Amidst a deadly pandemic, the internet is a messiah to mankind. Will taking the invention to space make serve us better?
Internet to the rescue
As the world grappled with the virus, on 21 March, in a remote corner of Kazakhstan a global communication company launched 34 satellites. This is an enterprise which seeks to plant a vast constellation of satellites in space to beam back internet signals to the world, virtually without any cost to the consumer.
At no other moment of human history was the value of the internet as critical to mankind as it is today when the entire world is united in its struggle against the pandemic raging across the globe. The demand for connectivity, especially in rural and poor communities for remote working, online classes, enabling remote healthcare access and sharing of medical data and expertise underscores the need for radical solutions to connect people globally.
Combating Broadband Apartheid
It is a fact that “broadband apartheid” is widely in practice all over the world, and more so in the developed world. While telecom companies have brought cities even in emerging economies at par with world standards in terms of 4G, and some are preparing to roll out 5G, rural areas with low incomes are generally being ignored. Only highly inefficient, state-run telecom operators are forced to invest in such markets and they too, due to market forces, are on the verge of closure. Large corporations do not find it commercially viable to erect telco-grade towers, power backups, fibre backhauls and mobile baseband to serve such areas, leading to “internet blackouts” over vast swathes of territory.
It is estimated that more than half the world still remains "offline." Installing OFCs and rigging mobile phone masts with power back up for the remaining 4 billion people will take time, a long time. In India, internet coverage is low, with less than 25 percent of its 1.3 billion population having access to the web. In rural India, internet penetration may be as low as 14%.
The situation is identical in many emerging economies stretching from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and most of SE Asia.
The Internet from the Skies seeks to redeem this inequality.
The Internet from the Skies
In a scenario straight out of a science fiction novel, several private companies are investing billions in launching special-purpose tiny satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), literally tens of thousands of them, to beam internet to everyone, anywhere, all the time and totally free.
The leading protagonist is OneWeb, a global communication company which already has a constellation of 74 satellites in space, making it the market leader. It has already installed ground terminals globally, secured spectrum and is now working fast to integrate the user to the system. OneWeb plans include an initial 650-satellite constellation which will go online in 2021. The larger plan envisages adding about 2000 additional satellites which will be placed in a circular low Earth orbit at an altitude of 1200km transmitting/ receiving on the Ku band.
OneWeb is not the only player in this lucrative, albeit super expensive, market. Leon Musk’s SpaceX is planning a 12,000 satellite constellation named Starlink, while in 2015 Samsung announced plans for its 4600 satellite constellation. In April 2019, Amazon unveiled plans for its "Project Kuiper", a 3,236 satellite constellation.
Apart from satellites, long-endurance solar-powered drones also provide an alternative platform. In a top-secret programme "Sky Bender," Google has been testing solar-powered drones to beam internet from high altitude, since 2016. In a similar secret programme being run by the U.S. military from 2014 onwards, called Mobile Hotspots, drones are used as platforms to stream data at one gigabit per second. Softbank, in partnership with AeroVironment, has developed a solar-powered drone called the Hawk 30 to deliver 5G and IOT connectivity from the skies.
Financial Viability of these Mega Space Projects
Companies are investing billions of dollars, but the concern now is how achievable are their planned timelines in these trying times. Markets are already rife with rumours that, with capital fast drying up, OneWeb is staring at bankruptcy.
Looking back into history, it emerges that companies that attempted space-based internet networks did not succeed due to high service costs. Two well-known companies, Iridium SSC went bankrupt in 1999, followed by Globalstar in 2002.
Fallouts of the Space-Based Internet
The low earth orbit (600 to 1000km altitude) in space is heavily congested. Once these constellations die out, they will exacerbate the issue of space debris. New graveyard orbits, akin to what has been done for communication satellites, can be created. However, unlike the geostationary orbit, the LEO does not assure long term stability for retaining such derelict satellites.
Other solutions include retrieving dead satellites/space objects for a near-space clean-up and then either push them out of orbit to burn out or carry out in-space recycling. However, these are still in conceptual forms. OneWeb, when it was filing for its satellite licences in 2017, submitted its mitigation plan for the debris. As per its documents, "satellites are designed for mission lives of at least five years, and 'the post-mission disposal operation is anticipated to take less than one year.”
Security concerns are also being raised. The Russian Federal Security Service warned the Kremlin that the constellations could be used to spy on Russia and OneWeb’s application for a frequency band was rejected.
Astronomers have been warning that thousands of space objects are creating a disturbance to their study of spatial objects through earth-based telescopes. To assuage their fears, Starling claims that its constellation will have a special coating to reduce their reflective properties.
While work on the “Internet from Skies” progresses at great speed, a note of caution needs to be injected in the enterprise; the jury is still out on their economic viability. Furthermore, the fear that they will add to space junk and pollute the orbital environment may see international regulatory agencies clamping down on them, once the global community is able to get its act together.
The world lacks regulations imposing liability upon satellite operators for cleaning up the dead satellites. Technically it is feasible to capture and de-orbit such space debris, but the cost would be a colossus. Part of the solution lies in making it mandatory for launching companies to remove one derelict before a new satellite is launched.
The Internet from the skies will thrive if it is a commercial success with Google, Facebook, Apple and all biggies from the technical and business world investing big-time upon it. They are the experts in creating their own niches and finding their way around problems that appear insurmountable. Or else, all these super expensive constellations will turn into “shooting stars.”