World Wide Web as a Heavensent: Struggles and Challenges of Global Internet Access
The dream of having internet access wherever you go, be it the heart of Sahara desert, an uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific, or even the South Pole is still a dream. But groups of very ambitious and equally rich people have been trying to make it a reality for decades now. Basically, all it takes is launching enough satellites into orbit and make sure every corner of the Earth is covered by their signals.
Will these efforts eventually succeed? Will the world change as a result? What actually prevents global internet access from becoming a reality today? The very concept faces numerous difficulties. In this feature, we’ll take a look at everything there is to know about global internet access: where the idea came from, how it works, how it can be implemented, and what stands in its way.
What Global Internet Is and How It Began
In 1994, Teledesic, a company backed by Bill Gates himself, proposed a $9 billion solution to the problem of global internet. In collaboration with Boeing, the company planned to send a constellation of 840 active satellites into 700 km orbit. Teledesic’s Daniel Kohn wrote an essay for the Internet Society, where he described network of satellites at low-Earth-orbit transmitting at 26.5–40 GHz.
In Kohn’s vision in any part of the world the network would provide internet speeds comparable to fiber-optic cables. Yet, he misjudged the applicability of said fiber-optics.
“While there is a lot of fiber out there in the world—and the number of places is growing—it is used primarily to connect countries and telephone company central offices. Even in a country like the United States, little of that fiber will be extended for local access to individual offices and homes, which represents 80 percent of the cost of a network. In most of the world, fiber deployment likely never will happen,” the essay reads.
Today, most of us enjoy fiber-optic internet connections, much more than Daniel Kohn forecasted. Moreover, the conventional cable access is now fast enough to put satellite internet to shame. But keep in mind, that it works only for populated areas — large cities and well-developed countries — while certain parts of the world remain disconnected.
By 2002, in total disregard for a substantial financial support and thoroughly worked-out plans, Teledesic abandoned their ambitious goals.
However, the idea didn’t die along with them. In 2011, Google started developing its Project Loon which aimed to provide global internet access via air balloons floating at the height of up to 25 km. Eventually, the company scrapped the idea of a “global” network and decided to utilize the devices only in particular regions where the need for internet access was the most urgent.
Global Internet Is Affordable Satellite Internet
Of course, the idea of using outer space to gain access to the internet isn’t new as satellite internet has existed for years, even though it’s not as widespread as good old fiber-optic lines.
Simply put, one needs a satellite dish pointing at a satellite on a geostationary orbit 22,300 miles above the equator. When you click on a link, the request travels to a satellite that relays it to a Network Operations Center back on Earth that is connected to the actual internet via conventional means, such as fiber-optics. So, the NOC sends your request to the internet, gets the response and sends it back to a satellite that sends it back to you.
In general, there is not much of difference for a user between satellite and landline connections: you can still get your memes and news, and use the same services. But there are certain technical limitations.
First of all, in order to communicate with a satellite up in the sky you have to have what’s called a clear line of sight. In layman’s terms, it means that an obstacle, like a landscape feature, a building, or even a tree, can interfere with the signal, so you have to make sure there’s nothing of that kind anywhere between the satellite and yourself. Moreover, local weather, such as clouds or storms, will affect the quality of your connection as well.
Another problem is the latency. Latency, also known as “ping time,” is the time required for a signal to travel to the satellite, then to the NOC, then back to the satellite, and finally back to your device. Presuming that you are at the equator and the satellite in question is positioned at the geostationary orbit right above your head, the signal will travel 22,300 miles up, then 22,300 miles back to the NOC, then 22,300 miles up to a satellite, and 22,300 miles back to you. This is 89,200 miles to travel. As the signal spreads at the speed of light — 186,000 miles per second — the entire journey will take about 500 milliseconds, or half a second, which you will definitely notice the next time you try to chat with someone on Skype.
Such a delay can be neglectable for simple web-surfing and even downloads, but for things such as VPN, VoIP communication mentioned above, or real-time online gaming, it is crucial.
Finally, the amount of data a satellite can transmit at once is limited, so the more the number of devices trying to communicate with the satellite in question, the lower the internet speed gets for everyone.
