Low-Earth Orbit Satellites:

The Solution to the Digital Divide Could Be Closer than You Think


What’s the secret to better internet access in rural areas? The stars point to LEO (low-Earth orbit) satellites.

What is the digital divide?

In what is known as the “digital divide,” millions of Americans go without access to computers and the internet—especially in rural areas.1 The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) reports that 22.3% of Americans in rural areas lack access to broadband internet, while other surveys suggest that the number may be as high as 37%. 2,3 In Tribal Lands, the percentage of people without broadband jumps by an additional 5%.2

Rural Americans aren’t the only ones who lack internet access—millions of low income Americans also lack access to broadband internet, either because they cannot afford high rates or because internet providers skip over low income areas when building infrastructure. 

In an era of increasing reliance on the internet—when access to education, jobs, health care, and entertainment are moving online—the growing disparity in internet access is getting increasing attention.1 Repeatedly, studies show a correlation between internet access and income, innovation, and access to health care.5,6,7 Students with home internet service can do homework assignments and participate in remote learning, while kids without home internet access fall behind.

Why is internet access scarce in rural America?

Telecommunications companies invest heavily in cable and fiber networks in areas where it’s most profitable for them. Wiring a densely packed urban neighborhood for cable costs very little per customer—but running cable lines out to individual farms in Indiana costs a lot per customer. And for similar reasons, internet companies have been more likely to invest fiber or cable infrastructure in high income neighborhoods than low income areas. This has led to an unequal distribution of internet access among Americans based on location, income, and other factors. 

One fourth of Americans living in small towns and rural areas do not have broadband internet access (which is defined by the FCC as an internet connection with at least 25 Mbps download speed).2 And if they do, it’s from providers who can’t provide enough data to support online schooling or remote work. Building out internet infrastructure to everybody in America could require billions of dollars. But one potential solution to this infrastructure problem is connecting people to the internet from above via low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. 

Several companies—including SpaceX, Amazon, and others—are building new satellite systems in low-Earth orbit. These companies say that they’ll offer faster speeds and more data to rural customers—all at competitive rates. Can LEO satellite internet really deliver on these promises? The answer isn’t clear yet, but the technology behind LEO is promising.

Satellite internet technology: 2005 to now

Although satellites have been orbiting the Earth since the late 1950s, the use of satellites to deliver an internet connection to earthlings didn’t happen until 2005, when HughesNet launched the first satellite internet service. It took 12 years from the time land-based internet service became available to the public (in 1993) for satellite internet service to become a viable internet option. Over the next 15 years—from 2005 to 2020—scientists and engineers discovered ways to make satellite internet signals faster and more reliable. A key part of this is bringing satellites closer to Earth via low-Earth orbit. 

What is low-Earth orbit?

Low-Earth orbit is the closest orbit to the Earth’s surface, approximately 111–1,242 miles above sea level (180–2,000 km). Most of the world’s space missions have been to LEO, which is where the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope are located. However, communications satellites that deliver internet service are generally much farther away in high-Earth orbit, which is 23,000 miles (37,015 km) above sea level.

Earth orbits

  • Lunar orbit (moon): 238,607 miles from Earth
  • High-Earth orbit: 23,000 miles from Earth
  • Mid-Earth orbit: 1,242 to 22,232 miles from Earth
  • Low-Earth orbit: 111 to 1,242 miles from Earth

Is low-Earth orbit new?

Low-Earth orbit isn’t new. In fact, the first satellites, like Sputnik, were all in LEO. Most objects orbiting Earth are located in LEO, including NOAA weather satellites, government satellites, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and more. But internet communication satellites are primarily located in high-Earth orbit—until now. 

But while LEO isn’t new, the ability to launch thousands of small satellites at a reasonable cost into LEO is novel. It takes up to thousands of satellites in LEO to cover an area for internet service, so LEO hasn’t been very useful until recent advancements in rocket launch technology.

High-Earth orbit vs. low-Earth orbit

Internet communication satellites are often launched into high-Earth orbit (HEO) because it’s a geostationary orbit. Satellites in HEO orbit the Earth at the precise speed that the Earth rotates, so the satellites essentially hover over the same place all the time in relation to the Earth. And, since high-Earth orbit is so far away from the Earth, a couple of HEO satellites can cover a whole continent. 

Wonder how this works? Think of a flashlight shining on a globe. If it’s really close, it can offer more powerful light to a concentrated area. But as you move farther out, it will cover a bigger area with less powerful light. This analogy works well for satellite internet communications. 

HEO’s main perks are that satellites stay in geostationary orbit and are far enough away that just a couple of satellites are needed for full coverage. Viasat, for instance, provides satellite internet service to most of North America with just a few satellites in high-Earth orbit.

