When it comes to internet connectivity, it seems the sky – and specifically inner space – is the limit. Despite the UK’s network of high-speed broadband cables and the promise of go-anywhere 5G connectivity, some industry observers believe our internet connections may be powered from space in the not too distant future.
Until Sky television debuted in 1989, homes and offices relied on hardwired connections like phone lines, or wireless signals distributed from ground-anchored antennas and masts. The concept of receiving data from space seemed futuristic thirty years ago, yet nine million UK homes now sport southeast-oriented satellite dishes that receive signals from 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Signal quality remains stable apart from occasional weather disruption, and this consistency has been noted by some of the world’s internet pioneers.
After the critical failure of his first Internet.org venture, Mark Zuckerberg turned his attention to launching satellites into space, from where they can beam down bandwidth. A rocket carrying Facebook’s first AMOS-6 satellite exploded at Cape Canaveral last year, but Zuckerberg remains committed to beaming broadband across regions that presently lack landlines or 4G masts – turning Facebook into a gatekeeper for internet connectivity.
One Satellite Broadband Service To Rule Them All
Another well-resourced satellite broadband service is OneWeb, currently based in America but soon to relocate to White City Place in London. With backers including Virgin Group, Airbus and satellite specialists Eutelsat, OneWeb plans to launch an astonishing 648 satellites by 2021. This $3 billion programme would see a global constellation of satellites hovering just 750 miles above ground – a fraction of the usual altitude, but essential to ensure rapid data transfer. A trial is expected to start in 2019, with the first satellites scheduled for launch next year.
OneWeb has a unique advantage, having recently received US federal approval to beam satellite internet signals to Earth. There are clearly questions about market domination and consumer costs to be answered, in a similar vein to Sky’s perceived dominance of the airwaves. Yet just as Now TV and Virgin Media provide terrestrial and cable-based subscription alternatives to Sky, OneWeb is unlikely to be the only broadband provider people can call upon. The question is whether satellite broadband offers compelling advantages over more established methods of data transfer…
Bridging The Digital Divide
OneWeb claim they want to “fully bridge the digital divide” within a decade, citing the fact that half the planet’s population currently lacks reliable high-speed internet access. The gigabit-per-second speeds offered by satellite broadband should ensure every unconnected school has a connection by 2022, while OneWeb’s endgame involves delivering low latency broadband for cars, homes and mobile devices by 2027. It’s certainly true that an evenly-spaced constellation of satellites could pipe bandwidth to devices across the planet, particularly fixed-location domestic terminals. OneWeb’s compact terminals will effectively double as home hubs, distributing 3G, Wi-Fi and LTE signals to surrounding areas.
It’s probably safe to assume that no other company will launch 650 satellites to challenge OneWeb’s monopoly of the skies, which does raise competition concerns. However, there’s much to be said for satellite broadband, quite apart from its availability in remote or off-grid areas. A global network of satellites will ensure stable connectivity at all times, as well as delivering consistent speeds. Portable terminals will make transferring to a new location or address far easier than today’s laborious landline/cable switchovers, and coverage from above should ensure mobile connectivity is more dependable on the move. That’s something we’ll all benefit from, particularly as we come to rely more heavily on the Internet of Things and always-on connectivity…