Elon Musk’s Starlink is only the beginning

Space internet has the reputation for slow service. With its questionable signal strength and hardly Netflix-friendly bandwidth, the internet that’s beamed down from low-Earth orbit is the kind of thing you only turn to as a last resort or if you’re stuck on a long-haul flight. But in 2023, satellite-based internet is getting a major revamp.

Private companies and governments are getting serious about their space internet projects. This year, SpaceX has planned multiple launches, like the one with 51 satellites that is scheduled to take off later tonight from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, that will send satellites into orbit to support its Starlink network. Each new batch joins the thousands of satellites SpaceX has already sent into orbit, including those of Starlink competitor, OneWeb. Amazon, meanwhile, plans to incorporate more than 3,000 satellites into its Project Kuiper satellite internet constellation and should launch its prototype satellites early this year. The European Union has said its proposed satellite network, Iriss, could include up to 170 satellites, which are scheduled to enter low-Earth orbit between 2025 and 2027. Inspired by the use of Starlink terminals in the war on Ukraine, Taiwan is now reportedly looking for investors to fund its own domestic satellite network.

Thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, the cost of space launches has declined tremendously over the past few years. Satellites themselves are getting cheaper, too. As a result, it has become much more feasible to hire rocket companies to put commercial satellites into orbit, clearing the way for constellations of satellites that can provide far faster internet service than older satellite-based internet technology, which typically relies on one or two satellites that orbit the planet. While satellite-based internet isn’t necessarily set up to displace the service provided by cell towers or fiber optic cables, it could still play a role in the broader networks that lots of people use every day, adding more capacity and extending coverage.

The expected surge in new satellites will make space internet a bigger presence in our day-to-day lives this year. T-Mobile is planning to use Starlink’s network to expand its coverage in dead zones, and SpaceX is encouraging other mobile providers to connect their networks to the heavens. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, once it launches, is designed to bolster Verizon’s 4G, LTE, and 5G networks, a spokesperson told Recode. Even planes and boats are getting on board with the idea: Starlink has already made its internet available on private jets and some cruise ships, and Delta announced earlier this month that it will make in-flight wifi free for all SkyMiles members, thanks to a partnership with T-Mobile and the geostationary satellite provider Viasat.

A streak of light across a dark star-filled sky as light appears over the horizon.
Sometimes, internet satellite constellations are visible in the night sky.
Mariana Suarez/AFP via Getty Images

Satellite internet can be a real upgrade for people living or traveling in remote areas, according to Sylwia Kechiche, a principal industry analyst for enterprise at the network intelligence firm Ookla. “Think about the outskirts of the city when you don’t have such a good infrastructure anymore, and you can’t get very good speed because there’s no fiber in there, or no cable, as well,” she said.

But the new era will create new hurdles, too. Equipment that’s capable of next-generation satellite connections is still expensive, and may stand in the way of using the technology to close the digital divide — the disparity between those who can access high-quality internet and those who can’t — in the US and around the world. Low-Earth orbit, or the portion of space that’s within 1,200 miles or less of the Earth, is already crowded, and there are mounting concerns that the surge in commercial satellites will exacerbate our space trash problem and, due to their brightness, block astronomers’ view of the night sky. As multiple networks gear up to launch more and more satellites into space, regulators are preparing for a battle over physical space in orbit as well as the bands of spectrum that wireless satellite internet providers will need to operate their services. And even if things have generally gotten less expensive, there’s still the matter of figuring out where and when using satellites makes real financial sense.

“Most city dwellers can take broadband connectivity via terrestrial networks for granted. This is not the case for rural areas or most of the developing world,” explained Scott Pace, the director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Space systems don’t replace existing terrestrial systems as much as they augment and deepen the scale and resilience of internet services in new ways.”

The satellite renaissance

For the past few decades, satellite internet has mostly relied on geostationary satellites. These satellites orbit at an altitude of about 22,000 miles, which means they always appear to be in the same position if you’re looking up from Earth — hence the name geostationary. Because these internet-beaming satellites are so far away, they can cover broad swaths of the Earth’s surface. For the same reason, however, the connection these satellites provide can also be extremely slow, as anyone who has used satellite internet on a plane will tell you.

The new Starlink satellites whizzing around Earth work differently. Operating at a much lower altitude, each satellite provides less coverage, so companies launch hundreds or thousands of them into space in batches, creating constellations of satellites in orbit. So while a geostationary satellite might resemble a fixed star from here on the ground, newer satellites look more like shooting stars, according to Whitney Lohmeyer, an engineering professor and satellite industry consultant. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes catch a view of these satellites soaring across the night sky.