Сonsidering those downsides, modern satellite internet offers a considerably inferior experience compared to what most of us got used to have. But there are initiatives aiming to make it just as good and just as affordable as a simple landline.
Key Players Aiming to Build the Global Internet
OneWeb’s initial idea is to place a network of 648 satellites in low-Earth orbit at the 750 miles altitude. As the satellites will be much closer than those at 22,300 mile-high geostationary orbit, the latency is going to be much lower and closer to 20 milliseconds, comparable to conventional landline connection.
The system is also expected to be easy to use. While a regular satellite dish connected to TV has to be aimed precisely at the satellite to get good reception, OneWeb’s device simply needs to be placed on a roof proper side up. Meanwhile, a large number of satellites in orbit will provide reliable connection without the need to aim at one particular spot in the sky. Also, OneWeb will act as a backup link to the internet in case land-based connections in a certain region go out of order.
According to OneWeb CEO Greg Wyler, the deployment of the system will see 7 terabit throughput at stage one, 120 terabit at stage two, and 1000 terabit at stage three.
However, there are concerns about the costs of building such a system, as they may exceed all reasonable expectations. OneWeb President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Béranger told SpaceNews that a single satellite is expected to cost “below $1 million,” which is arguably heart-warming, yet quite vague.
OneWeb’s major competitor is Starlink, a project led by Tony Stark following the Green Goblin path, the great and terrible Elon Musk. Starlink has a substantial edge over OneWeb, since it has access to SpaceX’s own rockets and a plethora of cost-cutting technologies.
In many aspects Starlink’s plan is similar to that of OneWeb, but its total cost is known and is in fact somewhere around $10 billion. One of those billions has already been raised thanks to Google and Elon’s friends. Mr. Musk has already established a satellite lab in Seattle and is serious about making first prototypes and eventually hitting a mark of a total 4,000 units.
Earlier, the company stated that all the satellites will be placed in orbit at the altitude of about 715 miles, and each unit will weigh less than 400 kg. However, after SpaceX filed an application to the FCC, it became known that most of the satellites will be orbiting about 200 miles above the Earth. The units in lower orbit will provide better connection to the most populated areas, while those at higher orbit will cover wider areas. The expected latency is around 25 to 35 milliseconds, and the connection speed will be up to 1 gigabit per second.
In February 2018, the project launched its first two test units named Tintin A and Tintin B to prove the concept viable, but these two satellites won’t necessarily become a part of the actual network. Recently Starlink got an FCC approval, which legally allows them to offer their services “in the U.S. and worldwide.” However, it will matter only when there are at least some services to offer.
Should We Expect a War of Bills?
Even if any (or all) of those plans ever come to fruition, the biggest challenge a global internet access might face is likely to be about regulations, not about the technological problems.
The very technological complexity and expensiveness of an effort to deploy a network of satellites around Earth means that, should it succeed, the entire market will either be monopolized, or split between a handful of enormously rich corporations.
On the other hand, the availability of internet access in any place on the planet would become a direct threat to ISPs and, most importantly, mobile carriers. After all, why would you bother to buy a SIM card and pay for your calls if you can just use some messenger app for the same purposes but at significantly lower price? The same goes for your home internet access: who would bother buying internet from a local provider if there’s internet everywhere, and some say it’s even free?
Of course, mobile carriers and ISPs understand that very well. And it doesn’t look very likely that they would just sit there doing nothing and watching space satellites drive them out of the market. There are several possible scenarios here.
First of all, they all can join efforts and try to lobby a bill that completely bans heaven-sent internet under some pretence. Considering the amount of money at stake, chances are we might even see some international consortium of big communications businesses waging legislative war against satellites and free global internet access. Alternatively, mobile carriers may skip the close-the-ranks part and start lobbying for lots of individual bills that put certain restrictions on global internet.
But of course, those guys who want the internet to become universally accessible are also seasoned entrepreneurs, and probably find the mobile carriers’ lack of faith disturbing. They are well aware of the possible legal resistance they may face in case the space internet access plans stop looking like a pipedream and start looking like something inevitable.
