The orbital internet: Could fleets of CubeSats bring global web access?

Introduction and SpaceX

Internet access is cheap, fast and available everywhere. Mobile phone companies are throwing unlimited gigabytes at us, 4G (and 5G) is making mobile web access ever faster, and it’s increasingly accessible from everywhere you go.

If only that were true. Accessing the web may be simple in wealthy urban areas of the globe, but for the other four billion people on the planet it’s an occasional, expensive luxury dogged by painfully slow page loads and frequent signal drop-outs.

The internet’s next step?

The internet is still under construction, and it looks as if its next step – after undersea cables and fibre-optic networks for cities – could be satellite. Although satellites carry barely 1% of global web traffic now, there’s a space race on to increase that to perhaps as much as 10%.

The major players? The Richard Branson-backed OneWeb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX, both of which want to put hundreds of low-flying satellites into orbit to give everyone on Earth an internet connection. It’s been unsuccessfully tried before by the Bill Gates-backed Teledesic. Can it work second time around?

Traditional large satellite launches cost millions (Image: SpaceX)

Why internet by satellites?

Satellites are generally thought of as bad for internet access, and a last resort used by remote areas, such as island communities. Although over 2,000 satellites around Planet Earth handle TV, imaging, weather, Earth observations and GPS, they cost £45 million (around $65 million, AU$94 million) per launch and host precious little two-way traffic. There’s a latency issue – a half-second delay makes video calling almost impossible, for example.

However, the tech is changing. The size and cost of satellites is drastically decreasing, with so-called cubesats, nanosats and smallsats – some as little as 10 x 10 x 10cm – costing about £40,000 (around $57,000, AU$83,000) to make and as little as £85,000 (around $122,000, AU$177,000) to launch. And while huge, pricey satellites sit in a geosynchronous orbit 22,236 miles from Earth, these smallsats are designed to fly in constellations in a very low-Earth, Sun-synchronous orbit, as low as 350 miles up.

The result is far less latency (no more than fibre-optic cables) and the ability to provide web access to the remotest of areas (think sub-Saharan Africa and Amazonian Brazil through to remote Canada and the Australian outback), but achieving constant line of sight requires far more satellite launches. And that’s where SpaceX and Virgin Galactic come in.

Virgin Galactic's LauncherOne will help OneWeb get off the ground (Image: Virgin Galactic)

What is OneWeb planning?

OneWeb plans to launch 700 satellites into low-Earth orbit – mostly on the back of Virgin Galactic’s (one of its investors) LauncherOne rocket, which takes off from under the wing of a Boeing 747. OneWeb’s investors include the Virgin Group itself as well as Qualcomm, Airbus, Coca-Cola, Intelsat and Hughes Network Systems.

So far it’s inked a deal with Virgin Galactic to launch the first 39 of its satellites on LauncherOne, with an option for 100 more (though it might also launch on SpaceX rockets). Its satellites are being built by Airbus, and should start launching in 2018 to sit about 500-750 miles out. At 6Gbps apiece, 700 satellites would equal a total capacity of about 4.2Tbps.

SpaceX plans to launch its 4,000 satellites on its Falcon 9 rocket (Image: SpaceX)

What about SpaceX?

PayPal founder and owner of SpaceX, Elon Musk, plans to launch a constellation of 4,000 satellites around the globe (also 500-750 miles up) to beam a Wi-Fi signal to the most remote regions, in doing so turning his company into a global communications provider. However, the cost of creating such a vast network makes it just as ambitious as Musk’s stated aim of one day helping colonise Mars.

It’s all about the cost of launch (on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket) and the speeds of the antennas on the satellites, but the ever-ambitious Musk has even talked up using laser data transfer. NASA is currently testing Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS), which has so far managed to send 50 megabits per second from the ISS to California. With the help of Google, SpaceX is planning something big for 2020, but so far it’s still at the conceptual stage.

Aquila and Project Loon

What about Outernet?

New York-based charity Outernet is aiming for free, unrestricted and uncensored web access for the entire globe from a constellation of low-flying cubesats talking to its Lighthouse gadgets, a portable, solar-powered Wi-Fi receiver, on the Earth’s surface. It promises free internet from space, forever, but will be limited to 10 megabytes per person, per day.

For now it’s also only one-way, so is more about downloading Wikipedia, eBooks and Teachers Without Borders resources to schools in remote places (Outernet describes itself as ‘humanity’s public library’), and not about communications. For now Outernet rents space on existing telecoms satellites, but wants to launch 150 smallsats.

What about Facebook’s Aquila drones?

Facebook and Google also want a slice of The Next Billion (or four) to get online, but both think even low-flying satellites go too far. Facebook’s Connectivity Lab wants to fly solar battery-powered Wi-Fi drones called Aquila at 65,000 feet – above regulated airspace and in a layer of the atmosphere that is largely free from strong winds and bad weather – to broadcast a powerful signal to towns and cities below for several months at a time.

A Project Loon research balloon (Image: Wikimedia)

What about Google’s Project Loon?

Google’s Project Loon – which is now being tested – will see Wi-Fi balloons between 10km and 60km up use software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go to fill gaps in global web connectivity, moving between layers of wind in the stratosphere to create a huge, mobile Wi-Fi network.

It’s been suggested they would work well after earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding, providing instant extra capacity that doesn’t rely on damaged infrastructure. “Loon is interesting because it’s based on large numbers of inexpensive devices providing a wide area of coverage, mostly focused on deprived areas,” says Liam Fisher, Creative Marketing Lead at Builtvisible.

“If it comes to fruition, something like Loon is bound to be a better option than satellite connections, especially given that it negates the need for expensive rocket launches to put satellites into space.” Loon would have the opposite problem; polyethylene plastic balloons only stay afloat for 100 days in the stratosphere, so lots of small, but cheap launches would be needed.

Internet… by drone? (Image: Facebook)

Will the internet ever go global?

The jury is out on whether any of these experiments will work – either technically or financially speaking – at the first time of asking. “Many of those projects seem outlandish in nature, but we’re unlikely to get a problem like this right first time,” says Fisher, who notes that the first functional undersea communications cables lasted only long enough to transmit a couple of messages. It took functional innovations around cable insulation and signal repeating to create the vast global network that eventually became known as the internet.

“I think we’ll see the same happen here – first attempts like Project Loon will probably find limited success, but they’ll form an important knowledge base to build upon in subsequent efforts,” he says.

Ambitious they may be, but whether it’s OneWeb, SpaceX, Outernet, Project Loon or Facebook drones, such attempts underline just how big the problem of internet equality is.

The biggest challenge is to remain cost-effective, but the biggest problem is one that few in developed countries realise – for over half of the world’s population, regular internet access is a fantasy. As a global model, the internet is a project that’s just begun.

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