The downside to communications satellites in a geostationary (high-Earth) orbit is that it’s just so far away. Satellite internet signals travel fast, but they’re still covering a big distance and this journey causes delays, latency, and slow data speeds for customers on Earth. It’s also more expensive to launch and maintain satellites that are that far away from Earth, although some costs are made up in the fact that less satellites are needed.

Internet communication satellites are often launched into high-Earth orbit (HEO) because it’s a geostationary orbit. Satellites in HEO orbit the Earth at the precise speed that the Earth rotates, so the satellites essentially hover over the same place all the time in relation to the Earth. And, since high-Earth orbit is so far away from the Earth, a couple of HEO satellites can cover a whole continent. 

Wonder how this works? Think of a flashlight shining on a globe. If it’s really close, it can offer more powerful light to a concentrated area. But as you move farther out, it will cover a bigger area with less powerful light. This analogy works well for satellite internet communications. 

HEO’s main perks are that satellites stay in geostationary orbit and are far enough away that just a couple of satellites are needed for full coverage. Viasat, for instance, provides satellite internet service to most of North America with just a few satellites in high-Earth orbit.

The downside to communications satellites in a geostationary (high-Earth) orbit is that it’s just so far away. Satellite internet signals travel fast, but they’re still covering a big distance and this journey causes delays, latency, and slow data speeds for customers on Earth. It’s also more expensive to launch and maintain satellites that are that far away from Earth, although some costs are made up in the fact that less satellites are needed.

The biggest changes to the satellite internet industry in years are unfolding right now, as companies start broadcasting internet signals from satellites located much closer to Earth in low-Earth orbit. 

How much closer are LEO satellites from high-Earth orbit satellites? Well, while previous satellite internet constellations have beamed down internet signals from 37,015 km, satellites in LEO zip around the Earth at 328–580 km above sea level. That’s up to 111 times closer than old satellites! No wonder data can travel a bit faster to LEO satellites, right? 

How close is LEO?

Distance from Earth

  • 5–6 miles: Airplane cruising altitude (9–11 km)
  • 24 miles: Weather balloons (40 km)
  • 111–1,242 miles: Low-Earth orbit (180–2,000 km)
  • 203–360 miles: Starlink satellites (328–580 km) 
  • 205–255 miles: International Space Station (330–410 km)
  • 339 miles: Hubble Space Telescope (547 km)
  • 621–1,242 miles: Van Allen Belt (1,000–2,000 km)
  • 1,242–22,232 miles: Mid-Earth orbit (2,000–35,780 km)
  • 12,551 miles: GPS satellites (operated by the US Space Force) (20,200 km)
  • 22,246 miles (approx.): ViaSat and HughesNet satellites (35,802 km)
  • 23,000+ miles: High-Earth/Geostationary orbit (37,015+ km)
  • 238,607 miles: Moon (384,000 km)

comparing satellite internet latency graphic

So why does latency matter?

If your internet connection has high latency, you’ll notice a delay with online activities. When you click on a link, there will be a pause before the page is displayed. If you’re playing a game, you’ll shoot at a villain but by the time the computer registers your action, the villain will have moved away. If you’re doing real-time trading on the stock exchange, you also need low latency to be competitive. The lower your latency, the quicker your response time. A good latency is under 80 milliseconds, although even lower is better. Latency is also known as lag time or ping.

Potential problems with LEO satellite internet

The closer satellites are to Earth, the smaller the area each satellite can cover and the faster objects need to travel to stay in orbit. Satellites that are located in low-Earth orbit zip around the Earth every 90 minutes. With satellites moving this quickly, it’s impossible to keep them hovering above a continent like you can with a geostationary orbit. 

So, while a geostationary satellite constellation might just need a few satellites to blanket an entire continent with internet service because the satellites stay in place, it’s more complicated with LEO satellites. Satellites in LEO are moving fast and zip in and out of range of ground receivers in just a few minutes. Internet systems built with low-Earth orbiting satellites require a large network of satellites to keep people connected. In fact, this is why some experts are questioning the financial viability of LEO.4

In addition to the need for more satellites with LEO, the satellite dishes and home user terminals are also more complicated. Home satellite dishes need to track the movement of the satellites and be self-aiming since the ground receivers have to constantly switch from satellite to satellite, depending on which is closer. If the dishes weren’t self-aiming, people would have to manually realign them every few minutes. The additional features required for LEO satellite dishes means the home equipment they require is more expensive. For example, Starlink charges $499 for its equipment, which is almost double the price charged by HughesNet or Viasat. Yet many experts suggest that Starlink is currently taking a loss on the equipment, which probably cost $1,000 to $1,500 each.8 Unless Starlink can lower costs, Starlink may not be financially viable.

How do satellites stay in orbit?

