SpaceX launched a network of 100 satellites this year, called Starlink, in a bid to expand the constellation to include more than 10,000 devices that will blanket the planet internet connectivity.
It is hoping to provide Wi-Fi for as many people as possible by building a constellation of satellites to deliver cheap, lighting-quick broadband from space. However, it is not going to come easy, some other companies have tried and failed.
While Starlink has proved the capability of Elon Musk’s Spacex to shoot satellites up to the space, the challenge remains if it could shoot as many as needed to keep the idea alive without running out of funds. And the hurdle doesn’t end with getting the satellites up: consumers will need user-terminals to access the network.
To make the idea functional and consumable, affordable, reliable and hosting terminals need to be established, or high tech antennas that consumers can mount on their roofs to enable internet reception. And that comes at a high cost, and it is what is needed to attract consumers.
Before now, other companies had tried to set up internet service enabling satellites but failed. In the 1990s, a number of these companies with the satellite-internet dream relinquished it for reasons related to fund. Some got liquidated while trying, others simply quit when they realized it’s much bigger a deal than they bargained.
But then, the failures didn’t stop the quest, not quite long ago, Facebook also failed in its bid to launch a satellite that will provide internet services worldwide. Spacex, Amazon and Oneweb are new crop of companies standing up against the odds once again. Their chances lie on the cheaper cost of satellite launch and rocket business compared to the 1990s when many tried and failed.
But the success of internet constellation business doesn’t lie on the activities of the space alone, what happens on earth is as important as what happens up there. So ground equipment (terminals) may pose the biggest challenge to the success.
Even though there have been significant improvement in antenna technology since the 1990s, experts believe what is available now will not enable affordable internet constellation business. This means, it will be difficult for operators to make a profit given the cost of services. It will be quite impractical to convince users to abandon the traditional internet providers and jump onto a satellite service if the cost is higher.
But making the services affordable doesn’t come cheap because it depends on antennas, and they are so hard. In the early 2000, Teledesic, an internet constellation company backed by Microsoft, now defunct, failed in its bid to establish user terminals, mainly because they underestimated the difficulties involved, and consequently went out of business.
The difficulty in establishing user terminals and antennas has been attributed to some factors like what happens in space. Space-based data services already exist, and they’re powered primarily by massive satellites in geosynchronous orbit more than 20.000 miles from Earth. At that distance, objects orbit at the same speed as the earth turns, meaning satellites can stay positioned over a specific area of land and provide uninterrupted service.
To some telecom providers, it’s ideal, mainly because the service is for voice communication. So they can provide a simple antenna for users that will be placed on the rooftop directly gazing at the satellite all the time. But that doesn’t apply to internet service for some reason.
Geostationary satellites require data to travel 20,000 miles and back whenever a user clicks a link, which can be frustrating due to lag times. But Spacex has cut the travel time to orbit closer to the ground, enabling faster internet service. Starlink is designed to push satellites to circle 340 miles overhead – The closer the satellite, the faster the internet services.
The push for internet constellation has become necessary due to the wide gap in internet availability and usage. About half the population of the globe still lacks consistent internet access. And traditional Wi-Fi and cell services rely on an enormous web of underground cables and cell towers. So connecting billions of people using only ground-based technologies would be expensive and unaffordable to consumers.
So the idea is to use satellite to effect global internet connectivity that will serve as an alternative to the ground tech. However, the challenge lies in making the cost cheaper and affordable.