb is testing its network and conducting demonstrations with key customers in readiness for commercial services above the 50th parallel north before end of year, and then globally in 2022.

Race Results Thus Far

Project Kuiper is scheduled to launch in the fourth quarter of 2022. This launch will formally kick off its competition with Starlink and OneWeb, for beaming high-speed internet connections to customers from low Earth orbit.

Amazon and Project Kuiper are currently behind SpaceX and Starlink, as the Falcon 9 rockets have launched 2,000 internet-beaming satellites into orbit. Thousands of customers are already testing the SpaceX service for $99 a month with $499 antenna kits.

While OneWeb has launched 358 satellites into orbit. The company is building a constellation of 648 satellites, which will beam broadband internet service to people around the globe.

Who do you think will come ahead in the race to connect the world?

19 comments

  1. Super cool blog! I was really surprised by the stats on American usage which got me to dig into the data a bit. If you click on the statista link below, it shows you a graph of the top US states that lack high-speed internet access. It’s a mix of western and southern states mostly. It makes sense that TX has the highest number at 4.17m given the size and amount of rural space. Luckily, it seems that legislators are aware of the issue and actively seeking state-level and national support to fund a solution (see second link).

    Thank you for teaching me about the topic!

    https://www.statista.com/chart/20769/estimated-number-of-people-without-fixed-broadband-access/

    https://www.texasstandard.org/stories/passage-of-senate-bill-brings-texas-closer-to-better-rural-broadband/

  2. I don’t think a single group is capable of doing this alone, so I’d have to say Amazon has my vote due to this major partnership. Connecting the world will definitely require a strong bridge across multiple global firms, so this is a great start. The stat mentioning broadband speeds was a really useful one in my opinion because the more general stats associated with internet connectivity rarely give a view into the detail behind that connectivity. While being able to connect is great, high-quality, dependable, and consistent connection is the real mark of success. I was curious about where the name Kuiper came from…apparently the Kuiper belt is an icy region outside the orbit of Neptune. I like it.

  3. Thank you for laying out the key players and status quo of this tech. What are the implications for dictatorial nations like China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, etc that don’t want their citizens accessing the broader or western internet? I think what some people overlook are the geopolitical implications of this technology and how it could be used for offensive cyber operations into previously inaccessible network infrastructure.

    1. Wow, this was an awesome comment; this really opened my eyes to the implications of this technology. I know there’s already initatives like Flash Drives for Freedom that try to smuggle technology into North Korea; I feel like if the product could be small enough to capture the signal, it could potentially be smuggled in. And from there you’ve opened up a beacon of home and communication for a family. Not to mention China whose citizens could access the unfiltered internet for the first time.

  4. I am excited for this technology to be offered in more places throughout the world. Personally, I used to be in the Coast Guard and would patrol hundreds of miles offshore, outside of any LEO satellites. Our latency was huge and unreliable and the internet was deathly slow, most of the time not even usable, leaving radio communications as our only means of getting any type of tasking. Introducing LEO satellites would increase the military’s strategic capabilities in areas where satellites have limited coverage.

  5. I wonder if the real value here is not in necessarily opening up broadband to rural people, but making the rural places accessible for digital jobs (I.e. making people more likely to move there). That could bring huge economic benefits to regions if people with high-paying jobs move into communities that can’t currently support them. I know it’s been a problem on Cape Cod, which seems to be getting resolved quickly.

    1. Great point and while it may not be true for Cape Cod (already high real estate costs there are worthy of a completely different conversation) I wonder if broader high quality connectivity helps bring down the costs of living in some places by allowing folks to move elsewhere as you state. Pre pandemic this is why I was a proponent of a company like Amazon investing in a city like Springfield, MA instead of Boston to help take pressure off the eastern MA housing market. The more opportunities for Americans to “spread out” accross the country the more I think we could create parity in the housing market. Will the Northeast still be more expansive than the middle of Iowa, yes, but perhaps “work from anywhere” can help close the gaps.

  6. One of my old college roommates lives in Leadville Colorado and was always complaining about his internet capabilities. He has been a customer of Starlink for quite some time because he signed up for the initial trials. He has only good comments about this company and how life-changing has been for him. Like the professor, Kane mentioned in his comment thanks to this company he is able to work from home with maximum reliability. I think Elon is really changing the world at an incredible speed. Also great job on the blog!

