Despite popular belief, most of today’s smartphones don’t connect directly with satellites orbiting our planet. The vast majority connect to nearby cell towers rooted in the earth. For the everyday consumer, space-based communications are largely limited to phone packages for use during localized emergencies when network coverage is down, or on remote camping trips via specialized “sat” phones.
But in our hyper-connected and increasingly hybrid world, the need for more sophisticated communication is now required. Indeed, from an individual perspective, one of the biggest demands we place on our mobile phones and computers is better connectivity and access to the internet, anytime and anyplace.
Apply the potential of unrestricted internet access through a government and business lens, and the results are even more transformative – from helping intelligence and security services and offices operate in isolated regions, to environmental agencies conducting research in remote parts of the planet.
As investment and use cases in space-based comms continue to increase, it leaves the world asking, is space the great connectivity enabler? Could the answer to the future of communications really lie in the stars?
Who’s winning the space-based comms race?
Space-based communications is enjoying a period of sustained investment, and the tech is becoming significantly advanced. Private sector funding in space-related companies eclipsed $10 billion in 2021, while the EU announced ambitious plans to invest €6 billion in space communications at the beginning of 2022 as we move more operations into space.
Although household names such as DIRECTV (television broadcasting) and Sirius XM (satellite radio service) represent concrete examples of satellite comms in the mainstream, continued investment is giving rise to more innovative and forward-looking space-based comms.
Companies such as Iridium and Viasat handle highly specialized public and private sector workloads. Space X’s Starlink is perhaps the most recognizable player in the space-based comms race. Starlink’s aim is to provide affordable internet access to everyone, anywhere in the world, and its service has grown rapidly over the past four years, with more than 3,000 satellites in orbit and over 500,000 customers since 2019. It has clearly demonstrated its influence, reach, and resiliency as the communications network helping Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion.
Low-orbit earth satellites and SD-WAN combine
The pros of satellite services are clear: with blanket coverage across our planet, it’s conceivable that one day every square inch will be covered. From an environmental perspective, they’re almost completely fueled by solar power, and can be more cost-effective for communication over long distances.
As a WAN access technology though, satellite communication does experience its fair share of obstacles. For example, because signals must travel into space and back down to earth, there is the inescapable physics of latency eroding performance.
Additionally, some providers tend to rely on packet manipulation, such as queuing, to deliver a higher quality service. However, when this is combined with business–focused overlay technology – such as SD-WAN – the packet manipulation can damage network performance.
Fortunately, several providers have developed ways around this. Starlink’s technology specifically uses low-earth orbit systems that operate physically closer to earth, which greatly reduces latency and the associated heavy processing demands of traditional satellites. This is making it possible to easily integrate space-based access paths into existing terrestrial SD-WAN networks.
The result: low latency and high bandwidth communications capable of reaching the most remote locations on the planet, where the internet was previously inaccessible. The idea is, anywhere you can see the sky, you can access the internet.
The next evolution in space commercialization
MetTel’s successful deployment of SD-WAN on SpaceX’s Starlink service signals a continuing shift as space-based comms transitions to a cloud-based, software-centric approach.
And more widely, Starlink’s investment reflects the increasing commercialization of space, as it becomes a major provider of global communications.
According to Harvard Business Review, “95% of the estimated $366 billion in revenue earned in the space sector was from the space-for-earth economy” – goods or services produced in space for use on earth, such as telecommunications and internet infrastructure, earth observation capabilities, and national security, among others.
Next we’ll see much greater emphasis on the space-for-space economy as humanity moves out to the moon, Mars, and other destinations in our solar system. These new habitats will require the same types of IT infrastructure as we have on earth, as well as connectivity back to earth.
Ultimately, as mass production and competition continue to drive down costs, space-based comms will bring business-grade connectivity and network management to anywhere on earth – and beyond – without the need for the costly extension of terrestrial networks to remote locations.