We look at the research work of Graduate RA student, Matt Graydon.

In 1994, a company called Teledesic launched with the ambitious goal of providing global high-speed internet access through a constellation of nearly 300 satellites in low earth orbit. With its promise of a worldwide “internet in the sky,” Teledesic attracted considerable hype, along with funding from prominent investors like AT&T Wireless and Microsoft’s Bill Gates. Eight years and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on research and development later, however, the company suspended its operations, having never launched a satellite.

A conceptual drawing of a Teledesic satellite. Credit: Orbital ATK

In the years following the failure of Teledesic and similar ventures, the idea of a global satellite internet network was relegated to the sidelines of the telecommunications industry. Instead, companies continued investing billions of dollars in ground-based internet infrastructure, running miles of cables across continents and ocean floors (this complex network can be explored here: https://www.submarinecablemap.com/).

While satellite-based internet found a role serving industry and government needs, as well as providing an option to consumers in areas where wired internet is not available, overall adoption of the technology remains limited due to expense and issues with speed and latency (the delay between a request for data and the start of a transfer).

Twenty-three years after the launch of Teledesic, however, a new batch of satellite internet companies has emerged promising to offer a true alternative to terrestrial internet. By utilizing innovative constellations of small, mass-produced satellites that lower costs and significantly improve latency, these companies claim they will be able to deliver cheap, high-speed internet access almost anywhere in the world.

At the GMTaC Lab, we are following these recent developments in the satellite internet field and looking at the changing landscape of global internet infrastructure, as well as the potential benefits and consequences of connecting the several billion people worldwide who still lack reliable access to broadband internet. As a starting point for this research, we have identified three key emerging satellite internet companies: O3b, OneWeb and SpaceX.

O3b has already launched a network of 12 satellites in medium earth orbit, at an altitude of roughly 5,000 miles. Most internet-providing satellites are in geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of over 22,000 miles; O3b’s arrangement substantially cuts the distance that data needs to travel, and subsequently the latency time. The constellation is currently being utilized by clients ranging from the governments of Nauru and South Sudan to the US Department of Defense. The company was acquired by European telecommunications firm SES in 2016, and aims to launch an additional eight satellites in the next two years.

An illustration of O3b’s satellite constellation. Credit: O3b

Both OneWeb and SpaceX plan to launch large clusters of satellites in low earth orbit. Low earth orbit is only 750 miles high, cutting latency even further. By launching hundreds or, in the case of SpaceX, several thousand satellites, the need to maintain constant contact between the ground station and the satellite is eliminated, as the signal can be bounced between satellites.

OneWeb and SpaceX differ from their predecessors in their plans to produce their own satellites on a mass scale. OneWeb has entered into a partnership with Airbus to manufacture low-cost satellites at facilities in Europe and the US, and claim they will eventually be able to build up to 15 satellites per week. Initial production began at their first facility in Toulouse, France in June 2017. SpaceX, which already builds and launches its own rocket systems, also plans to manufacture its satellites in-house.

The OneWeb satellite production facility in Toulouse, France. Credit: Dominique Eskenazi/OneWeb

Given the checkered history of projects like Teledesic, it remains to be seen if O3b, OneWeb and SpaceX will be successful in realizing their ambitions for a global space-based internet. If they do, it will require us to think about the structure and scope of the internet in new ways.