• Akshat Jain

WiFi from Heaven. Satellite Internet is Spawning a New Space Race

Most of the data we see over the internet is being run through fiber optic cables running under the world's oceans, spanning the entire globe and running across continents holding the world’s internet. That might change soon. The world is seeing a new space race - a race to sell high-speed satellite internet connections to the billions of people throughout the world and in Elon Musk’s view, maybe to even future humans on Mars.

For all the talk about the “cloud”, practically all of the data the world relies on is cables as deep beneath the ocean as Mount Everest is high. This network of cables spans more than 550,000 miles and connects every continent, save for Antarctica. It started with telegraph cables back in 1858 with telephone companies joining in later; eventually the high-speed fiber optic cables made their way to the ocean floor. Recently, even technology giants like Google and Microsoft have invested in cable infrastructure developments.

These cables are not fool-proof - human error is a major factor. In multiple cases, underwater cables have been damaged due to shipping incidents. In 2009, a ship damaged underwater data cables in East Africa to the Middle East and Europe, causing outages in nine countries. Developing countries are especially prone to cable damages since they may only have a few links to the global internet.

Countries have also used these cables for their own tactical advantage. During the Cold War era, the National Security Agency of the USA ran a program to tap into underwater communication links between two Soviet naval bases. Edward Snowden has even suggested that the agency is still tapping into underwater fiber optic cables as part of their global surveillance operations. In 2015, reports surfaced of Russian submarines and spy vessels operating close to undersea cables. American intelligence and military officials said that they might strike these cables in times of tensions or conflict. The after-effects of such an attack would be devastating, as the world’s economy, banking systems and communications becomes increasingly dependent on the internet.

Apart from human interference, fiber optic cables have generated quite a buzz amongst the inhabitants of the sea. The cables have been prone to shark attacks, and other fish life has had a long history of biting cables.

The idea of satellite internet is not new. Beaming internet from geostationary satellites far above the earth has been in the air since 1960s. One major reason it hasn’t been able to counter the cables is because of high latency. The time it takes for a satellite to receive and send data has been too high to be practical for daily applications, like teleconferencing or online gaming. But the tide is beginning to change. Commercial space business has really picked up in the past decade owing to a couple of billionaires - Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson-backed OneWeb.

These companies are planning to place their satellites in low earth orbit, roughly 100 to 1250 miles above earth, and reduce the latency in connections to about the standard of physical internet cables. Even when 3.8 billion people remain unconnected to the internet, satellite internet provides a real opportunity to connect people in developing countries and help make their lives better. This might also be able to bring high speed internet to places where laying cable isn’t practical, like the Pacific Islands.

But the major hurdle in these plans is the cost involved. The same plans were proposed by Teledesic, funded by Bill Gates in the 1990s, but the company suffered a number of setbacks before closing shop in 2003. Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to provide global internet - internet.org - has also been reportedly abandoned due to the costs. Using low earth orbit instead of higher geostationary ones means having to utilise more satellites to cover the same area thus increasing costs. This means that the companies are in for a challenge.

They would need to bring down the costs of the launching satellites drastically for their low earth satellite orbit to be viable. At the same time, they would have to keep the costs of the services they are offering extremely cheap. They would be selling their internet to people in developing countries and competing with existing service providers that are already bringing down service costs. One alternative that has been proposed by some is to sell services to internet service providers rather than directly to end users. But critics note that all this might end up costing more than laying cables, owing to the strides being made in infrastructure developments.

Though it must be noted that SpaceX has made great strides in recent years in bringing down the cost of space flights with their Falcon rockets. Whether they could do the same with satellites as well remains to be seen as they plan to launch the first of their planned 12,000 satellites in 2019.

Apart from private companies, China has recently launched a satellite called Hongyun-1 into low earth orbit. Joining the bandwagon, it plans to launch a network of satellites by 2022 and provide internet access to remote parts of China, and then to developing countries. The country’s move has raised eyes about the possibility of a country known for its heavily pollicised and at times controversial internet providing services in other countries.

The race to launch satellites quickly and efficiently is looking to heat up in the next decade. Whether such plans would be able to provide fast, reliable and cheap internet at the same cost that current service providers do is a daunting task. Satellites might not be prone to shark attacks and shipping damage, but space provides its fair share of challenges.

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About the Author​

Akshat Jain is a second year student of Bachelors in Technology from Manipal University Jaipur. Originally from Delhi, he is an avid debater and has participated in numerous Model United Nations conferences all over the country. A West Wing fan, he likes reading and decoding social issues, and public policy. Previously, he has worked with the healthcare venture PeeSafe, in addition to The Kirat Youth Foundation, and Kairo Guard.

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