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Space Signals: Satellite communications set to revolutionise internet access

August 26, 2015
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The fact that 4 billion people across the world do not have internet access calls for initiatives to make the internet a “global commodity”. Satellite-based internet dissemination services have offered a plausible solution to achieve the objective of “broadband for all”. Satellites have short deployment periods and low capital costs, and are able to provide reliable service. As a result of this, various companies around the world have announced different projects that would use satellites to provide affordable internet access to remote and inaccessible areas.

tele.net takes a look at some of these initiatives…

Google’s Project Loon comprises a network of balloons that float in the stratosphere. Each balloon provides broadband connectivity to a ground area with a diam-eter of around 40 km using long term evolution (LTE) wireless communications technology. The project uses software algorithms to determine the path taken by a balloon and then moves each one into a layer of wind, forming a large communications network. Project Loon has partnered with telecom companies to share spectrum, so that people are able to access the internet directly from their phones and other LTE-enabled devices, at any location.

The project began with a pilot test in New Zealand in June 2013. Thirty balloons were launched from the country’s South Island, providing internet access to a small group of pilot testers. Later, in May-June 2014, Google tested the project in Piaui, Brazil, which was the first LTE experiment and launch to be carried out near the equator. In June 2015, Sri Lanka became the first country to sign an MoU with Google for Project Loon, with the aim of achieving 100 per cent broadband penetration in the country. The balloons are expected to be deployed by end-2015 and the commercial launch of services will begin by March 2016.

As a part of its Internet.org initiative, Facebook has designed an unmanned aircraft named Aquila, which can provide internet access to remote areas. The internet drone will be solar powered and will be able to circle a remote region for up to 90 days at an altitude of 90,000 feet during the day and 60,000 feet at night. Aquila will be deployed using a helium balloon, which will float the drone up to around 70,000 feet, after which Aquila will detach itself. The company has also developed laser technology capable of transmitting data at speeds of over 10 Gbps. This will help create a vast internet network, while the transmission will be conducted via laser from the ground to a drone, as well as from drone to drone.

In January 2015, Elon Musk, chief executive officer, Tesla Motors and Space X, announced his plans to develop a network of satellites to support space-based internet communications. In June, a new facility, SpaceX-Seattle, was launched in Redmont, Washington. The facility is designed for satellite development activities geared towards the introduction of a satellite constellation to provide global internet communications. The communications system is expected to handle the majority of long distance internet traffic. It would be faster than fibre optic-based communications and will have fewer hops between routers. Moreover, to enable global coverage, 4,000 satellites are planned to be set into orbit under this initiative. This will add redundancy into the satellite network, which would minimise the impact of the failure of one satellite on the overall communication system. The first version of the project is expected to be operational in the next five years and successive versions will follow thereafter. It would take 12-15 years for the system to achieve its full capability. To this end, SpaceX received an investment of $1 billion from Google and Fidelity in January 2015.

Growing interest in India

A similar initiative, OneWeb satellite constellation (formerly known as WorldVu), has been launched by WorldVu Satellites Limited, which is supported by a global consortium of companies such as Airbus, Qualcomm, the Virgin Group and Coca- Cola. Bharti Enterprises has recently acquired a strategic minority stake in OneWeb and will have a representation on the board of the company. By 2019, OneWeb aims to build a communications network with an initial constellation of 648 low earth orbit satellites, which will provide connectivity to billions of people around the world. The OneWeb user terminals contain embedded LTE, 3G, 2G and Wi-Fi access capabilities that extend the reach of mobile operators. The system will have more than 10 Tbps of new capacity and will transparently extend the networks of mobile operators and internet service providers to serve new coverage areas.

The Indian government is also considering adopting such satellite-based internet dissemination services to help achieve the objectives of its ambitious Digital India programme. Telecom operators in the country do not have adequate spectrum to service even their existing customers, and the high price of spectrum is forcing operators to allocate maximum bandwidth to metro regions and Tier I towns. Satellite communications can therefore help the country provide affordable broadband services to citizens who are on the other side of the digital divide.

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