Andrew Lockley – Exponential Investor (United Kingdom) –
Back in the 1990s, satellite dishes were everywhere.
Walk down any given street you’d have seen many houses with those weird circular antennas attached.
Then cable came along. It was faster, easier to use and your TV signal didn’t go fuzzy in the rain.
You don’t really see many satellite dishes on houses any more. But that could be set to change, with the launch of Elon Musk’s Starlink programme.
Although it may sound like a futuristic weapon of oppression, if Musk gets his way, it will achieve the exact opposite result.
When completed, Starlink will be a mesh of some 7,000 satellites providing a fast, cheap and reliable internet connection anywhere on Earth.
This is Musk’s vision for our interconnected future. And his first two satellites launched last month.
Wait, don’t we already have satellite internet?
It’s true, we’ve had satellite phones and satellite internet for years. But unless you’re an explorer in need of rescue, it’s pretty rubbish.
The problem with current satellite internet is its massive latency. This is basically the amount of time it takes for a signal to reach you.
If you have a fast internet but high latency, it makes it useless for anything other than browsing static web pages. You can’t stream music, you can’t make video calls, you can’t play games… you can’t do much of anything.
The reason the latency is so high with satellite internet is because the satellites are so far away.
Current internet satellites are geostationary, which means they are circling the Earth at the same speed as the Earth spins. So the satellite is always at the same point in the sky.
If one of these satellites is orbiting roughly around the equator, it can give a signal to most of the world.
The problem is, in order to do this, it needs to be around 36,000 km above the Earth. So it will always have a very high latency.
Starlink will solve this problem.
Low Earth orbit satellites and the internet of the future
The solution to the latency problem is to use low Earth orbit satellites (LEOS).
LEOS operate around 1,100 km above the Earth. So about 35,000 km closer than current internet satellites.
This solves the latency issue and makes them cheaper to launch.
The problem is, because they are in LEO, they are moving all the time. This means you need thousands to cover all of the Earth’s surface. The same coverage you can get with one geostationary satellite, takes hundreds of LEO ones.
So although they are relatively cheap to launch, launching the amount needed for a worldwide network is very costly.
But because these LEOS are so small, they can stow away on rockets carrying bigger satellites further out to space.
This means anytime someone wants to use SpaceX (Tesla’s reusable rocket space programme) to launch something, Musk can send up a few of his Starlink satellites along too.
This is how he got his first two satellites into orbit last month. They went up with some Spanish military satellites SpaceX was launching.
Now, Musk isn’t the only game in town when it comes to creaking a LEO satellite internet network.
Samsung has plans for its own LEO satellite internet that it believes will provide a zettabyte of bandwidth per month. That’s enough to provide 5 billion people with 200 gigabytes of data per month.
But, given that he can launch his network on the cheap, his Starlink programme is probably the most likely LEO satellite internet to succeed.
But why do we need satellite internet anyway?
The main benefits of space internet are:
It covers the whole planet.
Even in many parts of the world’s most developed countries, internet coverage is a problem. If you live in the countryside, you will know this issue all too well.
And that’s before we even get to less inhabited areas. Try getting a decent internet connection in the wilderness.
It is (relatively) cheap.
This one may sound counterintuitive. But launching a few hundred satellites is actually a lot cheaper than building millions of miles of cable all around the world.
It can be used during natural disasters.
One of the first things to go during any natural disaster is communication. However, this would never happen in the age of LEOS internet.
All you would need is a laptop or phone and a fold-up satellite receiver to access the internet. Just imagine how many lives this could save.
It is universal.
Many people now see access to the internet as a human right. However, as of June last year, only 51% of the world has internet coverage.
The only way you are reading what I’m writing right now is because of the internet. I don’t have to tell you how fundamentally important internet access is to people’s lives and businesses.
LEOS internet puts the whole world on a level playing field.
It is resistant to censorship.
Live in a country where the state controls the media and only lets stories it approves see the light of day? Just connect to the LEOS internet and your local dictator can’t censor anything.
Trying to report from a war-torn county where the warring sides have severed all communication? Oh, wait, now they can’t.
Visiting China and want to go on Facebook? No need to use a VPN any more, just connect to the LEOS internet and get the same service you do at home.
Of course, all these anti-censorship arguments come with a big caveat.
Whoever maintains the LEOS internet will cave to government pressure. That is a given. So they will, in the end, censor anything they are told to, just as Google now does with its “right to be forgotten” policy.
But they will only likely cave to EU, UK and US authorities. So that’s okay, right?
If a Western government doesn’t want us to see something, it’s for our own good. Our governments are nothing like those corrupt ones in the East. They only ever have our best interests at heart. (Please note the heavy sarcasm here.)
Okay, I should probably end this piece here before I get carried away on an anti-censorship tirade.
But in conclusion, LEOS internet is a great thing for the world, and it will be here before you know it.
Musk plans to have his Starlink network up and running by 2024.
So you might just see satellite dishes making a comeback.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
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