Internet from Above

Without much fanfare or publicity, an internet revolution is currently being tested across the world. The launch of Starlink, Elon Musk’s latest enterprise, aims to build upon what SpaceX has already achieved in enabling lower cost satellite launches, seeing the introduction of low orbit satellites that can be used for broadband.

For the past fifteen years up until very recently I was heavily involved the telecommunications industry, with a focus on using copper and fibre technology to deliver high speed networks for both businesses and Internet Service Providers across the UK. We built a platform known as the Data Delivery Network which won a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in 2015 which focussed on improving internet access for remote areas of the UK. The platform achieved this by linking up fibre providers to a central platform which enabled Internet Service Providers to offer a wide range of products in a uniform way. Due to the innovation of the design which arguably was ahead of its time, at times it felt like pushing water up hill, but it was, and still remains, a key way to enable networks in far reaching parts of the country to become profitable, hence providing services to those who were previously out of reach.

Even today, there are around 50,000 dial-up subscribers and millions of homes without access to, what is now considered, fast internet (i.e. 80 Mb/s plus). And while the Government’s ambition to reach 100% of homes with fast internet by 2025 has been largely neglected due to the pandemic, Ofcom’s insistence that 10 Mb/s is to be considered ‘fast’ undermines what homes and businesses need. With the acceleration of online activity both during and post pandemic, the availability of super-fast fibre infrastructure is more important than ever for our country’s future. As I have previously spoken about, the benefits for this investment far out way the money currently being spend on other infrastructure projects like HS2.

Historically, whenever we talked about reaching far away communities, conversation would usually return to mobile networks or satellite broadband – both of which never really met the need. The Government has put a lot of focus on mobile networks to reach far away locations but with the issue of coverage and throughput restrictions it has never been a cheap or long-term solution. It is required that EE, for example, are able to hit 100% land coverage, following their win of the emergency services contract, this in itself is a big ask as usually mobile operators look to cover around 97% of populations not land. Likewise, as more customers use the network, contention has increased which has affected the usability for static users such as homes or businesses.

With the beta testing of Starlink producing promising results, it does look like a completely new solution is going to provide the short to medium term solution we have needed. By launching hundreds of low orbit satellites, up to 40,000 apparently, Elon Musk’s company is solving some of the biggest issues that existing Satellite broadband currently faces such as the very high latency it runs at (for example 800 ms), low data throughput and high costs. Compared to Starlink which is managing in parts of the UK, as part of the trial, 150 Mb/s down and 20 Mb/s up with response rates below 50 ms – comparable to BT’s copper ‘fibre’ product. Couple this with unlimited data downloads and it looks like we have a solution that can now reach far away towns and villages with a much more robust and long-term solution.

As a technology it is a huge advancement and will do wonders for connectivity all over the world, including transport such as aircraft, ships, and trains. It does however provide an interesting conundrum and that is in relation to how busy space is becoming and the ability to launch future rockets through a sky full of very small satellites serving us with cheap, fast, internet access!

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