SpaceX Says Satellite Broadband Is the Future, But It's Actually Already Here


If everything goes according to plan this morning, then Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) will have launched a pair of experimental internet satellites into orbit by the time you read this. Slated to launch onboard a rocket from Space Launch Complex 4 East (SLC-4E) at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the two satellites are intended to test the feasibility of using a space-based internet service that can provide high-speed, low-latency data communications worldwide. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) filings that SpaceX used to get its license to operate those satellites, the two satellites be operational for at least six months, and will be used for a few minutes per day as they pass over the SpaceX office in the Seattle area.

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SpaceX is one of half a dozen companies that have applied to the FCC to operate satellites that'll provide this broadband access. These satellite networks are in varying stages of development, but if they're successful, they should provide essentially ubiquitous, high-speed broadband to consumers and businesses anywhere. If they're also practical, then they should dramatically ease the burden of networking businesses with multiple employees at many different locations.

Not So Far In the Future

But you'll notice that I used the word "if" a few times. This is because it takes a lot more than a couple of test satellites to be successful in this particular game. And it also needs to be practicable, meaning that the costs and complexities need to be rational enough to make sense to the IT folks who have to manage it and to the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) who has to pay for it.

To make things more interesting, satellite internet access isn't new. In fact, it's been around long enough that I first tested it over 20 years ago by using a service called DirecPC, which was provided by Hughes Network Systems LLC. While satellite internet in those days provided an important alternative for companies that needed to communicate with remote offices, it wasn't as useful as these new networks will be.

That's because satellite-based networking in those days had a major drawback: latency. The satellites back then were in a geostationary orbit, meaning they were located approximately 22,236 miles above the earth. That's not just a big hop; it also meant that a data packet would take about one second to make the round trip between a computer at one end and a server at the other. A full second is basically forever in the universe of high-speed networking, and that hasn't gotten any less important as business applications have evolved with the internet in mind. If anything, low-latency operation is more important than ever, even to businesses using only standard business apps, but certainly to any using technologies such as streaming, such as video conferencing or even high-speed data analytics.

What's Really New

What's changed from those days is that SpaceX and a number of other companies are planning to place satellites in orbits much closer to the earth. That means the latency is going to be much lower because the delay from end to end is only a few milliseconds—much closer to what you're used to when dealing with the internet using today's commercial broadband networks.

But because those satellites will be much closer to the earth, they can't also appear to remain stationary in the sky. They're going to be moving at a pretty good clip and that can have its own detrimental effects. To solve for that, there needs to be a lot more satellites so that they remain in view of the ground at all times. Worse, those satellites need to be fairly close to the ground so that users there don't need powerful radios to reach them. The way to fix that is to add even more satellites so that they're always close enough.

No surprise then that SpaceX is proposing to orbit something like 12,000 small satellites to build out their satellite network. As you might imagine, it'll take a while to get all of those satellites into their respective orbits and figure out a reliable way to manage them. The other competing services have plans of varying complexity but they all have one thing in common besides low latency. That one thing in common is that they're all still plans, not existing services. Given the number of satellites it'll take to move from the plan to the service stage, they're likely to remain that way for a while.But before you dismiss the concept, let's point out that satellite internet access with gigabit speeds and low latency already exists and its in use globally. What's more, you may have used it. If you've ever used Wi-Fi on an airliner, especially one traveling internationally, or made a FaceTime call from a cruise ship, then you've used a satellite connection, and it was probably provided by Luxembourg-based satellite network provider SES.

SES uses a constellation of 12 satellites, with eight more being launched in 2018, orbiting at about 5,000 miles above the surface of the earth. This is close enough to keep latency down to 120 milliseconds while orbiting the earth about three times per day. The low latency and high bandwidth—up to one gigabit per second—make the SES satellites a good solution for cloud operations.

According to Sergy Mummert, Senior Vice President of Cloud Services at SES, satellite network access is now both available and practicable. This means that its impact on the data center is minimal, and getting a good, usable connection can be done at a reasonable cost. "People aren't waiting for a fiber connection," Mummert said. He pointed out that it's not uncommon for a good fiber connection to take months to be put in place.

In fact, depending on where your operations are located, a fiber connection may not be available for years, if it's ever available. Even if your operations aren't in the air or at sea, they can still be in areas with poor network access and satellite networking is always there. And even when fiber is available, a satellite connection can still make sense, both as a backup for the day when a backhoe takes out the fiber or simply as extra capacity that's available when you need it.

So, while SpaceX and the others may eventually provide access to a ubiquitous, low-latency, and fast internet connection, you don't need to wait if that's your only solution, though your options today are somewhat limited. But if and when those options expand with SpaceX and its competitors, then you just might find an answer to your fiber provider headaches up in the sky.

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