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Can We Build A Global Internet From Swarms Of Satellites And Tech-Company-Backed Balloons?

As it becomes more and more necessary for every citizen to have internet access in order to take advantage of the modern economy, a new system of space-based internet is trying to close the digital divide.

Can We Build A Global Internet From Swarms Of Satellites And Tech-Company-Backed Balloons?
“It’s quite troubling that despite all the progress over the last 10 years, we still have a huge portion of the world’s population that’s not covered by broadband.” [Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Flickr]

Ten years ago, the world population was 6.6 billion; 3 billion of those people lacked access to broadband internet connectivity. Fast forward a decade to 2017, and the global population has risen by 1 billion, but so has the number of disconnected people. “It’s quite troubling that despite all the progress over the last 10 years, we still have a huge portion of the world’s population that’s not covered by broadband,” says Rupert Pearce, CEO of the British telecommunications company Inmarsat and chairman of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development‘s working group on technologies in space and the upper atmosphere.

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The Broadband Commission was set up by the UN and the International Telecommunications Union in 2010 in an effort to expand internet access to meet the Millennium Development Goals; the Sustainable Development Goals replaced the MDGs in 2015 and set out a target of reaching universal broadband access by 2020. Each year, the Broadband Commission releases a report detailing the state of broadband; this year’s report, which came out on September 15, finds, Pearce tells Fast Company, “that the growth of connectivity around the word has stalled.”

“The growth of connectivity around the word has stalled.” [Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Flickr]
But another report, released several days after by the Broadband Commission, lays out a way to re-energize the effort toward global connectivity: supporting advancements in high-altitude and satellite communications technologies. “We’re in the middle of an extraordinary revolution for space-based and upper-atmosphere technologies, delivering coverage and capabilities at a low cost that will make them a realistic new tool to close the digital divide,” Pearce says.

The report details three specific technologies that will be instrumental in bringing about this rise in connectivity. The first are standard geostationary satellites, which float around 3,500 kilometers above the equator and keep pace with the Earth’s rotation; from the ground, they appear stationary. Broadband-providing geostationary satellites have existed since the early 1990s, but a new generation, called high-throughput satellites (HTS), are employed by internet providers around the world, using multi-beam coverage to substantially increase broadband penetration and reliability. The early geostationary satellites used one wide beam that could target a vast area of land–one satellite, Pearce says, can reach as much as a third of the world–but the single beam could only deliver around 1 to 3 Gbps of broadband. By sending out multiple beams, a HTS can deliver around 150 Gbps, with the potential to increase to 500 as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

Non-geostationary satellite orbits (NGSOs) use similar technology to geostationary satellites, but they operate anywhere from 500 to 2,000 kilometers above the earth, and can, as a result, target a smaller land mass. Instead of tracking with the pace of the Earth’s rotation, they move across the horizon in a cluster of hundreds or thousands, and deliver continuous coverage by replacing themselves–imagine a swarm of satellites, not unlike a flock of migrating birds, delivering a steady stream of broadband to the remote places of the world. OneWeb is preparing to launch a constellation of 648 satellites that will operate at an altitude of around 1,200 kilometers, and will over download speeds of up to 50 Mbps worldwide; it’s expected the swarm will start delivering internet to customers as early as 2019.

The third advancement is High-Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS), which are smaller instruments, like balloons or drones, that fly just around 20 to 50 kilometers off the ground and deliver “surgically precise” connectivity to specific locations. Facebook is testing a drone project, called Aquila, that Mark Zuckerberg claims will be able to provide internet access to the 4 billion people without it across the world; Google’s Project Loon, operated through its innovation lab Alphabet X, is testing service delivered through high-altitude balloons.

Despite Zuckerberg’s claim to be able to close the digital divide with Facebook’s drones alone, it’s important, Pearce says, that these innovations work in concert. The geostationary satellites can provide a base layer of fallback coverage; the swarms of smaller satellites can deliver more targeted regional coverage; HAPS will be most useful in particularly remote areas where harsh environmental conditions make consistent coverage more difficult to sustain.

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The technological advancements, increased capacity, and operational improvements that have spurred the feasibility of these providers have also driven down costs, rendering space-based and high-altitude technologies economically comparable with terrestrial fiber networks. The average cost of building and deploying a satellite is around $300 million, but those to be launched by OneWeb will cost just around $500,000 per satellite. The smaller size and increased capacity, the Broadband Commission report notes, enabled the company to secure lower launch costs, and as more similar satellites and HAPS are constructed, manufacturing costs will continue to drop as well.

Of course, with companies like Google and Facebook making forays into the space, questions will arise around how to manage public-private partnerships in deploying these innovations, and ensuring that monopolies won’t hamper further developments. “We’re going to be advocating that regulators, when they’re looking at their universal service obligations, look to technology-neutral solutions,” Pearce says. “In other words, that they’re not biased toward one technology, giving all of these solutions and companies the maximum opportunity to come to the party.” Building out a more robust and internationally connected system of regulators and requirements will be an essential part of reaching global broadband access.

Focusing on the goal of equipping everyone on the planet with consistent internet access, though, is tantamount. “As we move toward a digital society—the Internet of Things, tele-medicine, tele-education—all of the things we rely on are becoming connected,” Pearce says. As human beings in the developed world, we are liberated and enriched and empowered by the internet and the devices in our hands, but the economic and social impact of not being connected is getting worse,” he adds. The digital divide has become less about the haves and have-nots, and more about the breadth and depth of the gap between those two categories. It’s Pearce’s hope that these technological advancements will make having access to broadband “as much a human right as access to clean water.”

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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