As we enter the 2020s, space and internet technologies are converging. We find ourselves at the dawn of a space internet race. Technology giants like SpaceX, Softbank, Amazon, Google, Virgin, and Facebook could spend tens of billions of dollars to launch, operate, and replace thousands of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

Over the next decade, the number of operational satellites in orbit could increase ten-fold, from about 2,000 to 20,000.

For the tech titans betting on space-based internet, there must be an expectation of significant reward to offset the potential technology, regulatory and investment risks.

Trackable man-made objects in orbit
Image: CSpOC and UCS Database, March 2019

LEO operators SpaceX and OneWeb are expected to begin offering limited commercial service in 2020, followed by Telesat, LeoSat, and Amazon in 2022. While “Connecting the unconnected” is a noble and politically satisfying aspiration, in the medium term LEO networks will not provide an affordable standalone option for connecting people not yet connected to the internet. LEO networks should play an important role, at least indirectly, in expanding the reach of terrestrial mobile broadband and 5G.

The temptation for some LEO operators, particularly those led by larger-than-life personalities, might be to go it alone and attempt to build a good part of the future internet infrastructure themselves.

However, the strategic importance of the internet to the economic and political interests of government and private sector stakeholders could make for contentious and complicated debates around technology standardization, access to space, and orbital debris.

As appealing as it may be to cast aside tedious international and multi-stakeholder cooperation in the interest of speed, the downsides of acting alone and in haste outweigh the potential benefits of being first.

Internet (r)evolution?

LEO satellites orbit between 300 and 2,000 km above the Earth’s surface, compared to the 36,000 km orbit of geostationary satellites. This increased proximity to Earth means LEO to Earth communication can be achieved with just 20% delay (latency) of what is achieved via geostationary satellites.

While it is important to develop Earth-to-satellite signal propagation with lower latency, perhaps a more significant development for the global internet will be the possibility to cross-link thousands of satellites with lasers to form global space-based optical mesh networks, creating tens of Terabits per second of capacity.

Submarine fibre-optic cable map, 2019

Space-based optical mesh networks should achieve lower latency communication over 3,000 km than terrestrial fiber-optic networks.There are a couple reasons for this:

2. Terrestrial/under-sea fibre-optic networks rarely provide the shortest or most direct path between two points; often detouring around lass masses.

London to New York internet route over a satellite-to-satellite laser-optic network
Image: Mark Handley/University College London

In an optimal scenario, a digital signal propagating over a standard fibre-optic link between New York and London takes about 76 milliseconds to make the round trip. The same signal routing over a spaced-based optical mesh network could theoretically make the round trip in 50 milliseconds, a 34% reduction in signal propagation time.

The relative advantage of space-based optical routing over terrestrial fibre-optic increases over longer distances. For example, signal propagation between London and Singapore over fibre-optic networks takes 159 milliseconds. Over a space-based optical network, a 90 millisecond round trip is possible, representing a 43% reduction in signal propagation time.

London to Singapore internet route over a satellite-to-satellite laser-optic network
Image: Mark Handley/University College London

Cross-linking thousands of satellites, across multiple orbits, and seamlessly interconnecting with terrestrial networks is no small feat. The internet’s core transport and network protocols were never designed with space-based mesh networks in mind and the lower latency could cause networks to malfunction.

Some of the internet’s core IP signaling and routing protocols, as well as traffic and resource management schemes, will require significant adaptation, and in some cases total redesign.

Considering the glacial pace of technology standardization and the wide array of international, multilateral, regional, national, and industry bodies involved, the LEO and terrestrial internet players will need strategically coordinated technology development and advocacy. In fact, LEO operators will require the regulatory support of dozens of terrestrial operators around the world to secure the necessary approvals and licences on the ground.

LEO internet: connecting the unconnected or mega-yachts?

When SpaceX and OneWeb’s LEO networks are switched on in the next 12-18 months, their first batch of customers will include a fair share of luxury maritime, air travel, and security/defence companies.

To grow their customer base beyond mega-yachts and private jets, LEO operators will need the commercial support of terrestrial operators (and their sales teams) on the ground in dozens of countries around the world. Terrestrial operators will be much more than local licence-holders and distributors of LEO services and devices, they will themselves be important enterprise customers for LEO operators, requiring flexible, low latency connectivity to build out their next generation networks.

We’ve all heard how 5G networks will transform industries with ultra-fast, low latency wireless connectivity for billions of smartphones, homes, offices, and machines. To achieve this, 5G networks will need to significantly increase the density of their ‘last-mile’ wireless networks, bringing them much closer to users and connected things.

However, this will require efficiently relaying massive volumes of data, with minimal delay, between hundreds of thousands of data centres at the network edge and geographically distributed cloud computing networks.

The limited reach of terrestrial fibre-optic networks is a major impediment to expanding the reach of 5G networks beyond densely populated urban areas. This is not just an issue in the developing world either. In the US, up to $150 billion would be needed over the next five to seven years to build out enough fibre to satisfy expected demand from 5G networks.

As mobile operators look to expand 5G coverage beyond high-income, high-density business districts, LEO networks could provide them flexibility for bridging gaps in fibre-optic networks. By mid-2022, LEO networks should begin expanding the edge of 5G networks beyond the geographical reach of existing fibre infrastructure. In a similar fashion, they could be complementary and in some cases a substitute to under-sea cables on some routes.

LEO networks will further benefit from advances in software-defined networks for traffic management, load balancing, and path optimization. Seamless inter-operation between LEO and terrestrial networks will enhance their combined flexibility and reliability, which are critical considerations for global enterprise and public safety customers.

Anti-satellite weapons, orbital debris and clean up

According to NASA, there are 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball and 650,000 objects that are softball-to-fingernail size. With everything orbiting at 28,000 km/h (nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet) even a fingernail-size bit of debris could pack enough of a punch to damage a satellite or kill a space-walking astronaut.

With geopolitical tensions on the rise, several governments have developed and publicly tested anti-satellite (ASAT) missile systems. An anti-satellite arms race would increase the risk of miscalculation, collision, and debris that could significantly curtail global access to space for years or even decades. The interests of all stakeholders, private and public, would be best served by avoiding actions that could create fresh debris, risk, and uncertainty.

Various technologies are in the early stages of being developed for the removal or de-orbiting of errant satellites, including robotically deployed harpoons, nets, lasers, and ion beams. Getting this right and addressed at scale will require further investment, research, and international consensus. To this end, the World Economic Forum is spearheading a multi-stakeholder effort to develop a space sustainability rating system, alongside the European Space Agency and MIT, to encourage satellite operators to be more sustainable and to incentivize various debris mitigation approaches.

Orbital debris (red) created by March 2019 Indian ASAT satellite intercept (red), with the orbit of the International Space Station (white) as a comparison.

Conclusion

The race to develop, launch, and scale LEO internet constellations will be a high-risk and potentially high-return competition between well-funded internet and technology companies. However, “moving fast and breaking things” or even just going it alone will not do. While healthy competition is an essential element for any race, solving for complex technology, regulatory, and geopolitical challenges will require iterative, multi-stakeholder cooperation.

To overcome affordability barriers to LEO internet adoption and “connect the unconnected”, economies of scale will be needed in the production of so-called phased-array user terminals proposed by some LEO operators, as well as circular global supply chains to move everything around.

Achieving this will require technology standardization and buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders including technology companies, industry associations and regulatory bodies around the world. This will take several years, requiring the hard work and cooperation of tens of thousands of talented people in dozens of countries around the world.