Visionaries have long looked to the skies for the future of communications. In 1945, the would-be science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke envisioned geo-stationary communications satellites. By the 1990s, tech heavyweights like Bill Gates were backing the billion-dollar flop Teledesic, which planned to launch 800 low-earth orbit broadband satellites.
Twenty years later and once more technology visionaries are looking to the skies for the future of broadband.
The bigger picture
Ideas have ranged from launching hundreds of low-earth orbit satellites (sound familiar?) to the more off the wall Project Loon from Google, which would comprise of a network of balloons travelling at the edge of space, designed to connect communities in remote locations to 3G internet.
In the meantime, Facebook is exploring the use of drones that would fly around at 60,000ft for months at a time, bringing broadband to impoverished areas.
Elton Musk, a billionaire entrepreneur and founder of rocket manufacturer SpaceX, wants to build a network of 4,000 broadband satellite orbiting 750 miles above earth, much closer than current satellites. He claims the as-yet unnamed venture “would be like rebuilding the Internet”. He has gone as far as saying his $15 billion business plan could be commercial in as little as five years (2020), if all goes to plan.
The great rival is OneWeb, a $2 billion venture backed by Virgin Group and Qualcomm, which recently issued a contract to Airbus to build 900 broadband satellites in time for a 2018 launch.
And now Samsung has thrown its hat in the ring, with a proposal for a deployment of 4,600 inexpensive Low Earth Orbit satellites. It claims its project would give the world an extra zettabyte of bandwidth a month!
Samsung said its system would be able to send data with signal latencies “better or equal to” the ground-based systems we have right now. Musk’s team expects to cut latency from 500 milliseconds to around 20 milliseconds. To put this in perspective, VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminals) technology utilises satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Data transmission has a minimum delay of around 500 milliseconds for each round trip. This can create hiccups with applications that need consistent transmission backwards and forwards, such as voice/video and gaming running on common network protocols such as TCP/IP. VSAT today may be slower than fiber optic, but is still faster than cable and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL).
Why the rush?
Basically demand for the internet is fast outstripping supply. Farooq Khan, president of Samsung Research America has outlined the “omnify” (Order of Magnitude Increase Every Five Years Principle). In other words, demand for data increases ten times every five years. This will continue with a forecast of a 1,000 times increase for the next 15 years. This unprecedented growth is a key reason why he believes we need to prepare a communications system for the future. It is too early to say if we will see data centers springing up in outer space. For the moment the gold rush is about getting all the world connected.
If the internet from space is going to open up internet connections around the globe, especially in developing countries it will have to be extremely cheap – right down to subscription costs. With fiber optic internet connections and wireless mobile data plans opening up across the world the sceptical believe that traditional wire might do the job faster.
But Khan’s goal is to provide a space internet with similar capacity to cellular and Wi-Fi. This space Internet can then provide back-haul for cellular and Wi-Fi as well as direct communication with the satellite connecting those around the globe without internet access. With the satellite-based backhaul, cellular and Wi-Fi deployments would become practical in areas with no wired Internet infrastructure. Who will win is anyone’s guess right now.
As Khan points out, the advantage of satellites over ground based communication is that traffic can be routed dynamically from one satellite to another, finding the shortest route to the destination and reducing signal latency. This simple fact puts the whole concept of satellites in space into perspective.
One thing is for sure, if the internet goes into space we will be talking about a global communications system that could possible completely eclipse anything we have seen. Is it possible? We will have to wait and see.
To learn more about how satellite broadband is evolving - and what it can do today - check out Satellite technology improves as demand grows on Connecting Technology blog
Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.