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The New Internet from Space

If they make it through regulatory approvals and meet financial projections, the new satellites will create new industries


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A new era of global communications is on the launch pad. Eleven companies have applied to the Federal Communications Commission and other telecom regulators to beam broadband internet from clouds of more than 15,000 new satellites. Not since the telegraph replaced the Pony Express has communication technology seen such a leap in capacity and promise.

If they make it through regulatory approvals and meet financial projections, the new satellites will create new industries, upend traditional satellite and cable companies, threaten fiber optic cables for supremacy in communications, and offer faster, cheaper broadband all over the world.  With the coming 20 billion new internet-of-things connections, the satellites can drive still-unimagined opportunities in public and private life.

SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, proposes a 12,000-satellite constellation called Starlink. Google is an investor, and the FCC chairman supports the proposal. Starlink projects $30 billion in revenue from 40 million internet subscribers by 2025. 

Startup Starlink anticipates delivery of 100 megabit per second broadband, service as fast as available to most Coloradans today. Starlink will compete against land-based and undersea fiber optic cables for long distance service.

The FCC has approved radio frequencies for 900 satellites of OneWeb. With support from SoftBank, Bharti Group, Virgin Group and Qualcomm, OneWeb plans 2.5 Gigabit/second service from space by 2021. Fewer than 10 percent of Coloradans have access to even 1.0 Gbps service.

Boeing has plans to launch 3,000 satellites, perhaps in partnership with Apple.

The demand for launch services has jumped. 

SpaceX plans hundreds of new launches with its own Falcon rocket system. OneWeb will use multiple launch companies. Boeing, Arianespace, Virgin and Orbital have joined the parade.  Stratolaunch, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is building a six-engine airplane as a launch platform.

Satellites will shrink from the size of school buses to the size of refrigerators and possibly down to shoeboxes. Traditional satellite manufacturers like Airbus, Lockheed Martin and Thales Alenia Space are retooling to meet demand.

Radio and laser technologies will improve. SpaceX will use lasers for transmissions between satellites, a regulatory as well as technical advance since light signals are not regulated by governments. Lasers to the ground may not be far behind.

New ground station antennas are smaller than a stop sign. Solar power can run the antennas and associated equipment.

Artificial intelligence can manage station-keeping for satellites and steer beams of extremely high frequency – and high capacity – to spots needing broadband.

Residents of remote areas without cable service can look forward to upgrading low-bandwidth, slow satellite service. Their service today suffers from delays because the satellites are in distant orbits and use dated technology. 

Some satellite communication will be faster than fiber-optic cable transmission. Very low orbits minimize signal delays and light waves travel faster in space than in fiber. The long-range satellite-to-satellite handoff of signals means fewer processing hops to slow information flow. In gaming and securities businesses where milliseconds matter, satellites may replace cable. 

The capacity and speed of new internet providers will provide competition to urban, cable-based systems. Competition will improve service and lower prices. Since no competitor alone can afford to block or throttle content providers, the Net Neutrality debate may finally end.

Outer space will become more crowded, but it is a very big place so the risk of collisions is small. Ground radar can help navigate safe paths. Most satellites will orbit so low they will fall out of orbit and burn up within seven years, others can be steered into the atmosphere or into graveyard orbits at end of life. 

The new constellations will compete for radio frequency allocations with each other, with existing satellites and even with ground services. Most conflicts can be solved with engineering and grants of new frequency for satellites, but resolving interference claims on the ground, in space, and around the world poses regulatory, technical and even diplomatic challenges.

Social impact of the new broadband capacity is hard to predict but disruption is certain. With billions of new internet users and easy information flow, international borders will matter less. Government control of communications will become harder than ever. New sensors will improve data collection for scientists. Markets will be better informed while business analytics will become more accurate.

The new internet companies, like the startup telegraph companies 150 years ago, are competing for customers with new technologies and business plans. But the new satellites are not replacing ponies with pairs of wires to deliver a trickle of news across the prairie. They are invisibly, instantaneously, providing access to almost unlimited communication among billions of people around the world. They are helping build new businesses, communities and societies.


George Foote is the  telecommunications practice leader at  Dorsey & Whitney LLP.

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