The Past, Present, and Future of Satellite Internet

From Sputnik to SpaceX, satellites have come a long way. Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about keeping up with all the changes. We’re here to update you on any satellite internet news and plans for the future. We also don’t want to forget what got us here, so we’ve included interesting tidbits about the history of satellite internet as well.

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The New Space Race

The next era of satellite internet will be the result of a race to deliver affordable high-speed, low-latency internet to underserved regions of the world. Several well-funded organizations have already begun launching satellites and more have launches scheduled soon. Despite the competition featuring a diverse field of space racers, they’re all focused on variations of the same solution, orbiting networks. Let’s take a closer look at those networks and the companies building them.

Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites

Instead of blasting enormous satellites into geostationary orbit, companies working on the next generation of satellite internet launch their satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO). These satellites are much smaller and orbit closer to Earth than traditional satellites. The lower orbit dramatically reduces the lag that usually comes with satellite internet.

How cool is that? Low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites can deliver high-speed satellite internet without the lag associated with traditional satellite internet.

LEO Satellite Constellations

One LEO satellite can’t cover as much area as a geostationary satellite, so companies launch more of them to create clusters, called satellite constellations. Satellites within a constellation can communicate with one another to create what amounts to an orbiting network.

This is the second time around that this approach has gained popularity. In the 1990s, attempts to build satellite constellations partially bankrupted Globalstar and Iridium Communications, and cost Teledesic, partially funded by Microsoft, over $9 billion before it shut down the project in 2002.

So why are companies back at it today? Entry costs have fallen and the competition is hot.

Who’s in the race?

Figuring out which companies do what in the new space race gets murky. Some companies want to provide internet service, some build satellites, some launch satellites, and some do a mix of all of that. Plus, several of them worked together in various combinations. Here’s a breakdown of who’s doing what to get ahead in the race.

SpaceX Starlink

Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX, has two major projects in the works: Starlink and Starship. Starlink is its satellite constellation program. Starship is a project aimed at going to Mars.

In February 2018, SpaceX successfully launched two satellites into LEO. All together, SpaceX had 21 successful launches in 2018 and intends to beat that in 2019.

After the first successful launch, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved Starlink’s formal request to offer broadband service. But that service is still a ways off because it will take a while to get enough satellites in place for a viable network. Starlink’s ultimate goal is to launch 4,425 satellites by 2024, but it will likely start offering service before then.

In other SpaceX news, the company also plans to launch satellites for other companies too, including 75 for competitors Iridium.

Iridium Certus

In a partnered effort with The Boeing Company, Iridium Communication Inc. finished its nine-year, $3 billion satellite constellation improvements in February 2019 as part of its Iridium NEXT program.

Iridium partnered with SpaceX to literally get the project off the ground. It contracted SpaceX for eight flights to deliver 75 satellites into LEO.

Iridium now offers Certus, a satellite communications service for businesses and government enterprises, particularly on the ocean. It plans to add services for aviation by the end of 2019.

Blue Origin and Telesat

Jeff Bezos’s rocket company, Blue Origin, isn’t building a satellite network, but it is building reusable spacecraft to launch satellites for a variety of companies. Telesat, the largest satellite internet provider in Canada, is one such company.

Telesat successfully launched a test LEO satellite in January 2018. Blue Origin will launch the next Telesat LEO satellites using its New Glenn rocket, which is currently under construction. Telesat plans to launch 120 LEO satellites by 2021, all with Blue Origin.

Telesat will also lean on Loon to construct its network operating system.

OneWeb

OneWeb is a joint effort to bring internet access to the world. Some of its partners are Virgin, Qualcomm, Airbus, and Hughes (as in HughesNet). OneWeb manufactures its own satellites and plans to launch 900 LEO satellites by the end of 2019. The international aerospace company, Arianespace, will launch the first OneWeb satellites in 2019. Virgin Orbit and Blue Origin will also launch OneWeb Satellites later in the year.

Facebook Athena

Facebook’s former internet service plan, Aquila, involved mounting communications transmitters on solar-powered drones to provide internet access. In the summer of 2018, Facebook revealed it was working on an internet satellite called Athena and refocusing its Aquila project on developing software.

The Athena satellite is expected to launch in 2019, but Facebook hasn’t released further details to the public yet.

