SpaceX’s Starlink Amazon’s Kuiper Project: The Future of Satellite Internet

Space internet has a reputation for slow service. Internet beamed from low Earth orbit, with questionable signal strength and bandwidth that can hardly match Netflix, is something you only turn to as a last resort or when you’re stuck on a long-haul flight. But in 2023, satellite-based internet is getting a major upgrade.

Private companies and governments are taking space internet projects seriously. This year, SpaceX has planned several launches of satellites into orbit to support the Starlink network, including 51 satellites scheduled to lift off tonight from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.. Each new batch joins thousands of satellites that SpaceX has sent into orbit, including Starlink’s rival OneWeb. Meanwhile, Amazon plans to include more than 3,000 satellites in its Project Kuiper satellite internet constellation and should launch prototype satellites early this year. The European Union has said its proposed satellite network, Iriss, could include up to 170 satellites scheduled to enter low-Earth orbit between 2025 and 2027. Inspired by the use of Starlink terminals in the war against Ukraine, Taiwan is now like this. is looking for investors to finance its local satellite network.

Thanks to the rise of the space industry, the cost of space launches has come down dramatically over the past few years. The satellites themselves are also getting cheaper. As a result, it became more viable to hire rocket companies to launch commercial satellites into orbit, paving the way for satellite constellations that could provide faster internet service than older satellite-based internet technology, which typically relied on one or two technologies. satellites orbiting the planet. While satellite-based internet isn’t necessarily set to replace the service provided by cell towers or fiber optic cables, it can still play a role in the wider networks that many people use every day, adding more capacity and extending coverage.

The expected growth in new satellites will make the space internet an even bigger presence in our daily lives this year. T-Mobile plans to use its Starlink network to extend coverage in dead zones, and SpaceX is encouraging other cellular providers to connect their networks to the skies. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is designed to power Verizon’s 4G, LTE and 5G networks once it’s up and running, a spokesperson told Recode. Even planes and boats are getting on board with the idea: Starlink has already made its Internet available on private jets and some cruise ships, and Delta announced earlier this month that it would make in-flight Wi-Fi free for SkyMiles members. Partnership with T-Mobile and geostationary satellite provider Viasat.

Sometimes internet satellite constellations appear in the night sky.
Mariana Suarez/AFP via Getty Images

According to Silvia Kechiche, principal industry analyst for the enterprise, satellite Internet can be a real improvement for people living or traveling in remote areas. At network intelligence firm Ookla. “Think about the outskirts of the city when you don’t have that good infrastructure anymore and you can’t get good speeds because there’s no fiber or cable,” he said.

But the new era will also create new obstacles. The next generation of satellite-capable equipment is still expensive and could prevent the U.S. from using the technology to close the digital divide — the gap between those who can access high-quality Internet and those who can’t. and all over the world. Low-Earth orbit, or the part of space 1,200 miles or less from Earth, is already crowded, and there are growing concerns that the growth in commercial satellites will add to our space debris problem and block astronomers because of their brightness. ‘view of the night sky. As many networks prepare to launch more and more satellites into space, regulators are gearing up for a battle over the physical space in orbit as well as the spectrum bands over which wireless satellite Internet providers must operate their services. And even if things generally get cheaper, there’s still the issue of figuring out where and when using satellites makes real financial sense.

“Most city dwellers can access broadband through terrestrial networks. This is not the case for rural areas or much of the developing world,” explained Scott Pece, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “Space-based systems do not replace existing ground-based systems so much as they extend and deepen the scale and stability of Internet services in new ways.”

The satellite renaissance

For the past few decades, satellite internet has been based mainly on geostationary satellites. These satellites orbit at an altitude of about 22,000 miles, meaning they always appear to be in the same position when you look up from Earth – hence the name geostationary. Because these internet-beaming satellites are so far away, they can cover large areas of the Earth’s surface. For the same reason, the connection provided by these satellites can also be extremely slow, as anyone who has used satellite internet on a plane will tell you.

The new Starlink satellites orbiting Earth work differently. Operating at much lower altitudes, each satellite provides less coverage, so companies send hundreds or thousands of satellites into space in batches, creating satellite constellations in orbit. According to Whitney Lohmeyer, an engineering professor and satellite industry consultant, while a geostationary satellite looks like a fixed star from here on Earth, the new satellites are more like shooting stars. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of these satellites flying across the night sky.

