It’s beginning to look that way. Many big name tech companies are planning to launch more than 50,000 satellites in the coming years to create constellations of satellites that will allow anyone anywhere on Earth to receive a high speed internet connection. But why do they need so many satellites, and isn’t satellite internet already available?
Yes, satellite-based internet has been around for some time. This type of internet uses geosynchronous satellites (GEO: Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) to receive and send signals to and from Earthbound transmitters. These satellites (at 35,000 km/22,000 mi from Earth) rotate at the same speed as the Earth and, thus, more or less hover over and serve a large geographic area. The ability of GEO satellites to be always available is about the only benefit an internet user can get from this now outdated system. The negatives are that it is slower than cable, has a high latency time, comes with a data cap, and is more expensive. But if you live in a rural area and have no other way to access the internet, GEO satellites are the only option.
But we are now on the edge of a paradigm shift in satellite internet service. With simpler and cheaper ways to get satellites into orbit, major tech companies are planning to launch thousands of satellites to form satellite constellations.
But why do you need so many satellites? The problem comes with the fact that these low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites aren’t stationary like GEO satellites. They rapidly orbit the Earth so that the satellite that may give you internet access one minute could be gone the next minute. However, if you have another satellite move in to replace it, you would have no disruption in your internet service. In other words, you need a coordinated web of these rapidly orbiting satellites, a constellation of satellites, to deliver internet service. This is roughly the same idea that GPS uses,
So how long will it take to build these constellations in order for people to begin to use them? Well, you can use Elon Musk’s Starlink today. Sure, it’s in its beta stage but if you’re willing to put up the cash and live in North America or Europe, you can give it a try.
In fact, I just learned I’m in the Starlink service area here in Europe. That’s the good news. In fact, I can sign up for the service now, as it is supposed to begin later this year. Actually, I’d need to sign up now because there are limited spaces available.
The bad news is that, just to reserve a spot, I will need to pay $150 a month. That will end up being my monthly fee. In fact, the initial cost for the service and equipment will come to a pretty steep $800, so it looks, at least for the time being, I will keep my slower internet connection. Prices will be about $200 lower for users in North America but how many people will be interested in switching from their trustworthy cable to an under-tested satellite-based internet? Apparently, quite a few. The demand is far exceeding the supply as over 700,000 people signed up shortly after Starlink’s beta program was announced.
But are these potential customers only from rural areas where the internet speed they receive is already low? Not necessarily because Starlink promises to be competitive with cable internet in terms of speed. The beta Starlink is promising speeds of 50mbs to 100mbs, which is good enough for most people, but in a recently released statement, Starlink announced its goal of increasing speeds to 10gbs which is quite amazing if true. In fact, only a few days ago Elon Musk claimed that speeds around 300mbs will be available this year. He also claimed that latency speed will decrease to 20ms. Think of latency speed as the time it takes to connect to a website, which is a big problem for those using GEO satellites that are located so far from Earth.
I have checked with those using the beta version of Starlink and most of them seem satisfied. A few complain about problems with installation and temporary losses in connectivity. Most believe they are getting more for their money than they got with their land-based connections.
But they will probably be getting more for their money in the future. The reason for this will be good ol’ competition. Here are the companies that are getting involved in satellite networks.
But the list does not include what may be the main competitor for Starlink; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper. There is also talk of Bill Gates and Microsoft getting involved as well. So, if you have any doubts that a paradigm shift is occurring…
Let’s face it, the average user simply wants high speed, low cost, dependable internet with equipment that’s easy to install. Starlink relies on a more traditional antenna that must be mounted in an open area with a clear view of the satellites.
I have used (and still use) satellite dishes to receive TV transmissions for years. They can be sensitive to correct installation as even a small mistake in the pointing angle can result in no reception. There is also the problem of running the cable into the house. Heavy rain and snow can also block the signal. That said, Starlink receivers will be more flexible with pointing since the satellites they aim at are closer. They also come with snow melting capabilities. On the other hand, Amazon’s prototype antenna is completely different being only a foot wide and relying on WIFI connectivity rather than cables.
At the moment, Starlink has an advantage in the race for the very lucrative LEO satellite market, but Project Kuiper will get underway in the next few years, expecting to have over a thousand satellites in orbit by 2026.. At that time, expect prices for LEO connectivity to begin to fall. It would not surprise me if Bezos opts to operate at a loss in order to capture large segments of the market. He will probably offer low priced equipment, easy installation, and higher speeds (predicted at 400mbs) at a dramatically lower price. I would not expect Elon Musk to sit by and watch this happen. Starlink can be expected to counterpunch with the highest speeds and may even employ a network of people to help with installation. Of course, he, too, will have to offer some sort of price incentives.
Yes, I believe satellite internet will become the norm before 2030, and I will probably join the crossover. However, I’ll wait for prices to come down first as they inevitably will. If you feel you must get an LEO connection now, avoid long term contracts. Find out if equipment updates will be included in the initial price. For example, if Starlink develops a WIFI receiver, will you have to pay for it? Will you have to buy new routers as the upgrades occur? Companies will be competing fiercely for their share of the market as billions of people around the world change from ‘outdated’ cable connections to ‘modern’ satellite connections. Only in cities will cable connections be the default alternative because tall buildings may block the satellite signal. But with the world economy becoming more decentralized through work-at-home restructuring, more people will be searching for better internet connections to do conferencing or receive high quality live streaming. So begin making plans for the future. Don’t get crushed in the great paradigm shift.