Fiber-optic cables are a great way to bring high-speed Internet right to your home or office. But even in large cities not everyone can enjoy the benefits of it, since apartments far away from everyone, or low-population districts far from downtown, are very reluctantly served by ISPs.
And then there’s small towns and villages, far away from the main Internet “highways”. In poorer countries, Internet is often slow and expensive even in large population centers, while villages are often left without a connection for years. To connect them to the World Wide Web takes the resources of not just normal ISPs, but telecom giants. Solar-powered drones with networking equipment, weather balloons, satellites and other similar projects are not just science fiction, but a reality today (or in the near future). But who’s closer to launch and who’s lagging behind? Let’s find out.
Currently the “space Internet race” consists of companies like SpaceX, Facebook, OneWeb, Google and even Roskosmos (though they only declared intent).
SpaceX and Starlink
In 2015 Elon Musk first told about his idea to launch a couple thousand satellites into a low Earth orbit to cover the entire surface of the planet with high-speed Internet. This massive project, named Starlink, began shortly after.
In 2016 SpaceX requested permission from the US government to build their own satellite network. The request told us about a couple of technical specs: for example, the document mentioned launching over 4000 satellites. After the network is deployed, the company plans to offer high-speed Internet access globally on Ku (10.7 — 18 Ghz) and Ka (26.5 — 40 Ghz) frequencies.
At first, the company planned to launch 4425 satellites into orbit, but then increased the estimate to 12000. For scale, currently there’s around 1400 satellites at various Earth orbits, and Musk plans to launch 10 times that within a few years. Here’s the technical details of the project.
The cost of the project is projected at around $10 billion. Neither SpaceX nor Mush personally have that much, so they would have to attract private capital or take loans. They plan to start with a few hundred satellites and slowly build the network over time. One orbit wouldn’t be enough to host all these, so they’ll use several, but all of them will be very low — from 1150 to 1325km. This is higher than the ISS, but lower than geostationary satellites (used, for example for GPS).
Satellites are 4x1,8x1,2m in size and weigh 386kg. They’re projected to work for 5-7 years. One Falcon 9 rocket could “carry” up to 50 satellites in one launch. So, to lift the first 1500 satellites up to orbit, it would take 32 Falcon 9 launches. By the way, having their own rocket is one of SpaceX’s biggest advantages — no other contender has anything similar.
There’s reason to believe that the Starlink project is fully staffed, so we can expect works to ramp up shortly. So far there’s only 2 test satellites in orbit, launched last February — Tintin-A and Tintin-B.
A few days ago news broke that the Starlink received support from the US military, meaning money suddenly became less of an object. In any case, the company already has the permissions they need.
Facebook also announced plans to connect remote regions of Earth to the Internet at the same time SpaceX did — in 2015, but the initial plan was to use an armada of solar-powered drones. They even received a name — Aquila. Manufacturers say the drones could keep flying for “a long time”.
And that’s even though the device weighs almost half a ton. These are rather momentous flying machines which require special launch pads to get off the ground. They’re supposed to fly around 20km above ground as to not interfere with commercial flights.
Facebook did manage to make a drone — there are a lot of photos around of drones in the air, washed by solar light. But then the Facebook drone crashed and was badly damaged during its first test flight. The damage was severe enough to stop testing, and Facebook didn’t want to make a second one.
Last June the company officially abandoned the project. Most likely it wasn’t only because of the crash, but also because it would be a massive technological undertaking, since drones flying in the atmosphere requires constant supervision and support. Plus, the US government mandated that the drones should be safe to everyone, including animals, birds and even archeological objects.
Currently Facebook is at it with their own Internet satellite projects, since they think it would be more efficient and less problematic than atmospheric drones. They’ve already developed their own satellite, named Athena. We don’t know any details yet, but it seems like SpaceX have themselves a competitor.
For the last few years Google was at it with their own project based on stratosphere weather balloons with the payload of networking equipment and batteries. Until recently, Project Loon was merely an experiment with questionable commercial potential.
But last June the company got its first commercial partner — Telkom Kenia, ensuring that network infrastructure in their country would be developed using weather balloons.
This project goes a lot further back than Facebook and SpaceX. Google started working on it in 2011. The idea is, the balloons have to be suspended in their around 20km above the ground, with one balloon being able to cover 5000 km^2 of territory.
Google wasn’t scared by the challenges of the project — it’s very hard to control one balloon, let alone hundreds of them. But the company have studied atmosphere and wind patterns in regions they planned to launch in first to make sure they could predict the movement of balloons.
The project was tested in New Zealand, Brazil and Central California. Apart from that, Project Loon was launched as an experiment in Peru, as well as in Puerto Rico after their network infrastructure was damaged by floods and hurricanes. As far as Kenya is concerned, they promise they can deliver high-speed Internet even in places without a cell phone connection.
This is another competitor to Facebook and SpaceX in the satellite space. OneWeb has received permission for testing, and they plan to launch around 900 satellites into orbit this year.
Since OneWeb doesn’t have their own means to get them to space, they would have to rent others — namely, Souyz, LauncherOne (from Virgin Orbit) and New Glenn (from Blue Origin).
They plan 3 stages of deployment. Stage 1 — first few satellites in low Earth orbit, with speeds up to 500 Mbit/s for each user… Stage 2 — more satellites in, speeds up to 2.5 Gbit/s. Stage 3 — all satellites deployed, full coverage with constant 2.5 Gbit/s speed.
The project is even more expensive than SpaceX — experts estimate it would cost a mind-blowing $30 billion. OneWeb plans to finish building the infrastructure by 2027, with total throughput of the network at around 1000 Tbit. By the way, 17 of the launches will be made using Souyz rockets from Russian launch pads.
Roskosmos executives think big, so, along with orbital Lunar stations, they also plan to create a global satellite network. They presented the project in May, saying it’ll compete with solutions from OneWeb and Starlink. The program involves launching 228 satellites on the 870km orbit and requires 300 billion RUB in investments (around $4,5 billion).
In July, Russian president Vladimir Putin approved funding for the global satellite Internet system as its own program, called “Sfera” (Sphere).
Putin claimed: “Today Russia has dozens of civilian satellites and dozens more of military ones, but we need 640 satellites to create an optimal arrangement for supplying the entire Russian territory with long-distance communication. Essentially, we’re reconsidering the principles of our orbital program. Our country is the biggest out there with a lot of hard-to-reach locations — there physically isn’t enough fiber-optic cables and power lines to do it everywhere. Space would allow us to connect all of Russia”.
Rogozin (head of Roskosmos) claimed that “we need to build new factories and new production facilities for 22nm chips to make the satellites small enough. We estimated that we can do it”. To launch it would take at least 25 Angada launches, and Rogozin claims that “it’ll solve the financial issues facing the Khrunichev Institute”.
So, when to expect it to work?
The process will probably begin this or next year. It takes a lot of time and resources to launch enough satellites and deploy the infrastructure.
As far as we can see, the satellite solution is the way to go. Google may push their technology to commercial use, but it’ll be more of a regional project — for example, to connect regions suffering from natural disasters. It’s not a global project — it would be way too hard and expensive.
There are other projects working on this, but their plans haven’t moved past the initial announcements. So, if global Internet is to become a thing, it’ll happen thanks to one of these companies.