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Digital Disruption via Space: High-Speed Internet Access through Satellites

| by Ben Linders Follow 25 Followers on Aug 02, 2018. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

Satellites are enabling high speed access to the internet in rural areas, on airplanes, and for internet service providers to the core network. Space technology innovations like electric propulsion, digitalization revolutionize telecommunications and new entrants like SpaceX are forcing launch costs down. These developments will enable new services and lower the costs of existing ones.

The Satellite Industry Association has testified for rural broadband coverage. SIA President Tom Stroup stated:

Satellite communications services are positioned to be the keystone for bringing 21st century broadband capabilities to the entirety of the United States. These services are capable of providing broadband to rural and remote areas of the country where it remains uneconomical for terrestrial services to deploy, and provide both speeds and prices comparable to terrestrial alternatives.

According to the Wall Street Journal, airlines, plane makers, communications providers and equipment suppliers are collaborating to pursue upgraded internet access on airplanes with faster speed and improved user experience:

Mobile operators world-wide would be able to extend service directly into airliner cabins, allowing passengers to use their phones, tablets or other devices to seamlessly connect to the web while airborne.

As envisioned by proponents, connections would be available for an array of devices using various mobile networks, just the way Wi-Fi hot spots now work on the ground. Connection speeds, rivaling the fastest cable access, would be comparable with those expected with widespread rollout of commercial fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular service across the U.S.

The European Space Agency (ESA) stated that access to the internet is by satellite in many countries:

Internet service providers often link their servers to the core of the Internet network by satellite. With the emergence of very powerful broadband satellites, users – equipped with their own broadband interactive satellite terminals – will get access to the Internet regardless of their distance from the nearest terrestrial node.

Christophe de Hauwer, chief strategy & development officer at SES, spoke about digital disruption through space at Spark the Change France 2018. InfoQ is covering this event with articles, summaries, and Q&As.

InfoQ interviewed de Hauwer about the market for space industry and satellites, how space technology innovation is revolutionizing telecommunications, and opportunities in aerospace, defense and telecommunications.

InfoQ: How does the market of space industry and satellite look?

Christophe de Hauwer: The space industry is thriving: according to Morgan Stanly, the global space economy is predicted to grow from $350 billion in revenues today to more than $1.1 trillion by 2040.

This impressive growth is driven by an exploding demand for connectivity. Global IP traffic is predicted to grow by 20% annually from 2010 to 2040, which means over 5 trillion of Gigabytes will be consumed each month by 2040.

While we see this explosion of demand, we need to be reminded that nearly 4 billion people are still offline today, living without the opportunities and advancements that the internet brings. This is something we need to solve now, not in 20 years.

Satellite technology is at the heart of the answer to both exploding demand and connecting the unconnected. On one hand, satellite will be key to satisfy consumers’ demand for always-on, high-performance connectivity. On the other hand, it will play an essential role in providing connectivity to populations in underserved and unserved areas.

The InfoQ summary Spark the Change: Sparkling Disruptions explored how space technology is innovating. The industry is changing from projects done by large government organizations to smaller companies and investments in startups doing space projects. Satellites are becoming fully digitized, lowering their weight and space required, which changes the type of services that are possible, provides flexibility, and lowers the costs of existing services.

InfoQ: How is space technology innovation revolutionizing telecommunications?

De Hauwer: The space industry has just entered a new era. The arrival of new space ventures has spurred technological innovation and drastically changed economics - for example, new entrants like SpaceX are forcing launch costs down significantly.

Many other space innovations are playing a key role in this revolution: electric propulsion means satellites can achieve a 40-50% reduction in their mass; high-throughput spot beams deliver a significantly higher amount of bandwidth than traditional satellites and can reduce cost per bit ; fully new digitized payloads enable increased efficiency, full flexibility in global coverage and further optimization of spectrum use.

InfoQ: What opportunities do you see in aerospace, defense, and telecommunications?

De Hauwer: If we take the aeronautical industry as an example, airlines are facing growing demands for inflight connectivity: market studies have shown that 63% of travelers think more flights should offer Wi-Fi, and 48% think Wi-Fi in the air should be as fast as it is on the ground. We are shaping and scaling our satellite fleet in order to deliver both the performance and economics needed to take these services mainstream. Whether a plane is travelling along densely populated routes or vast areas of deserts, we want to have them covered with the right kind of connectivity, always on, everywhere.

InfoQ: How does the culture at SES foster innovation?

De Hauwer: SES is building on two crucial elements when it comes to innovation: We want to pioneer and lead the market on new developments in rocket or satellite technologies - like launching on reusable rockets and introducing electric satellite propulsion. And we want to catalyze the markets and ecosystems we serve by working with partners in the entire value chain - like with antenna manufacturers in the mobile reception on ships and planes, or TV and decoder manufacturers in the video segment and the deployment of HD and Ultra HD television. This pioneer and partner model allows injecting innovation into the market.

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