Broadband from space: The battle for satellite internet

Here’s how to annoy rural Britons: give Martians faster broadband access. Elon Musk, the forward-looking mastermind behind SpaceX and Tesla electric cars, wants to build a satellite internet system that could reach Mars – and he has competition from Richard Branson’s Virgin Media.

The idea may sound crazy, but broadband networks have taken to the skies before, with Google testing connectivity via weather balloons and, along with Facebook, investing in internet-delivering drones. Here’s how the new breed of satellites will deliver broadband from space.

Improving satellite internet

Satellite internet already exists, but Musk’s proposed system is different: it would use thousands of micro-satellites, around ten times as many satellites as Iridium’s network – currently the largest in the world.

Each of Musk’s satellites weighs around 113kg, less than half the mass of standard satellites, which orbit at a 35,000km height. The new satellites will be launched into low Earth orbit, which is only 750km from the surface of the earth. That will improve latency, a major challenge with existing satellite internet: from low Earth orbit, latency is predicted to be around 30ms, compared to the typical 500ms latency experienced by existing satellite internet customers.

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Micro-satellites also cost less: $350,000 to build and launch, as opposed to the tens of millions of dollars of larger ones. Getting them into space is another issue, but both Musk’s SpaceX and Branson’s Virgin Galactic are working on cost-effective ways to deliver payloads into orbit.

Space race

At the start of 2015, Richard Branson announced that Virgin was working with Qualcomm and OneWeb to build such a network, using its own Virgin Galactic launcher programme.

“We have the biggest order ever for putting satellites into space,” Branson said at the launch of the project. “By the time our second constellation is developed, the company will have launched more satellites than there currently are in the sky.”

Key to that system is OneWeb founder Greg Wyler, who many expected to work with Musk on his satellite internet plans – not least because the pair are close friends. However, Wyler has signed up to work on Virgin’s competing project.

“Greg and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture,” Musk said in January. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”

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Branson disagreed. “Greg has the rights [to spectrum], and there isn’t space for another network — like, there physically isn’t enough space,” he responded. “If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him to do would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I’d say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”

Work on the two projects is only now ramping up: with both reportedly on hiring sprees, now is a great time to be a satellite engineer. Musk expects the final project to cost $10 billion, and he’s already won $1 billion in investment from Google and Fidelity Investments, although his system will take at least five years to become operational.

Broadband for the masses

Despite the costs, Musk believes the space network could pay off, seeing it as potentially funding work even further afield. “We see it as a longterm revenue source for SpaceX to be able to fund a city on Mars,” Musk said at a SpaceX event in January. “It will be important for Mars to have a global communications network as well. I think this needs to be done, and I don’t see anyone else doing it.”

Closer to home, the networks – as well as broadband connectivity projects using balloons and drones – are designed to bring online the three billion people around the world who are yet to get internet access.

IHS iSuppli analyst Ian Fogg sees this as the “connecting seam” between all of these extremesounding projects. “Today, connectivity and access to the net is as important, or becoming as important, as having power or having access to food and water,” Fogg said. “It’s becoming a utility that’s important, if not essential, for regular society and the economy… And that’s true in America; it’s true in Africa; it’s true in Australia.”

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Such programmes are designed to bring broadband to the billions of people around the globe who don’t yet have internet access – and, in Musk’s case, to Mars. But could they also help those in rural Britain who struggle to get decent connections?

“Satellite internet is just one of the technologies that could be used to bring broadband to the hardest-to-reach areas,” suggested Nicholas Lansman, secretary general of the Internet Service Providers Association. “Industry is determining the best solutions for the most rural areas and there’s a £10 million government fund looking at technologies for rural broadband. Only time will tell whether Musk’s proposals will be successful or not, but the internet industry has a track record of innovation for providing broadband access.”

The alternatives to satellite internet

1. Internet drones

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Facebook is turning to drones to deliver internet around the world – but these won’t be toy-like devices. Facebook expects them to be the size of 747s and fly for years at a time. Like Google’s Project Loon balloons (see Broadband by balloon, below), they’ll take to the air above commercial aircraft and weather.

Yael Maguire, engineering director at Facebook’s Connectivity Lab, told a Mashable conference that the company hopes to test its internet drones in the US this year, but it’s also looking at other countries. To help it achieve that, Facebook last year bought Ascenta, a British firm that holds the record for the longest-flying solar-powered drone. It expects to have the planes delivering internet connectivity within three to five years.

Facebook isn’t the only company looking at internet drones: alongside its own Project Loon and investment in Elon Musk’s satellites, Google has acquired Titan Aerospace, which makes solar-powered drones. Titan’s unmanned craft have a wingspan of 50m and fly at an altitude of 65,000ft, and the company has previously said it will be able to deliver 1Gbit/sec speeds at some point in 2015.

2. Broadband by balloon

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Rumour has it that Google gave Project Loon its name because it’s such a loony idea, but trials have suggested it may just work.

Project Loon sends a network of 15m-tall polyethylene balloons – more like weather balloons than those you’d find at a birthday party – up to the edge of space. There, they move around by rising or lowering in the wind, and provide an LTE signal to users below.

People can connect directly to the helium-filled balloons via their smartphone, tablet or other LTE device, with the signal routed via a 10kg box that sits at the bottom of the balloon, housing the necessary circuitry, antennas and solar-recharged batteries, to where it’s dropped down to connect with the internet on the ground.

Loon was first piloted in New Zealand in June 2013, and has since seen successful trials in California and Brazil. It may seem rather unlikely to get beyond the trial phase, but a year after launch, Google X project director Mike Cassidy told Wired: “We’ve definitely crossed the point where there’s a greater than 50% chance that this will happen.”

His colleague Astro Teller, who heads the Google X division, was even more optimistic, claiming the balloons were offering ten times more bandwidth than expected – up to 22Mbits/ sec to an antenna on the ground or 5Mbits/sec to a handset, speeds many would be happy with.

Saying telecoms companies are already showing interest, Teller predicted people in several countries would be connecting to balloons for internet service as early as summer 2015.

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