Satellite internet could fill the broadband gap

After years of huge promises, broadband internet powered by thousands of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites is closer than ever to reality, several experts say.

Satellite internet is getting cheaper to manufacture and easier to install in customers’ homes and businesses, these experts said, adding that it has become more reliable and less prone to interference.

Jonathan Cannon, a technology and innovation policy adviser at the R Street Institute think tank, said satellite internet has thus moved beyond the “proof-of-concept stage”.

“This is no longer theoretical,” Cannon said during a panel discussion at the State of the Web conference in Washington, D.C. last week. “This is real technology in space.”

LEO satellites typically orbit the Earth at altitudes of 1,200 miles or less, but some companies that provide satellite internet want even lower altitudes. Darren Achord, director of public policy for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, said during the conference that the company hopes to deploy about 3,200 satellites about 600 kilometers (about 372 miles) above Earth’s surface.

Deploying satellites at that level reduces latency for ground receivers, which also helps to use spectrum more efficiently, Achord said. While the average subscription price of $110 per month for a satellite connection is higher than for fiber, he said Amazon is focused on keeping prices down, including the upfront cost of the device. Competition among suppliers will also reduce costs, Cannon added.

“Low price is in our DNA,” Achord said, noting that the receiver’s new antenna is one-third the size of the old one. “We know there is demand there,” he added. The Kuiper program plans to launch its first two satellites in the coming months.

Satellite internet joins fiber optics, wireless and other technologies in a crowded connectivity market. But it can play a role in connecting people in rural and underserved areas. Even though fiber remains the “best and most efficient way” to connect people in most areas, Cannon said that’s not the case everywhere.

Achord agreed, saying satellite internet could be a “complement” to other technologies such as wireless, especially in “areas where customers cannot be reached by traditional networks”. In cities and other areas where fiber optic offerings are already strong, satellite internet may not be necessary, he said. “Where there’s fiber, there’s wireless, satellite,” he said.

Both Cannon and Achord called for policymakers to remain “technology neutral,” which did not suggest a preference for one method of connectivity over others.

The use of satellites for connectivity has also excited farmers, who say satellites are essential for precision agriculture, which helps map fields to guide machinery and quickly process data on soil acidity or water levels. Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said last week at the INCOMPAS policy summit in Washington, D.C., that he thinks satellites will become “widely accepted” in rural areas in the next few years for those reasons.

Not everyone is convinced about the promise of satellite internet, at least not yet. Last year, in response to the FCC releasing a first draft of its new broadband map, the open internet nonprofit Public Knowledge said the draft “misleadingly indicated that the vast majority of the country” was served by satellite. While the group’s letter says satellites are “theoretically capable of serving most of the country,” in practice, the provider is unable to provide service at broadband speeds.

That confusion prompted another player in the satellite internet market, SpaceX, through its Starlink program, to write to the FCC earlier this month to clarify how it collects data for a national broadband map.

In a letter to the FCC, SpaceX senior advisor Shea Boyd said the company “developed the availability data based on the technical capabilities of the Starlink system and a careful review of the program’s governing rules.” Assumptions about fiber optics used in map data collection “do not apply” to satellite systems because they are capable of serving a wide range of users and are limited only by available capacity, which is driven by local subscription levels, Ide said.

Federal officials tasked with helping to bridge the digital divide say a repeat of the funding currently provided through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program is unlikely, and that the government will need participation from all different technologies to ensure their efforts bear fruit.

“This is a big moment,” National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson said in an on-stage interview with State of the Net. “We’re not going to get tens of billions of dollars to do this again. This is our opportunity to connect everyone, and we need a lot of help.”

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