“Satellite technology promises to provide internet access regardless of the location, out at sea, in the desert, atop a mountain, or in the open countryside.”
Using a satellite dish pointed towards a geostationary satellite, it is possible to access the internet from anywhere in the world. This alternative to terrestrial communications offers multiple possible uses and is of interest to GAFAM.
Satellite technology promises to provide internet access regardless of the location, out at sea, in the desert, atop a mountain, or in the open countryside. This can help reduce the digital divide in areas with low coverage from terrestrial technologies, all the while providing high internet speed and a high level of service reliability.
The principle of satellite internet is simple. As with mobile telephony, it entails sending and receiving data via relays, which redirect this data to the user’s terminal. Instead of a GSM antenna, the relay is a satellite; the terminal isn’t a smartphone but a modem connected to a satellite dish.
The IP data is sent and received across considerable distances. Geostationary satellites being situated at an orbit of 36,000 kilometres above the Earth, the signal will have made two return trips between the terrestrial internet network and the satellite, i.e. 144,000 kilometres, between the sending of a request and its result.
A consequence of these return trips from Earth to space is that latency is higher than with ADSL solutions, in particular fibre. The dedicated satellites use Ku (Kurz-unten) frequency bands or, even better, Ka (Kurz-above) bands, which enable much higher data speeds, that is to say up to 22 Mbit/s on reception and 6 Mbit/s on sending.
One identified use is internet access in the open seas. Ships have access to port Wi-Fi networks when docked, and to 3G and 4G networks during coastal navigation. These solutions do not currently work out in the open seas. The Iridium satellite phone makes it possible to make a call in the case of an emergency but only provides relatively limited data connection, thus restricting its usage to the sending of emails and instant messages. In order to access IP telephony or online mapping services, pleasure boats, fishing boats and maritime transport ships can be equipped with a satellite antenna coupled with a modem.
5G should also bring broadband to the open seas. 3GPP, a consortium bringing together telecoms operators and providers, is working with satellite managers on standardisation around the new network standard so as to ensure continuity of 5G services, from land to sea. One of the avenues being explored is coverage of the seas from the stratosphere using balloons or drones.
GAFAM at the helm
Just like other areas, the satellite internet market, which has long been invested by satellite operators, could be shaken up by the arrival of GAFAM.
At the origin of the Internet.org initiative, Facebook announced a partnership in 2015 with Eutelsat to deliver the internet to remote areas of sub-Saharan Africa and thus boost the local economic fabric. With its Loon project launched in 2013 (), Google made the choice to democratise access to the internet with a fleet of stratospheric balloons that take their power from sunrays. The digital giants have since made turn back to the satellite option. SpaceX is about to launch its Starlink service, whereas Amazon’s Kuiper offering is raring to go.
Unlike the historical operators, these digital giants are wagering on the deployment of low-orbit satellite constellations. Starlink already has a fleet of nearly 800 satellites to cover the north of the United States and the south of Canada.
In time, Elon Musk’s space company plans to place 42,000 devices into orbit in order to cover the entire planet. Kuiper has similar ambitions. These mega-constellations run the of risk creating space traffic jams, thus NASA recently made objections to this type of deployment.