To stay in orbit around the Earth, a satellite must travel fast enough that the Earth’s gravity and the satellite’s momentum are perfectly balanced. The satellite’s momentum pushes it forward and the Earth’s gravity pulls on the satellite as it moves, creating an arch that keeps it close to the Earth. 

If these forces are not balanced, a satellite will either fall to the Earth’s surface or speed off into space in a straight line. But when these competing pulls are precisely balanced, a satellite will travel in a perfect orbit.

Other companies investing in the new space race

Many companies recognize the benefits of faster satellite internet that new technology and low-Earth orbiting satellite networks can offer to rural customers and businesses. New companies like Starlink, OneWeb, and Project Kuiper aren’t the only ones implementing new technology to bump up the satellite internet game—companies like HughesNet and Viasat are also investing in new satellites systems.  

Starlink

Starlink by SpaceX gets a lot of media attention, thanks to its outspoken founder Elon Musk. In development for several years, Starlink started the public beta for its satellite internet service. Pricing is $99 per month for speeds between 50 Mbps and 150 Mbps, plus the initial setup cost of $499 for equipment. Data is unlimited, but early testers are warned that the satellite network is far from being fully built out, so speeds may vary and there will be times when there is no signal. Because Starlink satellites are in LEO, Starlink service has much lower latency than traditional satellite internet service. 

Project Kuiper

Starlink isn’t the only company building a satellite constellation in LEO. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is also steadily working on developing a LEO satellite constellation. Although they are behind Starlink in terms of availability, the company has the solid financial backing of Amazon and the luxury of taking the time to get things perfect before launching service.

OneWeb

OneWeb (whose investors include HughesNet satellite internet) is also working on bringing the benefits of LEO (fast speeds and low latency) to the world.10 Thus far, OneWeb has launched 68 satellites into LEO in a planned constellation of 650 satellites. In March 2020, One Web declared bankruptcy but has since been purchased by the British government and Bharti Global. Since gaining FCC approval, OneWeb is forging ahead and hopes to have launches recommence by mid-2021 and provide internet service globally by the end of 2021. At 400 Mbps, OneWeb’s internet speed tests so far have surpassed Starlink and other LEO satellite constellations, so it looks promising.11 

Viasat

Some satellite internet companies, like Viasat, are sticking with the benefits of high-Earth orbit and exploring other ways to decrease latency. Viasat is working on several new satellites (ViaSat-3), which will increase speed, stretch coverage areas, and provide additional capacity. These satellites will provide global connectivity, which will be very useful for the aviation industry since Viasat provides in-flight Wi-Fi internet for many commercial airlines. The projected launch for Viasat’s new satellite system is not expected until the latter half of 2021.

Final take: LEO is good news for rural connectivity

Sending internet satellites into low-Earth orbit has started the new space race, and many companies are jumping into the action. It’s also sparked awareness of the digital divide and where we need to improve internet access. Some companies are getting directly involved with LEO, while others are finding other ways to improve internet access for rural residents. And one of the best about LEO is that it increases competition in the satellite internet space, which is always good news for consumers.

As we look into the future of rural internet and satellite connectivity, LEO could be the game changer.4 LEO constellations will bring faster internet speeds and wider availability than rural areas have ever had, which is nothing but good news to folks who love fresh air and wide open spaces.

Sources

  1. Pew Research Center, “53% of Americans Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak,” April 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.
  2. Federal Communications Commission, “Eighth Broadband Progress Report,” May 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.
  3. Roper, Willem, “Quarter of Americans Have No Internet,” April 2020. Accessed November 6, 2020.
  4. Marek, Sue, “Marek’s Take: Will LEO Satellite Systems Be Able to Bridge the Digital Divide?
  5. Anderson, Monica and Kumar, Madhumitha, “Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-Income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption,” May 2019. Accessed November 19, 2020.
  6. McCloud, Rachel F. et al., “Beyond Access: Barriers to Internet Health Information Seeking Among the Urban Poor,” November 2016. Accessed November 19, 2020.
  7. Auxier, Brooke and Anderson, Monica, As Schools Close Due to the Coronavirus, Some U.S. Students Face a Digital ‘Homework Gap’” March 2020. Accessed November 19, 2020.
  8. Mohney, Doug, “News Analysis | SpaceX has a lot riding on Starlink’s $499 ‘UFO on a stick’” November 2020. Accessed November 19, 2020.
  9. HughesNet, “The Evolution of High-Speed Satellite Internet,” July 2019. Accessed November 19, 2020.
  10. Aldrich-Smith, Tabitha, “Hughes and OneWeb Announce Global Distribution Partnership for Low Earth Orbit Satellite Service,” March 2020. Accessed November 19, 2020.
  11. Brodkin, John, “OneWeb’s Low-Earth Satellites Hit 400 Mbps and 32ms Latency in New Test,” July 2019. Accessed November 19, 2020. 
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