  7. Earlier today I tweeted about the possibilities of another internet revolution having reached almost 4.5 billion internet users across the world. Reading this reminds me of the true cost of the other billions of people who lack what most of us would call an essential resource. (I had a twitter thread about internet being so crucial it should be considered a utility!!). I have been keeping tabs on Starlink’s beta (as my parents installed this at their remote lake house in northern NY) and so far it works even better than we expected with the amount of tree cover. That was my one concern, it seems really sensitive to obstacles (which is the benefit of hard wired internet).

  8. I think it is excellent that there is a goal to get the unconnected connected. However, I do have my concerns that the price to get internet access seems high, and if you consider the types of jobs and income in rural areas, I’m not sure if the price will keep people from opting into this service even if the benefits are high.

  9. I’ve learned so much through this blog! It is interesting to see how companies are rushing against each other to reach the people who currently don’t have access to the internet. I see Amazon having an even greater motive with the company relying on customers having internet access to be able to utilize its services; however I’m wondering, with so many satellites in the earths orbit, is it safe for our planet? Or are there any collateral side effects of having satellites orbiting our planet?

  10. Great blog, and loved reading through the comments. While I think having competition in this space between Amazon, Starlink, etc, will improve options for customers, there’s also an issue of cost and (literal) space. I had read a fascinating article this summer about how the lower orbit is unregulated (who would even regulate it, and how) and thus could become completely overrun with these types of satellites which would ultimately interfere with signals, perhaps collide into one another, etc.

    I’m curious if/when Microsoft will announce it is entering into this arena in some capacity…

  11. Great post that has generated a nice comment thread here. I concur with our professor’s point about the expansion of access being multifaceted: providing access to those that have none but also providing *better* access to areas that don’t have it, so as to support the ever growing ranks of remote workers. Last year, even with upping my internet at home to a good amount (in the suburbs of Boston), my household connectivity buckled at time what with two remote workers and three remote students. While I don’t foresee full remote work in my immediate future, I am now working a schedule of working remotely on Tuesdays and Fridays–and even that shifts some life plans to consider things like a remote cottage/condo in Maine or the Cape for Thurs-Mon shifts but I could only do that if I was assured to have as strong access as I have in this metropolitan area.

    In my imagined Utopia, we can all be free to roam/habitate where we choose with high-speed internet being part and parcel with clean water & electricity.

  12. Great Post! I think a lot of issues can be addressed with access to internet. the current infrastructure cannot support the rural areas so these satellite options would be great. I do worry about the access to data and also space debris over time with the increase in options that are in outer space though.

  13. Great post and comment thread! Better internet connectivity will be a necessity in the upcoming years as most of us gravitate towards remote work or opt for telehealth! I’m curious to see what the negative impacts of launching all these satellites will be.

  14. I think that those of us you have access to the internet and tech in general are often looking towards the next big thing that’s going to take the tech market to the next level. What we often miss is another step forward for the internet is just making it universally accessible.

  15. I think this is an excellent example of the possibilities of public-private partnerships, or P3’s. It appears that Amazon and Verizon are doing this on their own, but I’m sure they needed approvals and the like from government. If other governments want to bolster their local communities, they ought to pass legislation enabling P3’s and get to work. It’s a win-win (let’s not think for even a second that having internet in more rural areas isn’t a major business benefit for Amazon and Verizon — this is not charity). Thanks for the great post!

  16. Great blog post. Infrastructure in the United States seems third world in many areas. Though our government invests so much of our taxpayer dollars towards these projects, it seems that we aren’t making progress. Progress is seeing a change in areas in which certain privileges such as technology are not available. If we think speeding up technology is going to solve anything, we’re wrong. It’s like making the rich richer. Big tech benefits because 1) they’re in the cities, and 2) things are getting better, faster, and cheaper for their operational needs. We need to meet unmet needs, which according to the stats here, are in rural areas. Professor Kane makes a great point, is this an opportunity to fulfill an unmet need through a capitalistic idea. I certainly think so, let’s see how far the government and these companies can run before inaccessibility to the internet becomes a life-threatening danger.

  17. I was shocked to read some of the statistics surrounding internet access and broadband strength across different areas of the country and the world. As the world continues to hurtle forward into the digital space, the internet becomes more and more integral to daily life. In my opinion, in the same way that access to water is integral to daily life, access to internet becomes increasingly necessary to work, communicate, gather information, learn and more.

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