LEO technology can connect the unconnected, but capacity questions remain: Broadband breakfast

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2022 — Low-earth orbit satellites could provide life-changing connectivity to rural and underserved customers if they can overcome low cost and stability issues, it has been announced. Dan YorksDirector of Online Content for the Internet Society.

Speaking at an event Friday hosted by the Gigabit Library Network, York explained that LEO technology not only helps connect the two billion unserved people worldwide, but can also help improve connectivity for the underserved.

Traditional geostationary satellites can provide some connectivity, but high latency hinders applications such as video calling or online gaming. LEO offers low-latency, high-speed connectivity that supports real-time communications.

LEO said that in addition to being a temporary solution when fiber is available, it can also provide backup during disasters and other outages. It means DonGigabit Library Network Director.

York acknowledged that LEO satellites have been instrumental in providing connectivity after Hurricane Ian or during the California wildfires.

“Starlink makes it very easy because they can bring one of their trailers to a location, put a Starlink antenna on top, shoot down the connection and then share it locally with Wi-Fi hotspots or cellular hotspots. Such connections are available not only to first responders, but also to people in the community.”

LEO satellites can also use intersatellite lasers to reach some locations without ground stations, York added.

There are three main components of a LEO system. Satellite deposits consist of hundreds or thousands of satellites, orbiting and arranged in a “shell” at various altitudes.

User terminals allow the transmission and reception of data from satellites. The antennas are “electronically controlled,” which means that multiple satellites can be tracked without physical movement.

The final component of a LEO system is ground stations, known as gateways, which are large antennas and structures that connect satellites to the Internet.

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

Still, affordability is a barrier to widespread adoption, York said. Another challenge is competing with mobile operators for spectrum allocation. Recently ISOC made a study discuss these issues and make recommendations to solve them.

The capacity of those connections remains uncertain, York said, pointing to Ookla research showing that Starlink capacity has declined in certain areas.

“How much of this is pain while Starlink continues to build the rest of its star, and how much of it could be an inherent limitation in the system?” he asked. “We don’t know. I guess we won’t know until these systems are up and running.”

Despite these questions, York is optimistic about the promise of LEO technology: “I think that as these systems come online, they can really offer a way to connect the unconnected to us.”

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