In recent years, the service environment for companies seeking to provide internet access through geosynchronous, low earth Orbital, or atmospheric platforms appears to have become more competitive.*

The furthest away of these three categories are geosynchronous satellites, whose orbital altitude of over 22,000 miles allows them to travel over the Earth at the same rate the planet rotates. One company with this model that has recently received attention is ViaSat Inc. According to the Wall Street Journal, ViaSat Inc. already has a considerable service base, covering about 680,000 residential customers and roughly 1,500 airplane flights.

However, the geosynchronous satellite approach has a tradeoff for providers.  These satellites possess a considerable coverage area by nature of their altitude.  For example, a geostationary satellite, which moves in the same direction as the Earth’s rotation and is situated above the equator, “can see approximately 42% of the Earth’s surface . . . .”  Unfortunately for this coverage model, geosynchronous satellites also have an issue with latency, or “the gap in time between the satellite receiving a request and responding . . . .”  That is, it takes a relatively long time for a transmission to make all of the necessary stops to bring the desired content to one’s device.

Closer to home, low-Earth orbital internet platforms seeks to reduce latency by the use of many satellite units.  For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Greg Wyler’s OneWeb are competing to provide internet access in low Earth orbital space—a range between 100 and 1,250 miles above Earth’s surface.  The proposed low-Earth satellites could, according to Wired.com, reduce latency from 500 milliseconds to 20 milliseconds.  While this difference might not seem relevant to someone looking to open up their favorite text-based website, this should change the product experience of those using “real-time or near real-time applications such as online games or teleconferencing tools like Skype.”

However, the downside is that this approach requires more satellites to make up for their diminished individual coverage area. To illustrate, OneWeb reportedly plans to launch “more than 640 satellites by the end of 2019.”  In contrast, ViaSat aims to “hav[e] the fewest number of spacecraft necessary to complete a global footprint,” and the company’s planned ViaSat 3 infrastructure will be comprised of only three satellites. Indeed, the next-generation ViaSat 3 satellite units are expected to wield “more capacity than all the other telecommunications spacecraft in the world,” with “more than a terabit per second of network capacity.”

Finally, the Google-backed Project Loon seeks to provide internet coverage through the use of balloons stationed roughly twenty kilometers above the Earth’s surface.  Project Loon will work alongside “[t]elecommunications companies to share cellular spectrum,” and its balloons will have about an eighty-kilometer coverage area.  However, these units can adjust their height to catch winds in the stratosphere that relocates the platform to a desired location.

Ultimately, it appears that the market for providing atmospheric or orbital internet service has become more crowded.  Fundamentally, it remains to be seen whether this market ecosystem, as it evolves, has a generous carrying capacity.

*There may be additional altitude categories, such as O3b Network’s Medium Earth Orbit satellite infrastructure.  Additionally, the companies mentioned here do not form a comprehensive list of all competitors in this field.

Matthew Gaske

 

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