Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Internet connectivity has become a common household staple. Cable, DSL, and optic fiber are widely used to provide Internet connectivity to customers' homes. But what about people living or working in remote areas or sparsely populated locations? Remote geographies are generally hard to reach, so internet connectivity in these areas may be either non-existent or very expensive. If you live or work in the middle of nowhere, then satellite internet could be your best alternative.
Satellite internet is a form of wireless internet connectivity in which the internet signal is relayed to end-users via low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. LEO satellites are miniature versions of the traditional geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites that weigh more than 1000 kg and operate 36,000 kilometers above the earth. The LEO satellites weigh less than 500 kg and operate around 500 to 2000 km above the earth's surface.
Satellite internet is advantageous as it eliminates the requirement for cable or phone lines and can reach even the remote locations with otherwise unfavorable connectivity conditions. Although satellite internet has poor latency, the high bandwidth capacity provides an attractive option.
However, satellite internet comes with its share of cons. With satellite internet, data are transmitted using a satellite through the air and not directly through cables. This design leads to a greater chance of interference along with speed- and latency-related issues. Environmental factors such as wind, rain, or storms may also affect the quality of the Internet. Also, satellite internet leads to concerns over space debris that may significantly increase with ISPs launching several satellites into space.
Current Satellite Internet Providers
Pioneers in Satellite Communication - ViaSat and HughesNet are the two major satellite providers in the US today. ViaSat offers higher speed and data allowances, whereas HughesNet is known for its more affordable packages.
There are several major competitors currently attempting to become the largest global commercial satellite-internet provider. They include Starlink (Elon Musk's SpaceX project), Amazon's Kuiper, and Facebook's Athena.
Starlink, announced in 2015, is SpaceX's satellite internet project aimed at delivering high-speed broadband internet to locations where internet access is unavailable, unreliable, or expensive. Starlink plans to launch its service to most of the world in 2021. Along with providing broadband connectivity, Starlink is working to mitigate on-orbit debris. Inoperable satellites deorbit within a few months or burn up in the earth's atmosphere over a few years. This feature helps resolve concerns over the increasing space debris caused by satellites. SpaceX, having launched over 800 Starlink satellites in orbit, may become the biggest American organization to provide commercial satellite broadband services globally. A public beta test was launched in late October in parts of the US and Canada.
Amazon's Kuiper is currently the most significant competition for Starlink. Kuiper is another project aimed at launching a constellation of Low Earth Orbit Satellites that can be used to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to remote areas worldwide. As part of Project Kuiper, to cover the planet, Amazon plans to launch more than 3200 satellites into space. However, Kuiper is far behind Starlink and is yet to start manufacturing its satellites. Recently, Amazon received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch its satellites into space. As per the FCC order, Amazon must launch half of the satellites by mid-2026 and the rest by mid-2029. Kuiper hopes to commence its broadband services once 578 satellites have been launched.
Tech giant Facebook is also working on a Low Earth Orbit satellite project that aims to provide high-speed broadband connectivity. News of this project, titled Athena, came just weeks after Facebook announced its internet drone project's shutdown. Athena was kept under wraps until mid-2018, and Facebook has still not released any specifics about the project.
Iridium Communications Inc. has launched a constellation of 75 second-generation LEO satellites to date. They are being used to provide high-quality voice and data connections over the earth's entire surface, including across oceans, airways, and polar regions. Iridium has signed a contract with Relativity Space for six dedicated launches to deploy Iridium's spare satellites to Low Earth Orbit. The launches are planned no earlier than 2023.
Boeing, one of the world's leading aircraft manufacturers, is also working on manufacturing commercial satellites that can be used to provide internet connectivity in hard-to-reach locations around the world. Boeing's project to build 1396 to 2956 satellites was briefly stalled, and it only restarted last year. However, the company has revealed little about its progress so far.
OneWeb was one of the most promising players in this Space Race. The famous London-based global communications company had partnered with Airbus to set up their satellite internet system, where Airbus would manufacture the satellites, and OneWeb would provide ground support. OneWeb has launched 74 satellites to date due to its attempt to become one of the world's first commercial satellite internet providers. OneWeb was acquired by Bharti Global and the British government in July 2020 after it was forced to file for bankruptcy in March 2020 due to the financial turbulence caused by COVID-19.
Alphabet, Google's parent company, owns a subsidiary called Loon, which aims to deliver a broadband connection to people living in remote areas worldwide. Loon has already been involved in delivering connectivity to remote areas via helium balloons flying in the stratosphere (20 km above ground level). Loon has partnered with Canadian telecommunications company Telesat to control Telesat's new constellation of low Earth orbit satellites using Loon's custom software service that also manages Loon’s LTE balloon fleet.
Promising New Entrants
Unlike the other players involved in the Satellite Internet Space Race, start-up Skylo Technologies' primary focus is not to deliver high-speed Internet via satellite. Instead, it focuses on enabling people, such as truckers on rural routes and people at sea, on working in remote areas by sending and receiving short bursts of data at a low price. Skylo is working on an antenna, about the size of a dinner plate, which can easily be bolted onto the roof of a boat or a truck. The Skylo antenna uses software to lock onto satellites to transmit data to nearby devices via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Customers only need to buy the antenna, which costs less than $100 and pays for Skylo's service, which starts at $1. Skylo has attracted several investors, including Innovation Endeavors, SoftBank, and Boeing's HorizonX,
A 5G-connected world will soon require high speed and low latency internet to connect a wide variety of devices. LEO satellites will play an essential role in extending cellular 5G networks to hard-to-reach locations, including air, sea, and remote geographies, by relaying 5G signals to the earth from space. LEO satellite constellations will be used with the terrestrial 5G infrastructure to improve network coverage and integrate with networks that manage IoT devices, such as connected cars. It will also provide cellular connectivity to end-users even during natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes when 5G infrastructure might be damaged.
Over 350 patent applications regarding Satellite Internet have been filed over the years, with the highest number of applications filed in 2018 (70), followed by 2019 (55). 2020 has seen 12 applications in the field of satellite internet despite the ongoing global pandemic.
Patent Application Trends in Satellite Internet Industry (2000-2019)
A vast majority of these patents are filed in the US jurisdiction (195 records). Other popular jurisdictions include China, Europe, the Republic of Korea, Canada, Japan, India, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, and Russia.
Countries with Patents in Satellite Internet Industry
Viasat Inc., famous for its satellite communication services, is the top Satellite Internet patentee. Other popular names such as Intelligent Technologies, Boeing, Hughes Network Systems, Google, Qualcomm, WorldVu (OneWeb), AT&T, and Facebook are also amongst the top 20 patent assignees in the field of satellite internet.
Satellite-based Internet seems to be rapidly gaining popularity as the most promising way to provide broadband connectivity to hard-to-reach places. Famous names such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook are interested in developing technologies. However, as of now, Elon Musk's Starlink seems to be far ahead of its competitors in the race to become the biggest global satellite internet provider providing high speed and low latency.
Associate Consultant at Lumenci Angelena is a Telecom and Computer Networking expert at Lumenci. She holds a degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering. Angelena loves to bake and spends her leisure time reading tech product reviews and fiction books.