The New Outlook for Satellite-Based Internet

by Edward J. Katz and Stagg Newman

This past December, the United Nations reported that more than half of the world’s population–almost 4 billion people–are still without internet access. According to the FCC’s Eighth Broadband Report, 6% of Americans lack access to high-speed internet at “threshold speeds,” and one-fourth of rural residents lack any service. Many in the tech industry, however, have pointed to improved satellite-based internet as a means of providing affordable high-speed service to those who have been excluded. As CNN Business reports, Elon Musk’s SpaceX project Starlink may be the first effort in satellite-based internet that has a shot of being both technologically feasible and economically viable. To learn more, visit CNN Business.

Some in the broadband community dispute some of the findings in the CNN article. According to Stagg Newman, Technical Advisor to the WNC Broadband Project and former FCC Chief Technologist, while the article claims 4 billion people do not have Internet access today and implies that this is due to lack of availability, current research demonstrates that fewer than 1 billion people do not have access to cellular. All cellular networks support access to the internet, although not necessarily at high speed.

Newman observes that “the cost of upgrading and operating a cellular network to high speed is generally much less that cost of upgrading to the type of satellite networks that Musk and others are launching.  The history of satellites networks for data communications is that they are always too little too late, except for those areas that cannot be served by reasonably terrestrial communications”–for example, the open seas, the skies, and very remote locations. “Terrestrial networks,” he notes, “have huge advantages in most parts of the world, including the developing world today.” Terrestrial technology, particularly the electronics, can be easily upgraded as technology changes. A single fiber has more capacity than a satellite; satellites, of course, are hard to service.

For Newman the take-away is that, presently, satellites are great for the niches that terrestrial networks cannot serve, but are not generally cost-effective for any but a very small percentage of the population. In the U.S. credible FCC studies estimate this is less than 1/2 % of the U.S.