|Upgraded Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket lifts off in September, 2013. Image: Wikipedia|
Another day, another SpaceX launch. On Thursday morning, after three delays earlier in the week, SpaceX successfully launched its latest Falcon 9 to drop off some low-earth-orbit satellites.
Along with the main payload of an imaging satellite to provide data for the Spanish Ministry of Defense, SpaceX also unloaded two smaller satellites that will test out technology for the company’s planned Starlink project: an internet infrastructure made out of thousands of low-earth satellites to bring high-speed internet to the most underserved corners of the planet.
Satellite internet isn’t a new concept, but Elon Musk’s plans differ from the current options. Right now, satellite internet is provided via large satellites in geostationary orbit very high above the earth. Subscribers get a dish on their house that draws in the signal, allowing them to connect to the internet in remote and rural areas where other options, like fixed wireless or cable internet, aren’t available.
But this kind of service has a lot of problems. The distance between the geostationary satellite and the one on the side of your house is so far that there’s often a lag in service, making it difficult to do things like stream video. Weather and atmospheric conditions can also block the signal. And despite the lag and inconsistency of service, they’re often very expensive options.
For Starlink, the plan is instead to create these huge networks of many small satellites constantly moving in very low earth orbit. This would, theoretically, reduce the lag time and improve the speed and consistency. Other companies, such as Iridium, have similar plans to build these kinds of networks.
For these projects to work, there will have to be advanced communication and navigation between the satellites, since it will require thousands—in SpaceX’s case, more than 10,000—of sats to cover enough area to be useful.
In areas where broadband access is limited or nonexistent, this could provide a new option for getting online. But at the end of the day, no technology can top fiber-to-the-premises internet. While ambitious projects to build constellations of small satellites to cover the globe in high-speed connection will certainly help close the digital divide, we can’t lean on these as an excuse to stop investing in long-lasting, gold-standard infrastructure.