It is a 21st-century space competition: Amazon, SpaceX, and others compete to get jobs and offer internet to the most remote places on earth.
And just like the struggle for supremacy in the last century that was triggered by the launch of the Soviet Union of Sputnik 1, this is a satellite. Thousands of them.
More than a dozen companies have asked US regulators for permission to exploit constellations from satellites that offer internet services. Not all are aimed at connecting consumers, but some have large and global ambitions.
“The goal is broadband everywhere,” founder Amazon Bezos said at a conference in June.
With half the world’s population – more than 3 billion people – not using the internet, it is a huge potential market. And there is a clear advantage in the field: having no internet makes it difficult or impossible to apply for many jobs, for children to do homework, for people in remote areas to receive medical care and to participate in the global economy.
But this new wave of remote-based internet is facing obstacles. It is expensive to launch, technologically complex and can prove to be too expensive for the people it hopes to reach.
And then there is space waste. More about that.
Satellite Internet already exists, dominated by a handful of companies such as HughesNet and Viasat with huge, expensive satellites that are 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers) from the Earth and cover large areas on the ground. But the service is expensive and limited, comes with data caps and delays and does not have many users.
The new satellites are smaller, cheaper and closer to the earth, so theoretically signals go faster and applications such as online gaming that require immediate responses would work better. And they have a number of heavy backpacks. In addition to Amazon and SpaceX – the company of the eccentric billionaire and Tesla founder Elon Musk – the race is also accompanied by OneWeb, which is supported by investors such as Virgin founder Richard Branson, the American chip maker Qualcomm and the Japanese technology conglomerate SoftBank.
But the industry is still in its infancy, and at least three years away from widespread commercial services, said Kerri Cahoy, professor of aviation and astronautics at MIT, and even further from earning money.
“I would be surprised if something was profitable within 10 years,” she said. There are also competing efforts to expand connectivity, including Google with its Loon Balloons, solar-powered cell towers made from wind-powered plastic plates, and others working on solar-powered drones.
Satellite companies have to build dishes and antennas that are more complicated and expensive than those for traditional satellites that don’t move. For example, SpaceX has asked US regulators for permission to build 1 million ‘ground stations’ that would help customers connect to the internet.
Caleb Williams, economic analyst at space engineering space company SpaceWorks Enterprises, can only with a viable mass service if the costs of this type of equipment decrease.
The launches have already been reduced: OneWeb once said it would operate in Alaska this year. However, the service is expected to start at the end of 2020.
The logistics to become an internet provider are also not easy. The new generation of space internet companies is more likely to make arrangements with existing telecom companies than try to sell internet services directly, Williams said, because it’s easier than setting up their own sales and marketing operation.
The same telecom companies do not want to build in remote areas because it is too expensive. In 2017, a Federal Communications Commission official estimated that expanding fiber to the approximately 20 million American homes and businesses without broadband would cost $ 80 billion (roughly Rs. 5.70,000 crores). And in developing countries, where the underlying infrastructure is worse, the internet is mainly available via a mobile phone.
The new satellite companies can have an infrastructure alternative that is cheaper for companies to build than cables on the ground. A telecom company has to pay to expand to a handful of customers in a large area, with enormous costs per customer. With satellite, costs can be shared across a larger pool of potential customers around the world. A SpaceX manager in 2018 predicted that it would cost $ 10 billion to implement a constellation of mini-satellites. Bezos predicted that Amazon’s satellite internet arm will cost “several billions of dollars” to build.
Ensuring that people have access to the Internet is, however, only one step to get them online. People must also be able to afford the internet, and people in the countryside are more often poor.
It is not clear what the price will be, but the high cost flooded satellite phone service two decades ago. It could do again on the internet.
“If you had to pay 20 percent or more of your income to go on the internet in a situation where you earn a few dollars a day, you don’t do that because it’s too expensive,” said Martin Schaaper, an analyst at the United Nations Information and Communication Technology Office.
Then there are concerns about the growth of space debris, or “orbital debris,” which could collide with each other and even cause a chain reaction of collisions that make a job “no longer usable”, according to NASA.
SpaceX, for example, says it is trying to prevent it from adding to the clutter by moving satellites to prevent crashes and designing them to burn in the atmosphere when they run out. The space companies have set out their plans to prevent debris with US regulators, but critics say more needs to be done, such as setting up an air traffic control system for space.