“As you bring it closer to the surface … the footprint shrinks,” Lohmeyer told Recode. “That’s why it takes more satellites in the LEO constellation to provide global coverage.”

For the time being, SpaceX is the leader in this new internet age. The company is responsible for almost half of the total active satellites orbiting Earth, and its Starlink internet service, which is now available in dozens of countries, hit 1 million users in December. Still, some think that Amazon, despite not having launched any satellite of its own yet, might eventually be at an advantage because the company could hook its space internet up to its already enormous cloud business, Amazon Web Services.

Companies you don’t usually hear about are also joining the satellite gold rush. Apple worked with Globalstar, a low-Earth satellite network founded in 1991, to launch a new satellite service that provides emergency service when other cellular networks aren’t available on iPhone 14 models (Apple invested $450 million in the company in November). To launch a similar feature on certain Android phones, Qualcomm is working with another satellite firm called Iridium. But even though our devices connect to satellites all the time for services like GPS, these more-advanced features will require new hardware that most of today’s phones don’t have.

Changes are also coming to older satellite-based internet providers. Dan Buchman, an executive at ViaSat, a nearly four-decade-old geostationary satellite network, told Recode that the company plans to launch a new, next-generation satellite in the first quarter of this year and that another two should launch in the following 12 months. The expansion is supposed to increase the company’s capacity by 600 percent, and each new satellite could carry at least a terabit of data per second. ViaSat already provides satellite internet to several major airlines.

Challenges ahead

Right now, companies are laying the groundwork for the future of the space internet industry — sometimes literally, in the form of new ground stations to support the new satellites. They’re also creating all sorts of unexpected opportunities, including satellite-focused jobs. For example, Amazon is opening a facility primarily focused on manufacturing new satellites, a sector that the company says it’s still pursuing even amid company-wide layoffs.

But the arrival of these new satellites has raised real questions. One space researcher suggested in 2021 that Starlink satellites, though they’re outfitted with autonomous collision avoidance systems, already constitute a large share of close encounters between objects in low-Earth orbit. Space trash in this congested region of outer space is a growing problem, and there’s concern that installing many more satellites will only make the problem worse. These satellites risk crashing into each other or any of the tens of thousands of pieces of orbital debris whirling around Earth. This would create even more space debris.

“Orbital highways are finite in number, and there is a carrying capacity for every single orbital highway that we’ve yet to measure,” Moriba Jah, the chief scientist and co-founder of Privateer Space, told Recode. “This carrying capacity is just like highways on the Earth or finite plots of land.”

A Starlink dish in action in Ukraine.
Andrii Dubchak/Donbas Frontliner via Zaborona/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

The challenge of regulating these services is so great that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently announced a proposal to create a specially focused space bureau. The agency is currently in charge of regulating spectrum, which has already become a point of tension between providers like OneWeb and SpaceX, as well as companies like Dish. The FCC also recently rescinded a nearly $1 billion SpaceX subsidy aimed at addressing the digital divide, after the agency found the technology wasn’t ready.

Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversees the many rocket launches required to send these satellites to space. The agency also has to approve satellite-based internet service for airplanes. For commercial passenger aircraft, airlines installing these systems have to show the agency that new technologies don’t interfere with a plane’s communications and safety systems.

As is the case with in-flight wifi, satellite-based internet is often truly beneficial in specific use cases. And it’s expensive. To set up Starlink, for example, customers need to spend $599 for a terminal and then $110 every month, which is more expensive than many broadband services. Beyond the high cost of the equipment and service, satellite internet isn’t always the most dependable, and there’s limited capacity.

“We can see some real-world promises and applications,” said Harold Feld, the senior vice president at the nonprofit Public Knowledge, which focuses on promoting digital competition. “As you start to deploy and you get into the details, you start to discover some real limitations as well.” For example, speeds for Starlink declined earlier this fall as more people signed up for the service, and the company has said it may implement high-speed data caps in the US in the future.

Satellite-based internet, however, doesn’t have to be everything for everyone to have a real impact. These services could offer a significant expansion of the wired and wireless internet service we use today. That’s a welcome advance for the many people throughout the world who aren’t hooked up to high-speed internet, as well as anyone else venturing into a less-connected area.

Should everything go according to the plans of companies like SpaceX and Amazon, their satellites will become a real form of infrastructure, ambiently connecting our devices from space on a regular basis. This new generation of internet connectivity isn’t online just yet, but the satellites that will make it possible are being launched now.

“We’re still in the early days, so we’re waiting for the iPhone effect,” Kechiche, from Ookla, told Recode. “We’re still waiting for the ‘wow’ factor and for something that’s gonna push it really far ahead.”

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