Alphabet (Google) Loon

Loon, started by Google and now run by parent company Alphabet, is slightly different from the other companies listed here. It’s not building a satellite constellation, but it is using similar concepts. Instead of an orbiting network in space, Loon uses weather balloons to float transmitters high in the atmosphere, essentially creating a floating network in the sky.

Who’s gonna win the race?

Despite many of these efforts being collaborative, the billionaires leading the charge would no doubt like some bragging rights. But picking a front-runner depends on how you define winning.

Iridium is clearly in the lead in the business internet sector. OneWeb has the shortest timeline but has yet to launch a satellite. And SpaceX has the most ambitious plan, so it might build the coolest network even if it isn’t the first one to finish.

But who are the real winners in the new space race? People. The millions of lives that will benefit from accessing high-speed internet are the biggest perk to launching more satellites.

A Brief History of Satellite Internet

1957—The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1 and kicks off the space race.

 

1958—The US launches its first satellite, Explorer 1.

 

1958—The world’s first satellite designed for telecommunications, Signal Communications by Orbital Relay Equipment (SCORE), successfully transmits its first message.

 

1962—The Communications Satellite Act of 1962 gives the FCC regulatory power over communications satellites. The act aims to spur competition among companies looking to use satellites for commerce and also encourage global cooperation in organizing satellite networks.

 

1962—Bell Labs launches Telstar 1, which successfully executes the first satellite television transmission.

 

1964—NASA launches the first successful geostationary satellite, Syncom 3. It was built by Hughes Aircraft.

 

1965—The International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT) forms and launches Intelsat I. Fondly called Early Bird, Intelsat I was the first commercial geostationary telecommunications satellite.

 

1967—The Soviet Union creates, Orbita, the first television-satellite national network.

 

1972—Canada launches the first North American geostationary television satellite, Anik 1.

 

1975—RCA builds Satcom 1 for ABC, NBC, CBS, and later HBO® to begin broadcasting via satellite.

 

1976—Radio engineer Taylor Howard builds a homemade satellite dish and receiver that picks up both North American and Soviet satellite television signals. This showed that in-home satellite television service could work.

 

1979—The Satellite Home Viewer Act lets US homeowners operate their own home satellite system.

 

1982—The International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) successfully completes a global maritime satellite network for communication.

 

1984—PanAmSat is founded to compete with INTELSAT.

 

1991—A group of cable TV providers, including Time Warner Cable, Cox, Comcast, and more, create the first direct broadcast satellite (DBS) television service in the US, PRIMESTAR. PRIMESTAR was the first company to offer satellite television service as we know it today.

 

1993—Hughes Aircraft Co. applies for an FCC license to launch Spaceway, the first satellite designed to use the Ka-band frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum. These frequencies allow for greater transmission bandwidth, making satellite a reasonable means for transmitting internet signals.

 

1995—Fifteen companies, including Motorola, KaStar Satellite (later WildBlue), and EchoStar answer an FCC call for more Ka-band satellite applications. Once again, the FCC was trying to bolster competition.

 

1996—Hughes Electronics buys PanAmSat, starts Hughes Network Systems, and begins offering consumer satellite services.

 

2000—Viasat acquires the Scientific-Atlanta satellite business network and begins offering satellite communication for businesses.

 

2003—News Corp buys DIRECTV, Hughes Network Systems, and others to form the DIRECTV Group.

 

2004—Arianespace launches Anik F2 for Telesat. The Anik F2 is the first high throughput satellite, further increasing the bandwidth of satellite technology.

 

2005—After acquiring some bandwidth on Telesat’s Anik F2, Viasat and WildBlue partner to provide residential satellite internet service.

 

2006—After being sold to SkyTerra, Hughes Network Systems is divested and becomes its own company: HughesNet.

 

2011—Viasat launches Viasat-1, improving bandwidth yet again.

 

2011—EchoStar buys HughesNet.

 

2012—EchoStar launches Jupiter 1, putting it in a mini space race with Viasat.

 

2016—Echostar launches Jupiter 2 to increase capacity and serve growing demand.

 

2017—Viasat launches Viasat 2, which delivers the fastest residential satellite internet in the US to date.

Edited by Cara Haynes

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