“As you bring it closer to the surface … the footprint narrows,” Lohmeyer told Recode. “Therefore, more satellites are required in the LEO constellation to provide global coverage.”

For now, SpaceX is leading the way in this new internet era. The company is responsible for almost half of the total active satellites orbiting Earth, and its Starlink internet service, now available in dozens of countries, hit 1 million users in December. Still, some believe that even though Amazon has yet to launch any satellites, it could eventually gain an advantage because the company could combine its space-based Internet with its already massive cloud business, Amazon Web Services.

Even companies you might not have heard of are joining the satellite gold rush. Apple has worked with Globalstar, a low-Earth satellite network founded in 1991, to launch a new satellite service that provides emergency service to iPhone 14 models when other cellular networks are unavailable (Apple invested $450 million in the company in November). Qualcomm is working with another satellite company, Iridium, to enable a similar feature on some Android phones. But while our devices will always connect to satellites for services like GPS, these more advanced features will require new hardware that most modern phones don’t have.

The changes are also coming to legacy satellite-based internet providers. Dan Buchman, CEO of ViaSat, the nearly 40-year-old geostationary satellite network, told Recode that the company plans to launch a new, next-generation satellite in the first quarter of this year, with two more to follow. 12 months. The expansion is expected to increase the company’s capacity by 600 percent, with each new satellite capable of carrying at least one terabit of data per second. ViaSat already provides satellite Internet to several major airlines.

Problems ahead

Right now, companies are laying the groundwork for the future of the space internet industry — sometimes literally, in the form of new ground stations to support new satellites. They also create all kinds of unexpected opportunities, including satellite-based jobs. Amazon, for example, is opening a facility primarily focused on manufacturing new satellites, a sector the company said it has maintained even during company-wide layoffs.

But the arrival of these new satellites has raised real questions. A space researcher has suggested that in 2021 Starlink satellites will already be equipped with autonomous collision avoidance systems, but will already account for a large proportion of close encounters between objects in low Earth orbit. Space debris in this congested region of space is a growing problem, and there is concern that installing more satellites will make the problem worse. These satellites risk colliding with each other or with the tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris orbiting Earth. This will create more space junk.

“The number of orbital highways is finite, and for each orbital highway there is a carrying capacity that we have not yet measured,” Moriba Jah, chief scientist and co-founder of Privateer Space, told Recode. “This carrying capacity is like highways or limited land areas on Earth.”

Starlink dish operating in Ukraine.
Andrii Dubchak/Donbas Frontliner via Zaborona/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

The challenge of regulating these services is so great that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced a proposal to create a dedicated space bureau. The agency is currently responsible for regulating spectrum, which has become a point of tension between providers such as OneWeb and SpaceX, as well as companies such as Dish. The FCC also recently canceled a nearly $1 billion SpaceX subsidy aimed at bridging the digital divide after the agency found the technology wasn’t ready.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees the many rocket launches needed to send these satellites into space. The agency must also approve satellite-based Internet service for aircraft. Airlines installing these systems for commercial passenger aircraft must demonstrate to the agency that the new technologies do not interfere with the aircraft’s communications and security systems.

As with in-flight Wi-Fi, satellite-based internet is often really useful in special use cases. And it’s expensive. For example, to set up Starlink, customers have to spend $599 for a terminal and then $110 every month, which is more expensive than many broadband services. In addition to the high cost of equipment and service, satellite Internet is not always the most reliable and has limited capabilities.

“We can see some real-world promise and applications,” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit focused on promoting digital competition. “When you start deploying and getting into the details, you also start to discover some real limitations.” Earlier this fall, for example, Starlink’s speeds slowed as more people signed up for the service, and the company said it may impose high-speed data caps in the U.S. in the future.

Satellite-based internet doesn’t have to be everything for everyone to make a real impact. These services can offer a significant extension of the wired and wireless internet service we use today. This is a welcome development for many people around the world without high-speed Internet access, as well as for anyone entering the less connected field.

If all goes according to plans from companies like SpaceX and Amazon, their satellites will become a real form of infrastructure connecting our devices to the environment from space on a regular basis. This next-generation internet connection isn’t online yet, but the satellites that will make it possible are now being launched.

“We’re still in the early days, so we’re waiting for the iPhone effect,” Ookla’s Kechiche told Recode. “We’re still waiting for the ‘wow’ factor and something to really push it forward.”

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