As a result, the fate of global internet access would be in the hands of two or more gangs of lobbyists waging war on each other, so it all comes down to the battle of wallets. Those who have more money are likely to succeed in the end, unless they manage to find some middle ground where everyone is equally happy (or equally unhappy).
The real problem here is that the parties would pursue their own corporate and commercial interests, so the objective needs of their potential and existing customers would go on the back burner.
There is also the second level of concerns: politics. Countries like Russia don’t really care about keeping up their reputation of fun places and have already announced the plans to develop devices that would jam the global internet access signal on their territory, should it ever be deployed. The reason for that is arguably obvious: global internet access cannot be controlled by a government entity, and it has no options of blocking websites or otherwise messing with online content and users.
As for China, another incredibly happy place, Elon Musk believes it would be easier never to try to deploy space internet access there in the first place.
“If they get upset with us, they can blow our satellites up, which wouldn’t be good. China can do that. So probably we shouldn’t broadcast there,” he said.
But again, instead of shooting satellites out of the sky, China could use its international influence to push through an international regulation that imposes restrictions on global internet access. And countries like Russia, North Korea or other people who don’t like the notion of uncontrollable media could join their efforts.
Whichever course the events would take, the appearance of certain regulations for international internet access is inevitable. Even politics and business feuds aside, there are many things that require proper international standardization, like security or broadcasting parameters. Putting certain regulations in place seems like the only way to attain such goals.
Finally, there is the question of privacy. Even today, when down-to-earth internet is quite standardized and the market is relatively stable and calm, abuse of user privacy hits the headlines every now and then, mostly thanks to enormous corporations like Google or Facebook. Ironically, those are the same people who want to launch those giant space WiFi routers to the orbit.
In this regard, there are two basic opinions, and you probably guessed them. Some say that there’s no need to worry about privacy once global internet access is launched.
“Most security issues are concerned with the ability of hackers to break into your business system and retrieve data. While many companies today employ tools to protect their file servers and emails, it’s still important that your ISP is secure as well. With a satellite connection beaming up to some random and unknown spot in the sky from your office it’s quite difficult to imagine some hacker being able to intercept this laser beam,” says Yoav Vilner, co-founder at Ranky, a marketing agency for space-bound companies.
Still, the researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum have a different opinion about satellite internet:
“A huge amount of information is sent unsecured via satellite broadcast data channels. By applying straightforward data analysis it is possible for any attacker equipped with a digital satellite dish and a DVB card PC to derive extensive confidential information on single users as well as to hijack the user’s web identities (e.g., online auction accounts). Many users do not seem to know or to care that broadcasted data can be easily intercepted; moreover even commercial users let high confidential customer related data (e.g. tender calculation details, negotiations with military customers) be sent unsecured via broadcast channels.”
This problem has several possible solutions. Starlink, for instance, is expected to be totally IP-less, and instead, according to Elon Musk, will use something “simpler than IPv6 and have tiny packet overhead.” However, on a grander scale, this again would require some proper standardization.
Finally, if some company manages to prevail over their competitors, completely suppress the resistance from mobile carriers and landline ISPs, and launch all satellites as planned, this would put it in a monopolist position, and therefore will enable it to dictate whatever conditions it finds appropriate or even fun. In order to prevent that from happening, we would probably need a new kind of anti-monopoly legislation that takes all those novel matters into account, and treats data and access as a fundamental resource.
Even though the idea of space internet has gone through several failed attempts, it just seems too good to be thrown away. However, new solutions pose new challenges that span from technological difficulties to international politics and economy.
Still, if the network of satellites around the Earth is deployed, it could become the first step towards establishing reliable internet access in space, which could come in handy when the humankind starts colonizing other celestial bodies, most obviously the Moon and Mars. This, however, is not on the table yet, unlike internet access available in any terrestrial location.
This would irreversibly turn the internet access into one of most fundamental utilities, like water supply or electricity. And, most notably, will make it the first of such utilities to be truly available in any location, provided political ambitions and business interests don’t throw the idea under wraps forever.