LEO tech can connect the unconnected, though capacity issues remain: Broadband Breakfast

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2022 — Low-Earth orbit satellites have the potential to provide life-changing connectivity to rural and underserved users if they can overcome affordability and sustainability concerns, it is claimed then yorkDirector of Online Content for the Internet Society.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Gigabit Library Network on Friday, York explained that LEO technology could not only help connect the 2 billion underserved people around the world, but also improve connectivity for underserved populations.

Traditional geostationary satellites can provide some connectivity, but high latency hinders uses like video calling or online gaming. LEO provides low-latency, high-speed connections that support real-time communications.

In addition to being a temporary solution during fiber buildouts, LEOs can provide redundancy during disasters and other outages, says Tang meaningDirector of Gigabit Library Network.

York agrees, noting that LEO satellites have played an important role in providing connectivity after Hurricane Ian or during the California wildfires.

“Starlink makes this super easy because they can take one of their trailers to a location, put a Starlink antenna on top, turn off the connection, and then they can talk locally to a Wi-Fi access point or a cellular access point Share it so people can get that connection — first responders, and people in the local community.”

York added that LEO satellites could even provide connectivity to certain locations that lack ground stations by using intersatellite lasers.

The LEO system consists of three main components. Satellite constellations consist of hundreds or thousands of satellites that are launched into orbit and arranged in “shells” of varying heights.

User terminals facilitate the transmission and reception of data to and from the satellites. The antennas are “electronically steerable,” meaning they can track multiple satellites without moving.

The final LEO system component is the ground station, also known as a gateway, which are large antennas and facilities that connect satellites to the Internet.

Advances in rocket technology are driving the increase in the number of LEO satellites, York said. SpaceX, for example, is reusing rockets, reducing launch costs. The relatively small size of LEO satellites means they can be mass-produced using assembly lines.

However, affordability remains a barrier to widespread adoption, York said. Another challenge is competition with mobile telcos for spectrum allocation. ISOC recently published a study that discusses these issues and makes recommendations to address them.

There is still some uncertainty about the capacity of those connections, York said, noting anecdotal reports and Ookla research that suggest Starlink has seen capacity declines in some areas.

“As Starlink continues to build out the rest of its constellation, how many of these are growing pains, and how many of these may be inherent limitations within the system?” he asked. “We don’t know. I think we probably won’t know until more of these systems are up and running.”

Despite these issues, York is optimistic about the future of LEO technology: “I think these systems have huge potential, and when they come online, they can really give us a way to connect the unconnected.”

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