Low-earth satellites getting closer to delivering high speed rural Internet


Rural internet is a major topic of concern and is of interest for rural Canadians. There are reasons to be optimistic about rural internet connectivity, and an article in The Globe and Mail this week, titled “Internet everywhere, but at a cost: The race for the low-Earth satellite market,” highlights how new satellite networks could boost Internet speed.

“LEO’s (low orbiting satellites) are basically satellites that are orbiting quite close to the earth,” explains Alexandra Posadzki, telecom reporter for The Globe and Mail, and author of the article. “In comparison to geostationary or GEO satellites, which are much higher up, these LEO satellites are significantly closer to the earth and therefore able to potentially get faster download speeds for Internet connection.”

LEO satellites are also capable of lower latency periods compared with traditional Internet via satellite — latency is the delay between when a signal, or a bit of data, is sent up to a satellite, then gets beamed back down.

The LEO satellite market is much more competitive than one would think. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, has received plenty of publicity for his StarLink project, but a number of companies from Canada, the U.S, and elsewhere are competing to blanket the world with broadband from space. StarLink has already launched over 700 out of planned a 12,000 satellites into orbit, approximately 550 km from earth (a rocket launching StarLink satellites is pictured above). As Posadzki discusses, there are several other major efforts underway: Telesat based at Ottawa, OneWeb out of the UK, and even Amazon has a project called Cooper, in the works.

Catch the full conversation between Alexandra Posadzki and RealAgriculture’s Shaun Haney to hear about the government’s role in the LEO satellite market, how the satellites can be launched in an “uber-like” way, and what makes this idea different from previous high speed internet solutions, below. Story continues below player.

The race to bring internet via LEO satellites is happening as frustration with the gap between rural and urban broadband speeds is growing. The potential speed of internet provided by a system that incorporates LEO satellites depends on the proposals of each company’s plans. “One of the challenges, of course, is that it’s a new technology so it’s hard to know at this point how good the service could potentially be,” says Posadzki. SpaceX is doing some preliminary testing of internet speeds through its employee’s services, with good results — fast enough to play video games. The U.S. military has also been testing StarLink’s performance during live-fire exercises.

Costs are pretty high for a new system like this, and it will be a barrier for all parties involved, notes Posadzki. The success of this industry will rely on companies being able to lower the costs of manufacturing and deploying these satellite constellations — SpaceX lists the cost of the StarLink constellation at US$10 billion. Another question that the success of this will hinge on is will these companies have a big enough market to justify the costs?

On the ground technology will depend on the project, but could also be costly. Some systems may require a half metre wide “UFO on a stick” device to connect to the internet, and some may provide what’s called backhaul connectivity to telecom companies, who would then distribute the connection.

The timelines for each LEO company differ, but SpaceX, which has a history of being very optimistic with its timelines, has said it’s aiming to provide Internet to the public in Canada and the northern U.S. as soon as the end of this year.

Listen to the interview above for more, and the original article in The Globe and Mail here.

Related: SpaceX launch could be a leap toward solving the rural internet problem

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