It might seem like science fiction: Thousands of satellites, digitally connected in “constellations” orbiting up to 2,000 kilometers above the earth.
They travel at a speed of 7.8 kilometers per second, send and receive internet signals at speeds comparable to — and in some cases, greater than — traditional Earth-based broadband options.
They’re known as low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites (or satellite broadband), and they are emerging as a significant disruptor to traditional broadband and legacy satellite communications. These LEO satellites may also change the way we overcome challenging geographic barriers and remain connected in times of crisis.
Satellite Internet 101
By itself, satellite internet is not new. For decades, a number of companies have offered satellite connectivity, often bringing valuable service to underserved rural communities. In the past, the challenge with those services has been their speed and data restrictions: Typically, download speeds would be between 12 to100 Mbps and upload speeds would be 3 Mbps, with data allowances of 15 to 150 gigabytes per month.
Theoretical speeds for LEO satellites, which some carriers claim may reach download speeds of one to 10 gigabits per second, are yet to be proven. However, tests performed by Ookla in Q4 2021 showed LEO median speeds of 105 Mbps for downloads and 12 Mbps for uploads in the United States, which is significantly better than the FCC’s current definition of high-speed broadband (25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload).
The performance differences between the relatively new LEO satellites and legacy communications satellites primarily come down to physics. Historically, communications satellites have operated in geostationary equatorial orbit (GEO), which means they operate from much farther away — about 35,786 km above a fixed location on the Earth’s surface.
The sheer distance from Earth causes latency problems: Even traveling at the speed of light, data transmissions take noticeably longer (i.e. 250 to 280 milliseconds compared to 20 to 25 milliseconds for LEO satellites). However, they presented a significant operational advantage over other satellite orbits because GEO satellites’ ground stations can essentially be configured to look at a single point in the sky.
While the GEO satellites are highly advanced and cover a significantly larger area per satellite than LEO, they also cost significantly more to launch. According to Bloomberg, “A SpaceX Falcon 9 Full Thrust rocket can deliver almost 23,000 kilograms to LEO or just 8,300 kilograms to GTO,” or geostationary transfer orbit, an intermediate part of a GEO launch — after which a satellite’s own propulsion technology would carry it to GEO.
LEO satellites have their own complex challenges, most notably the limited proportion of the earth that they can “see” relative to their GEO counterparts. This requires LEO satellites to operate in large complex constellations that connect the individual satellites to one another so that the network is always visible from the corresponding ground equipment. Thus, that ground equipment also has to be incredibly complex to track satellites and shift between the different signals.
Even with these challenges, though, LEO satellite technology appears to be coming into its moment as a dynamic solution that can address challenges of internet access around the world, whether geographic, financial, technological or geopolitical. These types of satellites may provide valuable connectivity in war zones, natural disaster zones and remote or impoverished geographic areas. LEO satellite technology is also becoming more cost-effective and efficient, differentiating such satellites further from their higher-orbit counterparts.
3 Recent Changes That Have Paved the Way for Satellite Broadband
- Reduced costs
- Better coverage
- More efficient propulsion
Reusable rocket boosters have significantly reduced the cost and cadence of putting satellites into space. The relatively small size of each LEO satellite allows dozens of satellites to be launched at once, further accelerating the speed at which constellations can be developed.
The number of operational satellites in orbit increased 252 percent between 2010 and 2020, significantly increasing the reach of LEO satellite networks.
According to Bloomberg, satellites are shifting away from chemical production — which adds substantial weight to a launch payload — to electric propulsion. This allows for greater launch capacity (i.e. more satellites per launch). Electric-propulsion systems also allow satellites to adjust orbits and change coverage areas, if needed.
All of that change amounts to incredible opportunities for the expansion of low-cost global broadband access. Key benefits presented by satellite internet include:
- Increased agility: Many LEO networks can operate solely on panel antennas, some of which are roughly the size of a briefcase, provided the constellation can be expanded or adjusted to cover the area.
- Elimination of red tape: Because satellite networks do not require significant terrestrial infrastructure (fiber/copper landlines, cell towers, etc.), they are theoretically able to activate high-speed broadband networks within days or even hours without regulatory approval. When asked about the regulatory implications of transmitting into a country without a local downlink, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responded, “They can shake their fist at the sky.” As a business model, this is not likely to become the norm, but in situations of war, natural disaster or humanitarian crisis, LEO satellites are uniquely positioned to solve serious and complex connectivity challenges.
Satellite internet will not fully replace traditional land-based broadband networks any time in the foreseeable future; much of that infrastructure already exists and can still typically outperform satellite internet in dense urban and suburban markets. There are also a number of significant barriers and challenges that LEO satellites face before becoming ubiquitous, including regulation, governance and cybersecurity implications.
However, this technology is finally on the right trajectory to provide a viable option to the significant portion of the planet currently without connectivity.