August 2023

 

In recent years, companies worldwide have invested substantial sums in developing and implementing internet via satellites. This seemingly groundbreaking technology promises global internet coverage, even in remote areas, and aims to create new possibilities for communication and connectivity. However, what advantages does this technology actually offer in Germany? Can a satellite internet contract be an innovative and high-performance alternative to our traditional mobile and landline contracts?

To answer these questions, this article examines how internet via satellites works and assesses the performance of satellite networks compared to stationary networks to determine if they have the potential to be a viable alternative. Finally, we look at why companies are willing to invest millions in this technology and what potential they see in such investments.

How does internet via satellites work?

Satellite technology can be analogously considered to mobile technology: electromagnetic waves within a predefined frequency range are utilized for data transmission. The construction of the three-dimensional network is achieved through the collaboration of satellites and terrestrial networks. Due to their low-earth orbit (LEO) at approximately 200-2,000 km above the Earth’s surface and the resulting lower latency in data transmission, the focus for building the satellite network is increasingly on LEO satellites. In contrast, the more commonly known geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellites, primarily used in meteorology, military applications, and telecommunications, orbit at a distance of approximately 36,000 km from the Earth.

Satellite technology

In addition to the satellites, a functional internet connection requires corresponding ground stations and the appropriate end-user equipment. There are two options for this. (1)

  1. Direct connection to individual households: Satellite antennas are installed externally on the buildings of end-users to receive and transmit the satellite signal, similar to satellite television reception. The satellite antenna receives the signal and then transmits it to a modem. This modem processes the data, enabling internet access. (2)
  2. Central ground station/network operations center (NOC): Data connectivity with the satellite is established and managed through this central hub station. Multiple antennas are interconnected to meet the needs of connected households. Individual households are then supplied with internet access through a local Wi-Fi network connected to the central station, eliminating the need for each household to have its own satellite dish. Alternatively, the ground station can be connected to a cable or fiber-optic network through which users are connected. (3, 4, 5, 6)

Satellite technology

 

While in the coverage area of a satellite, an internet connection can be established, theoretically enabling widespread availability. However, this comes with the challenge that LEO satellites are only reachable from the Earth for a brief period due to their high speed. Therefore, creating a comprehensive and optimally arranged network of satellites is necessary to facilitate continuous communication between them. (7, 8) This also means regular handovers are necessary between satellites as well as to ground stations on the Earth’s surface to ensure a continuous connection. The mechanism here is essentially the same as that of a mobile phone moving between cell towers or radio cells, such as during a highway drive. The difference in the case of LEO satellites is that the satellites, analogous to the mobile phone towers in this analogy, are in motion, while the ground station, analogous to the mobile phone, remains “stationary.”

Additionally, some pioneering companies are currently exploring optimizing satellite-to-satellite communication through laser technology in the form of free space optical communication (FSOC). FSOC involves transmitting data using an unguided light or infrared beam, requiring a clear line of sight between the transmitter and receiver since it’s a point-to-point connection. While this technology has the potential to transport data 25-30 percent faster than fiber optics, it is still in the experimental stage. (8, 9)

Is the performance of a satellite network comparable to conventional mobile and landline networks?

From the perspective of users, the question arises whether internet via satellites can become an innovative alternative to traditional mobile and landline contracts. However, when comparing satellite technologies to stationary networks, a significant variance in performance becomes evident.

Looking at available bandwidth, mobile networks with speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s and fiber optics with speeds of up to 10 Gbit/s far outperform satellite networks, which offer speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s for LEO satellites and up to 25 Mbit/s for GEO satellites. Internet connections via satellites also suffer from the disadvantages of a so-called “shared medium.” The available bandwidth is divided among the users, meaning customers can only achieve “up to” data rates – if too many users access the available broadband capacity, the transmission rate decreases. For instance, Starlink has implemented a “fair use policy” for customers in the USA and Canada, which throttles the transmission rate if users exceed 1 TB of data usage in a month. (10) Additionally, Starlink can prioritize data transmission, which can result in “heavy users” being deprioritized.

Latency, often referred to as “response time,” is twice the signal propagation time between sender and receiver. Cable internet connections typically achieve 10-40 ms latencies, while fiber optic internet can reach latencies of under 15 ms for end-users. GEO satellite latency is 500 ms plus processing time, whereas LEO satellite latency can be as low as less than 30 ms, making it comparable to traditional cable connections. Higher latency implies that tasks such as loading a website may take several seconds, or delays can occur during video conferences. In one-way communication scenarios, latency is less noticeable compared to bidirectional connections. (11,12)

Therefore, the higher latency of GEO satellites is sufficient for web applications like data transfer or browsing, but it remains too high for interactive real-time applications such as online telephony or online gaming. On the other hand, GEO satellites have the advantage of covering approximately one-third of the Earth’s surface, allowing a signal to reach the receiver even at great distances with a maximum of only two intermediate stops, minimizing processing time. In contrast, the latency of cable-based communication suffers from the number of intermediate stops over longer distances. However, despite optimistic assumptions about future developments, the satellite network represents only 0.24 percent of the download capacity of a nationwide fiber-optic network in Germany, meaning that at most 0.13 million 1 Gbit/s connections could be realized via satellite. In contrast, fiber-optic and 5G networks have the potential to achieve full coverage. (13) The anticipated latency of under 1 ms for 5G is currently far from achievable via satellites but is an area of research.

