The internet is a scarce commodity. Around 40% the world’s population lacks efficient access to the internet, according to Statista. And, this isn't just a problem for developing countries. In many developed countries, like the U.S., residents and businesses, particularly in remote locations, still struggle with copper cable networks and inadequate fiber rollout. The result is low internet speeds. According to the International Telecommunications Union's (ITU's) 2021 report on Measuring Digital Development, the worldwide share of internet users in urban areas is twice as high as in rural areas. The speed also varies, with rural households still experiencing single-digit Mbit download speeds in many areas.  

Modern digital applications need fast broadband and latency (the time data takes to travel from the user to the server where the website or content is hosted and back again) of less than 65 ms to create an enjoyable user experience. Real-time data processing is not possible with slow internet speeds and high latency. That means, in this fast-moving networked world, rural companies are clearly lagging behind their urban competitors.

The response to COVID-19 led to an uptake in fiber rollout, and, in 2021 — for the first time ever — fiber subscriptions surpassed copper-wire DSL in countries belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, there is still a lot of work to be done, and, in view of the enormous costs involved, the gapless rollout of a fiber-optic infrastructure will be a long-term project. The search for mid-term alternatives is, therefore, entirely appropriate. One possible alternative is the use of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

Advantages of Satellite Internet

Basically, the idea of satellite internet is not a new one. Since the early 2000s, providers, such as EUTELSAT, SES Astra, Telesat, HughesNet, and ViaSat, have been putting satellites into orbit to provide internet access. These are largely geostationary satellites, located at an altitude of about 36,000 kilometers. However, this form of internet supply has significant disadvantages that can be eliminated with LEO satellites. For starters, the cost of constructing and installing LEO satellites is much lower versus geostationary satellites. And. closer proximity to the Earth means significantly higher internet speeds and lower latencies can be achieved. The operation of satellite connectivity works, in principle, like the connection between a cellphone and a cell tower, using receiver-transmitter technology to establish a link between two points in line of sight. This allows bidirectional communication with ground stations on Earth that are connected to the internet. Recently, optical communication between satellites using lasers has been incorporated into satellites launched by Starlink. This has the potential to increase transmission speeds dramatically.

Satellite Internet

Starlink, the best-known of the companies working in LEO satellite connectivity, currently has approximately 1,700 satellites in low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 550 kilometers. The number of satellites is expected to grow as high as 42,000 in the future. Starlink entered a beta testing phase in 2020 and is now available for users in North America, several European markets, Australia, and New Zealand. The download speeds range from 84.5 Mbit/s in Canada up to 138 Mbit/s in Australia, which means, even at its slowest, it's faster than most conventional fixed-line internet connections.

While Starlink is in the lead in the new space race, it's not the only company. In fact, OneWeb and Hughes joined forces recently, announcing their intention to provide nationwide LEO internet connectivity for India. Currently, OneWeb has close to 400 of its 648 planned LEO satellites already in orbit. In Europe, the New Symphonie consortium, led by UnseenLabs and EuroConsult, brings together 22 companies, including DE-CIX, to research and develop ways for the European Commission to establish a long-term, reliable, secure, and cost-effective communications network based on satellite technology.

Fiber Remains Essential

Just putting satellites in orbit does not make you a satellite internet provider, and there are still challenges to overcome. LEO satellites orbit the globe at a speed of approximately 27,000 kilometers per hour, requiring a large number of satellites communicating with each other and continuous handovers to ground stations to ensure uninterrupted connectivity. Since communication between satellites and ground stations only works once there is visual contact, data transmission is partly dependent on weather conditions.

Moreover, the infrastructure consists of more than just satellites and ground stations. The LEO provider’s ground station must be connected (using fiber) with the nearest internet exchange (IX). The IX then enables satellite internet providers to connect to relevant networks and provide their users with access to content and applications at high speeds and low latency. Fiber will, therefore, continue to play a fundamental role in internet access.

The Bottom Line

Fiber and satellite technologies exist side by side in a meaningful symbiosis and benefit mutally from each other. It will be years before fiber-optic internet is available for everyone, and although LEO satellites don't offer the same as fiber in terms of speed and latency, they are generally cheap and easy to set up, making them an ideal option for expanding network connectivity and providing internet access in rural areas.