Satellite internet – in which data is transmitted between a satellite dish on earth and a geostationary satellite in orbit far above the surface of the earth – is well established. It does, however, suffer from high latency (the time taken for data to travel between two sources), slow speeds and strict data caps.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, had announced his intentions to improve satellite internet by creating a network of mass-produced, custom-designed satellites in low-earth orbit. This would provide gigabit speed internet access to users on earth.
In November last year, SpaceX filed plans to put 4,425 satellites into space with the US Federal Communications Commission. The constellation of non-geostationary satellites will orbit in 83 planes from 1,110km to 1,325km above the ground.
The company’s plans were detailed yesterday when Patricia Cooper, VP for satellite government affairs, addressed the US Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology during a broadband infrastructure hearing.
She explained that SpaceX was aiming to get a prototype satellite into space this year, launching another in early 2018 in order to prove that the spacecraft are able to provide broadband internet access. If these prove successful, the ambitious network will begin to be launched in 2019.
“The remaining satellites in the constellation will be launched in phases through 2024,” she added.
To keep the cost of the project as low as possible, the satellites will be mass-produced. They will be sent into orbit with the reusable Falcon 9 rocket to cut launch costs. In March this year, SpaceX proved it was possible to launch a Falcon 9 rocket, use it to send a satellite into orbit, and land it again safely.
US lags behind other developed countries in its broadband speed and affordability, Cooper told the committee.
The thousands of satellites would provide a ‘mesh network’ to deliver high broadband speeds without the need for digging trenches to lay down cables. The latency of this satellite network, she said, would be similar to that of wired internet service, approximately 20 times faster than current satellite-based internet providers.
SpaceX is not the only company aiming to set up an expansive network of internet satellites. WorldVu satellites has proposed putting 648 satellites into orbit in 2018 – the OneWeb satellite constellation – to provide broadband service by 2019.