Another crucial factor to consider is the cost. At first glance, the costs for internet via satellites may appear similar to cable-based internet. Entry-level plans are already available for €13-30 per month, but these typically come with a limited data allowance. (14) As usage increases, so do the costs. For instance, a volume of approximately 100 GB can cost around €70 or more per month for satellite internet. For example, with Starlink, a plan offering a bandwidth of 150 Mbit/s in the downstream and 10 Mbit/s in the upstream can cost €99 per month. Additionally, the required hardware is more expensive than fixed-line or mobile services, as the antenna and modem need to be rented for around €10 per month or purchased for a one-time fee of up to €500 during the contract period. Installation costs may also apply in some cases.

  LEO GEO Fiber Mobile (5G)
Bandwidth < 100 Mbit/s < 25 Mbit/s < 1-10 Gbit/s < 1 Gbit/s
Latency < 30 ms 500 ms < 15 ms < 30 ms
Relative costs High Intermediate Low Low

Before satellites become established in everyday use for businesses and end-users, additional aspects require long-term solutions.

Firstly, the manufacturing costs per LEO satellite are relatively high, although cost-effectiveness has improved with the introduction of cost-effective nanosatellites. Secondly, a large number of satellites are required because each LEO satellite must orbit the Earth at a speed of approximately 27,000 km/h to maintain a stable orbit, which means it is in contact with the ground transmitter for only a short period. (15) Indeed, the relatively short operational lifespan of 5-7 years for LEO satellites, due to their proximity to Earth and the resulting significant atmospheric friction, adds to the overall cost factor. (16) This creates another challenge for companies: space debris and its alignment with sustainability initiatives. When satellites are no longer operational, they are remotely controlled to deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere. However, sometimes satellites collide or fail, leading to the creation of space debris. Nevertheless, satellites are becoming increasingly attractive to companies, especially in telecommunications.

What potential do companies see in the possibility of internet via satellites?

Global network coverage

LEO satellites offer a means to achieve complete global network coverage, including isolated or sparsely populated areas such as oceans, remote regions, trains, or airplanes. As a result, areas and processes such as environmental monitoring, smart agriculture, mining, oil and gas extraction, shipping, asset tracking and logistics, transportation, public infrastructure management, and drone utilization can be optimized and, in some cases, drastically transformed.

Integration of satellite communication into mobile phones

Furthermore, the LEO satellite network can establish connections to regular smartphones via satellite dishes or modems and provide them with connectivity. Conventional mobile phones typically cannot receive frequencies or signals from satellites, but there are initial developments toward integrating satellite communication into mobile phones. One example is SpaceX’s Starlink project, which plans to establish direct satellite connections through standard consumer devices. This involves integrating special antennas and modems into mobile phones to receive satellite signals, enabling seamless transitions to and from terrestrial mobile networks. Both Apple and Motorola have already introduced functional smartphones with communication interfaces to satellite networks. Samsung has also announced plans to expand its models in this direction. (15, 16) This can potentially create global connectivity in areas such as transportation, energy, and healthcare. Additionally, satellite internet would promote redundancy during network outages, such as maintaining communication pathways during natural disasters. In this context, Deutsche Telekom successfully transitioned from terrestrial 5G networks to orbit and back. In collaboration with technology companies Intelsat and Skylo, initial use cases were presented at the Mobile World Congress 2023. (17, 18, 19)

Revenue potential

Furthermore, satellite technology offers significant revenue potential. Manufacturing costs are decreasing due to continuously evolving production methods such as 3D printing and new materials. Additionally, the lower orbit with reduced radiation exposure allows for the use of cheaper components and requires less energy to establish a data connection. Lower network construction costs are often associated with lower data costs for end consumers. In theory, there is a substantial number of potential customers. According to the Broadband Atlas, there are approximately 4.4 million households in rural areas, 22.7 million in urban areas, and 13.6 million in semi-urban areas. However, only about 19 percent of households in rural areas have access to 100 Mbit/s internet. This is because reaching the last few percent of the population has proven difficult and costly with current solutions. According to estimates by Elon Musk, there are approximately 4 billion people worldwide without high-speed internet access, and satellite services offer revenue potential ranging from $30-50 billion annually (15) once fully operational.

Emerging solutions for space debris

There are also initial solutions emerging for challenges such as space debris. For example, the US startup Rogue Space is currently developing intelligent robots that can analyze malfunctioning satellites in space, repair them if needed, and move them to a lower orbit where they will burn up if the repair attempt fails. Additionally, there are advancements in satellite construction that optimize the process of burning up in the atmosphere. While the industry is still in its early stages, the untapped revenue potential for space debris removal was recently estimated at $2.9 billion by the research firm Research and Markets. If governments impose stricter regulations on companies for debris removal, the demand for solutions could quickly increase. (20, 21)

Conclusion

Given the current state of satellite internet and the associated potentials and challenges, it remains questionable whether satellites can replace our conventional mobile and landline connections in the future. Although satellite internet has evolved in recent years regarding latency, gigabit capacity, and cost-efficiency, it is still considered a niche technology. The lack of demand is likely attributed to inherent system limitations or the offerings in terms of performance (price, data volumes, information deficit) rather than a lack of market potential.

Nevertheless, an investment in satellite internet can be meaningful for telecommunications companies, as the technology offers potential for further development, providing opportunities for future network expansion and closing service gaps. Furthermore, the technology can positively contribute in other ways, such as serving as a backhaul for internet access on airplanes. In the market, it is evident that many companies have recognized the potential. In recent years, several players, often operating publicly, have emerged to secure a leading position in this field, aiming to achieve a competitive, almost unrivaled position. In a follow-up article, we will examine which companies are involved, what they communicate, and which actors operate more in the background but should not be forgotten.

Bibliography:

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  23.  [SS1]I would use English quotation marks for everything since this is in English. Please correct this one and the ones below.

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