Almost all of the world's internet data zips from place to place through underground and undersea cables. Now, several companies are looking to the heavens to expand the web's capacity and bring broadband coverage to everyone in the world, including the billions of people worldwide who lack it.
SpaceX, OneWeb and LeoSat are in the early stages of launching hundreds, even thousands, of satellites to create an orbiting internet network. One company is already up there. SES Networks, headquartered in Betzdorf, Luxembourg, has 12 satellites circling the globe with four more due to launch in 2018 and another four on order. Its fleet is delivering high-throughput data services to diverse places, many of which are remote or impoverished and could not afford to install the infrastructure necessary to support cable fiber. Think the Cook Islands, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, Chad, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, the Caribbean and many others.
"In the rapid development of the company, we've been able to very quickly deliver high volume data to remote parts of the world and to enable them to connect to the internet, Facebook, Google, remote medical support, humanitarian aid, and more," says Stewart Sanders, executive vice president of technology for SES Networks.
"It's difficult to overestimate the social and economic benefits this has enabled for our customers," he says.
Internet From the Sky
The fleet of satellites have their origin in a company called O3b Networks, which SES acquired in 2016. Entrepreneur Greg Wyler founded O3b in 2007. Wyler spent the early 2000s setting up telecommunications in rural parts of Africa. While working with the post-war government of Rwanda to bring mobile phone service online, the entrepreneur began thinking about a better way to deliver to high bandwidth to the other 3 billion — hence "O3b" — people in the world who lacked access to the internet.
Because fiber was too expensive and vulnerable to breaks or power outages common in developing nations, Wyler considered using satellites. He wasn't interested in the kind already providing internet through companies like Dish Network and DirecTV. These companies have satellites flying about 22,000 miles (35,700 kilometers) above the equator in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) — an orbit that has traditionally been used for telecommunications. At that height, the satellites beam signals that can cover huge swaths of the planet, nearly 2,000 miles (3,000 kilometers) wide at a time. But the distance creates a delay, or latency.
"People always talk about home usage and ask, 'What's my throughput? How much data am I pulling down?'" Sanders says. "But a key factor that affects performance and the user experience is latency."
Signals from geostationary satellites can take about 500 milliseconds (0.5 seconds) to travel down to Earth and back up again. This amount of latency isn't ideal for providing internet services.
Wyler settled on satellites that could fly at medium-Earth orbit (MEO), roughly 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) up, significantly lower than the geostationary orbit. At that lower height, latency is less than 150 milliseconds (0.15 seconds). The O3b fleet is now a part of SES Networks, which also flies more than 50 satellites in GEO.
Each MEO satellite has 12 beams, two of which are directed at gateways on the ground. Of the remaining 10 beams, five connect to one gateway beam and five to the other. These 10 beams are called user beams, and each one can provide a customer with up to 2 gigabits per second (Gbps) throughput. SES Networks has nine gateways installed around the world directly supporting the O3b MEO Fleet, and Sanders says that at any given time, a satellite in medium-Earth orbit can see multiple gateways.
In 2012, Wyler left O3b Networks to start up OneWeb, which in addition to SpaceX, wants to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit — 111 to 1,242 miles or 180 to 2,000 kilometers — where the lower orbit could enable even lower latency. It also reduces the time a satellite can "see" a gateway, so the number of satellites required for global coverage is significantly higher, and that increases the system's complexity.
In November 2016, SpaceX filed a proposal to launch 4,425 satellites into low-Earth orbit at 700 miles (1,110 kilometers) and higher above the planet.
Getting that many satellites into orbit will take time and money, says Sanders. "The launch costs alone will be a significant portion of the investment, and the technical challenges with the overall implementation will be significant," he says.
But SpaceX, as well as the rocket company Blue Origin, owned by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, are developing reusable rockets, which could bring that cost way down. SpaceX told Congress it intends to start its ambitious satellite launch campaign in 2019.
As these space-based systems begin to come online, so too will the fifth generation of wireless service, known as 5G. This means that people now living in the most remote regions of the planet as well those living far off the grid may soon be receiving some of the fastest internet service available.
"I've been in this industry well over 30 years, and there's been more activity in the last five or so years, than probably in the previous 20," Sanders says. "It's incredible."