Does the future of the Internet depend on satellite? – By satellite

Francisco Licuy in Puerto Salazar, Ecuador. Screenshot via Path to the Good Life via SSPI/YouTube

A few years ago, the question posed by that title would have been laughable. How could the future of the Internet with its 997 terabits per second of global capacity at the end of 2022 depend on something as expensive and bandwidth-constrained as satellite?

But the idea is not as strange as it sounds and is worth thinking about, because it highlights the unique contributions that our company can make to the worldwide network of networks.

The horrific war of choice that Russia launched in Ukraine a year ago has provided yet another lesson in the fragility of terrestrial telecommunications. Whenever a disaster strikes, whether natural or man-made, it takes out vital infrastructure, with wireless towers and communications cables topping the list. But in February, Ukraine’s digital transformation minister asked Elon Musk on Twitter to provide the Starlink service as a replacement. Musk agreed immediately. The Starlink service was activated in Ukraine and the first shipment of terminals reached the country on 28 February. By the end of 2022, the company had provided free service and donated more than 20,000 handsets at an estimated cost of $100 million. In November, Ukraine began asking allies to help fund additional services and terminals.

What satellite brings to the internet is resilience. When towers fall, server rooms are flooded, or island nations are taken offline by a severed undersea cable, the satellite keeps on delivering. The more the satellite is integrated into connectivity, the more resilient the internet becomes. With thousands more satellites heading to low- to medium-Earth orbit in the coming years, resilience is growing rapidly. And with climate change affecting the lives of billions of people, the value of that resilience will continue to increase year on year.

The internet is everywhere

If you’ve ever traveled on America’s Amtrak line between Boston and Washington, you’ve experienced the promise and pain of mobile Internet. Sure, there’s a Wi-Fi connection in every car, but the Internet itself appears and fades and reappears. Your teams call jitters before dropping. Your Slack session or email client is overwhelmed by the spinning wheel of death. This is what happens when dozens of people use a cellular circuit in a fast-travelling (by American standards) train car through the cellular sites. This is why any organization with a serious need for Internet connectivity on the go or in remote locations spends money on satellite.

Contrast the Amtrak rush with the new Carnival Celebration cruise ship. When she departed port on her maiden voyage in November 2022, she had access to 1.3Gb of bandwidth for her entire voyage itinerary, with the option to reach 1.8Gb on demand. Two Ka-band Orbit antennas and a Speedcast managed service made it possible. Providing that level of service required more than satellite bandwidth, required network management technology for beam switching, and merging multiple connectivity paths into a single optimized WAN. The same technology allows high-value applications to combine LEO with MEO and GEO to deliver the engaged information rate customers demand.

Business model innovation is also at work. Hughes offers a community Wi-Fi service that shares a single high-bandwidth satellite link between multiple sites in remote villages and school campuses. One of his most important contributions is to improve the quality of education in places that were once too poor and remote to afford technology.

You’ve probably read about the threat posed by quantum computing to the cryptography we depend on for commerce and privacy on the Internet. This evolving technology should be uniquely suited to cracking today’s encryption, but data scientists are hard at work producing an encryption system that uses a quantum key to secure communications. To make it work, however, you need an absolutely secure way to distribute quantum keys. For reasons way above my salary grade, satellite deployment has a unique potential to do it on a global scale, which is why ESA, among others, has a project to demonstrate the technology.

So whether it’s resilience, ubiquity, or security, satellite appears to be well on its way to playing a crucial role in the future of the internet. Ever since Sir Arthur C. Clarke envisioned three GEO space stations spanning the globe with connectivity, no one has dared to make such a claim.

Headshot of Robert Bell.Robert Bell is executive director of Space & Satellite Professionals International. SSPI produces the Better Satellite World campaign, which showcases the immense contribution of space and satellites to life on Earth. More

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