The evolution of satellite broadband

Saturday, 15 June, 2019

It’s remarkable to think four billion people around the world currently have no internet connectivity.

Even as a compact and wealthy island, the United Kingdom has struggled to bring far-flung Hebridean islands and mountainside cottages onto the information superhighway.

Unsympathetic geography and high distances from urban infrastructure have condemned many people to a life without connectivity.

Yet we’re all the same distance from space, with uninterrupted views of the sky. So why rely on ground-based connections to provide data links?

Satellite blues

Satellite broadband services have been around for the last fifteen years.

However, this has historically involved a number of significant compromises.

The sheer distance data has to travel to and from satellites creates huge amounts of latency – the sworn enemy of fluid online gameplay and seamless web browsing.

Satellites are very expensive to launch and maintain, which pushes up consumer costs. And in a vicious circle, low adoption levels have kept prices high for anyone who does subscribe.

In an attempt to mitigate costs, satellite broadband subscriptions have historically imposed monthly data limits, rather like smartphone data contracts.

Unfortunately, today’s internet isn’t something you can fully enjoy with a 10GB monthly data allowance.

Wish upon a star

Nevertheless, the logistical challenges of extending connectivity to remote or mountainous regions have inspired providers to revisit the concept of satellite internet.

And as we approach the 21st century’s third decade, it does appear future connectivity will play among the stars.

Earlier this year Amazon announced plans to launch a fleet of 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit.

The lowest of these will be ‘just’ 367 miles above ground level, reducing the round-trip time between a user device making a data request, and a response arriving.

And Amazon isn’t acting alone.

SpaceX has already raised a billion dollars of funding for a network comprising thousands of small relay satellites, with permission in place to launch almost 12,000 satellites.

Yet even this pales in comparison to the £2.6 billion raised by London-based OneWeb, for its own high-speed satellite broadband network.

OneWeb claims it’ll be able to build two new satellites every day and launch around 30 of them each month, ultimately creating a 2,000-strong network.

That’s more than the total number of satellites currently orbiting Earth.

The idea is to ensure there’s always a satellite relatively close by, in the same way mobile network operators try to position cell tower masts similar distances apart from each other.

Beam me down, Scotty

It’s worth pointing out that these networks aren’t specifically targeting private individuals at this stage, let alone British consumers.

Instead, OneWeb lists maritime and aviation clients as potential core markets.

Even so, if commercial and industrial clients enjoy high-speed and low-latency connectivity wherever they happen to be, there will be huge pressure to extend this into residential homes.

At that point, satellite internet connectivity might finally enter the mainstream.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!