Internet latency and orbital altitudes of satellites. Click on image to view in full size.
Despite the fact that we all agree internet access is essential, less than half the global population have access to it.
The internet’s biggest and boldest pioneers are taking ambitious steps to fix this problem by carrying signals to billions of humans and machines. Google’s Project Loon plans to deliver internet service from enormous balloons floating in the stratosphere. Similarly, Facebook’s solar-powered drones, flying high above commercial air traffic will deliver internet via laser to previously underserved areas.
Balloons and drones fly high, but not as high as satellites. People tend to associate satellite internet with terrible service quality, and in many cases, that's true.
So what’s wrong with the satellite systems? Part of the problem is that satellites used today are very far from Earth. You need a dish to point at their position high in the sky and to detect their weak signal. Those are not the only problem though. Because of their distant orbits, it takes a significant fraction of a second for a radio signal to reach the satellite and return to Earth (this is called latency). And if you’re trying to use it for an internet connection, latency matters.
Geostationary satellites, in very high orbits, provide the greatest coverage area using the fewest satellites. The problem however, is that with a high earth orbit the connect has high latency.
But there is a new kind of satellite service on the horizon (well actually just above the horizon). Instead of orbiting tens of thousands of kilometres from Earth, satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will be just a few hundred kilometers above the surface. This means almost no latency, no satellite dish, and an overall better solution. We are going to need new antenna technologies, but that’s a largely solved problem (by the way, Canada has some of the best expertise in this area). To be clear however, no satellite solution is going to be as good as fibre. But for many Canadians, fibre is not an option right now or anytime in the foreseeable future.
Like the early days of GPS, there is a good chance the service from LEO satellites will initially be less than perfect. But the prospect of a laptop-sized antenna with the ability to deliver a broadband internet connection could mean that LEO satellites will enable coverage anywhere in the world. However, due to the low earth orbit, we will need a whole constellation of LEO satellites to provide global coverage.
So is this science fiction or is this going to happen soon? One group has already signed launch contracts and will be putting their first satellites up in 2018. That’s less than three years to go, so it’s time to start thinking about the future.
In the evolving connectivity landscape, there are many issues to take into consideration. How would a global satellite constellation fit into regulatory frameworks? Would it fall under the purview of the CRTC in Canada as they pass by? How does this enable us to monitor our natural resources? What about the Internet of Things? Can every tree in the forest now reach a satellite? What opportunities become available? Which businesses would it disturb? Three years is not a lot of time to change the way we think about connectivity.
If we’re going to have new and more widespread access to the internet from everywhere on the planet by 2018, we need to be thinking about what the impact will be for Canadians. In a province such as Alberta, many rural users cannot easily access an affordable internet connection. Will this change life for them? Will this be how the rest of the world gets internet, or is this a temporary solution?
While LEO satellites are not perfect, this will improve the lives of many people who are currently not connected. It's a fascinating development and holds promise as the technology continues to evolve.