What comes after Starlink?

Walking through an airport recently I couldn’t help noticing that Starlink is starting to ramp-up its consumer advertising.  I hear different views on whether low-Earth orbit (LEO) Internet connectivity is going to revolutionise telecommunications, but regardless of your view, it is another digital disruption.

I couldn’t help but wonder, what is going to disrupt the disruptors?  But first, it is useful to understand what LEO Internet is and how it differs from previous satellite technologies as well as traditional terrestrial broadband.

Most of us access our Internet, and hence most of our day-to-day communications, either through an optical fibre connection to our home or wireless mobile directly to our devices when we are on the move.  A fibre connection is the gold standard for Internet access simply because it is both fast (today, typically more than 100Mbps) and has low latency (typically less than 10ms).

Most people understand the first number which refers to the speed with which data is received by your device (100Mbps means that you can receive 100,000,000 bits per second).  Increasingly, people are realising that latency also matters because that is the time it takes for an individual ping to be received by a remote server (10ms means that it takes 10 milliseconds for a signal from your device to be received by the provider’s server).  Download speed is important for accessing large volumes of content, such as movies.  Latency is important for real-time communications, like video conferences and gaming to avoid a frustrating lag.

A new LEO approach to communications solves many of the issues that have waylaid previous attempts at satellite Internet, particularly signal strength and latency.  Where most satellite communications have relied on geostationary satellites some 36,000 km away, LEO operates just 500 to 1000km above the surface of the Earth.

While there are a number of companies offering satellite Internet from geostationary orbit, the signal required to reach over 36,000km requires a sizable dish and, more importantly, as fast as the speed of light is, that makes a difference to latency with the fastest services still having a frustrating lag of at least 250ms (and typically well over 500ms).

LEO Internet mitigates both these problems.  By bringing the satellites closer the signal is naturally stronger and the shorter distance brings the latency more in-line with mobile communications (about 20 to 40ms).  However, to deliver LEO you need a large constellation of satellites and only a few global companies have the scale or capacity to take on a project like this.  SpaceX is the current leader with their Starlink product supported by about 4,000 satellites with challenges coming from OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and, more recently, Boeing.

The numbers are staggering, of the approximately 8,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit at the time of writing, 4,000 are part of Starlink!  SpaceX have announced plans for nearly 30,000 satellites in the Starlink constellation in future years.  With other LEO Internet contenders similarly proposing large numbers there are implications for the safety of these devices and even the visual pollution of the night sky.

In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler warned that overcrowding low-Earth orbit could lead to a catastrophic cascade of collisions.  This potential disaster has been dubbed the “Kessler Scenario”.  Some have predicted that we are close to such an event, although the increased manoeuvrability of modern satellites has enabled operators to avoid significant collisions to-date.

Perhaps of even more immediate threat is the risk of bad solar weather.  We have long known of the dangers of solar flares on Earth.  In 1859 the strongest recorded flare disrupted the early telegraph system.  The trouble is, we don’t know if that was an event that occurs once every thousand years or if we are overdue and can expect a repeat any day.  If the same happened now it could disrupt terrestrial systems while destroying satellites.  Already, we saw the largest single destruction of satellites in February 2022 when a miscalculation of the impact of a much smaller solar flare on the atmosphere caused 40 newly launched Starlink satellites to be dragged back to Earth and burn-up in the largest loss ever experienced.

While these are immediate threats, it is also worth thinking about the technology itself and the risk of redundancy.  Most recently there has been substantial investment in quantum communications experiments, entangling photons to transmit data with unparalleled security.  Such a change would render each satellite in a LEO Internet constellation obsolete.

Perhaps if we are truly looking over the horizon we could even ask if we are overdue for a more fundamental revolution in communications.  As amazing as our digital revolution has been, we shouldn’t forget that Marconi’s wireless telegraph of the 1890s uses fundamentally identical radio technology as Starlink and every other communication medium regardless of whether it is broadband over fibre or exchanging messages with the most remote deep space probe.

Remembering that it is almost impossible to visualise an unanticipated technology, some have speculated on exchanging messages using gravitational waves or exotic effects that we are still grappling to understand in the most world’s advanced particle physics laboratories.

Or the future of communications could even involve a more radical departure from today’s approach.  Theoretical physicists, starting with the late Stephen Hawking, are increasingly confident that the fundamental constants of the universe are simple properties of the environment and could even be open to manipulation.  If this were done in a measured way, such manipulation could possibly be used to convey information to a remote receiver.

As outlandish as these ideas sound, it would certainly be foolish to assume that the future of communications contains nothing more than better engineering of unchanging science.

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