Over the last few years, satellite internet has grown exponentially, boosting the value of the $366 billion global space economy, which is projected to reach one trillion dollars by 2040. Morgan Stanley predicts that the satellite internet market will account for between 50% and 70% of this growth.
The furious pace of this nascent industry's growth has been startling, but in the final frontier of space, the current lack of strict regulations – or any regulations at all – have allowed companies to move fast and send hundreds and eventually thousands of satellites into space. Morgan Stanley predicts that the per-megabyte cost of wireless data will soon be less than one percent of today's cost. Providers can finally offer lower costs largely due to the fact that satellite launch costs have decreased by a dramatic 85%.
So how exactly does satellite internet differ from terrestrial internet like DSL or fiber? With the new generation of satellite internet providers (Starlink, Amazon, OneWeb), a signal is sent from the internet provider's hub satellite on Earth to the cluster of hundreds of thousands of small telecommunication satellites (referred to as a mega-constellation) orbiting at around 300 miles above the Earth, or what is called low Earth orbit (LEO). These LEO satellites then send a signal back down to a small satellite dish set up at the user's location on Earth.
Traditional satellite internet providers, on the other hand, use only a few satellites (Viasat has a total of four), which orbit at a much further distance, about 22,000 miles above Earth. The clusters of satellites launched by the latest generation of providers, in combination with their close distance to Earth, are designed to offer incredibly high internet speeds, less lag time, and a much more reliable service.
After the first satellite internet service for consumers was launched back in 2003 by Eutelsat, a string of companies cropped up over the next few years, including heavy-hitters Viasat and HughesNet.
Viasat has been a player in the satellite internet market since it launched its first high throughput satellite in 2004. Besides its residential markets in North and South America, Viasat also provides in-flight wifi for many commercial airlines, including American, United, Scandinavian, and JetBlue.
HughesNet has become known as the other main option in the satellite internet business and currently boasts 1.3 million subscribers across North and South America.
In 2014, the concept of grouping together smaller, low Earth orbit satellites into mega-constellations was introduced, with companies like Starlink, OneWeb, and Amazon leading the way thus far.
While Elon Musk's SpaceX is focusing on the moon and Mars, its Starlink division has been quite busy – Morgan Stanley recently estimated the fledgling company's value at $81 billion. Since May 2019, Starlink has launched 955 satellites into low earth orbit, with a planned total of 42,000, and already offers beta services across North America and England, soon to expand to other countries, including Greece and Australia. Beta-testers of Starlink's service in the US have recorded up to 175 Mbps download speed.
Although Starlink may have been the first to secure placement of a mega-constellation in space, Amazon, who is unsurprisingly also preparing to join this new space race in the coming year, recently announced download speeds of up to 400 Mbps in beta testing of its Project Kuiper satellite internet service. In December last year, Amazon finally revealed its antennae design, which appears to be smaller and lighter than Starlink's hardware.
Another competitor is OneWeb, a UK-based firm which, although it went bankrupt in March 2020, still plans to launch a total of 48,000 satellites, with 650 coming online this year, thanks to financial backing by the UK government and several satellite internet firms, including HughesNet.
Although residential services are already becoming available from the newer companies like Starlink ($99 per month, plus $499 installation fee), home users make up only one segment of the market targeted by satellite internet providers. Deloitte & Touche notes that some of the most important applications of satellite internet will span a number of industries and include:
- Better connectivity for the transportation industry (ships, trains, planes)
- Communication backbones for internet of things (IoT) devices for processes such as fleet management and remote maintenance
- Infrastructure or mobile backhaul for other communications companies
- Services for the direct-to-consumer market, including rural and other areas with poor or no service
- Government services, such as education and emergency response
Because a satellite internet signal still needs to be sent into space and back down to earth, lag time (called latency) may be an issue for users who expect or require a super-fast connection. Also, the cost of maintaining satellites – for example, most satellites have a life expectancy of under seven years – is still a potential challenge.
There have also been criticisms from astronomers, who say that because the satellites that make up the mega-constellations feature a bright surface, they reflect the sun very strongly and may unintentionally ruin data and images being captured by astronomers' equipment.
Then there's the issue of space debris. As more companies begin to enter the satellite internet market, thousands more satellites will be launched into low Earth orbit over the next few years. This increasing amount of space traffic can cause collisions with other LEO objects.
Where there are satellite internet providers, a satellite servicing industry is not far behind. Already, a sector of companies is emerging that offer satellite maintenance services, including in-orbit repair, refueling, debris clean-up, and end-of-life services for satellites. As demand for global connectivity continues to rise, the next few years will determine just how sustainable, effective, and affordable satellite internet can truly be.