Is a World Wide Web Even Possible?
Roopinder Tara posted on March 27, 2018 |
Astranis plans to launch smaller, cheaper satellites to blanket the Earth with Internet coverage.

The infrastructure most used by the modern world is not steel and concrete highways, rather it is the wires and wireless of the Internet. While the concrete highway may have brought you into the office, it is very likely the information highway will keep you working.

Putting smaller, cheaper satellites into geostationary orbit the plan for Astranis. (Image courtesy of Astranis.)
Putting smaller, cheaper satellites into geostationary orbit the plan for Astranis. (Image courtesy of Astranis.)

Instant Internet access, seen as a birthright for us in offices and homes in major metros of America and Europe, makes it hard to accept how spotty Internet coverage is for vast expanses of the world and that it is denied to billions of people. Reading this, you may be oblivious to the 23 percent of U.S. residents and over 4 billion people globally with little or no Internet coverage.

For example, Internet coverage is nonexistent in central Africa and Australian Outback. It is at its best spotty in rural America… We’re only on the A’s, but the list goes on… Get a few miles outside of most cities in industrialized countries or get in your car or on your flight and watch the bars drop and dreaded “no coverage” appear.

The Submarine Cables

Internet infrastructure. Submarine cables that carry 99 percent of the world's Internet data. (Image courtesy of https://www.submarinecablemap.com/.)
Internet infrastructure. Submarine cables that carry 99 percent of the world's Internet data. (Image courtesy of https://www.submarinecablemap.com/.)

As many surf wirelessly, more often than not—maybe using the cloud—it may surprise Internet users to learn the world happens to be connected with an almost primitive and underwater means: copper wires in cables that lie on the ocean floor. From the diameter of a soda can to a screwdriver handle, depending on depth, these submarine cables handle 99 percent of the Internet data. Once onshore, the data finishes the trip underground with fiber-optic cable, if you’re lucky—more copper if you are not. Together, the high-speed, high-bandwidth data routes comprise the Internet backbone. That’s what your wireless network, cloud data centers and Internet service provider all plug into.

Of course, to tap into a submarine cable, it helps to be near the coast. On the map of the Internet infrastructure, see the submarine cables snake around Africa. It was a route Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese explorer, made more than 500 years ago. Cables splice into the submarine cables and go inland. But geography, politics and strife can get in the way. 

Rwanda, best known for the 1994 genocide, struggles to plug into the Internet and give its again burgeoning population a shot at the modern economy. The landlocked country’s nearest link to the Internet is to the East, through Kenya, where coastal Mombasa connects to the submarine cable.

So, Rwanda gets all its Internet access from satellites, which is slow and expensive. 

Why We Don’t Have Internet for Everyone

It’s about the money. While Internet providing satellites can be considerably smaller than the $100 million satellites that NASA sends up, defying gravity is not cheap. Every pound costs dearly. Being the size of a mini fridge—as startup Astranis has proposed—as opposed to a bus helps but having a thousand satellites in near-Earth orbit could still mean a thousand rocket launches that require a working space program.

Both SpaceX and OneWeb plan on a large number of satellites in low-Earth orbits to counter latency, which they see as the big problem in satellite-based Internet. A low-Earth orbit is defined as anywhere from 100 miles to 1,250 miles.

Astranis, a 20-person San Francisco startup and the latest company to try to blanket the Earth with satellite coverage, is betting on geostationary orbit, a particular kind geo-synchronous orbit with a precise circle 26,199 miles from the center off the Earth on the same plane as its equator. Due to variations in curvature, magnetic field, solar wind and other factors, the distance from the equator to any satellite is approximately 22,300 miles.

Led by cofounders John Gedmark, CEO, and Ryan McLinko, chief technology officer, Astranis benefited from what might be considered a windfall investment of $18 million by Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz— a good start for a company trying to cover near space with satellites.

“With geosynchronous orbit, you can start with just one satellite,” said Gedmark in an interview with Spacenews.com. “It’s not like low-earth orbit, where you need a constellation.”

Gedmark added that Astranis’ first satellite will cost in the “tens of millions” of dollars, but mass producing them will bring the costs way down.

The company is a way away from bringing the Internet to the billions without it as its first foray into space will only serve to connect rural America. Also, the latency issues endemic to a geosynchronous orbit remain a puzzle yet to be solved.

Satellite networks, called constellations, is an investment on the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars. It takes deep pockets to play in space. Previous ventures have been led by celebrity entrepreneurs: Elon Musk with SpaceX and Richard Branson with OneWeb. They dare to go where even Bill Gates’s did with Teledisc, which failed and went bankrupt— as did companies that wanted to bring satellite phones to the world, such as Globalstar and Iridium. 

What Is Geostationary Orbit?

If you were able to see satellites in geostationary orbit, you would see them crowded into a ring around the Earth. They were put up there by many countries. They should be maintaining a certain distance from each other, which was established by an international treaty.

An attempt to claim the space above them, space that would have included the satellite belt, by several equatorial nations has been ignored.

What makes a geostationary orbit desirable is that ground stations (NOCs) can point their receivers and transmitters at one spot, with minuscule variation, and leave them there. A satellite that appears to be circling the sky has to be tracked. 

Geostationary Orbit Is Not Sci-Fi

Arthur C. Clarke, renowned sci-fi writer, also was an ace mathematician and the first to have espoused a geosynchronous orbit. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Arthur C. Clarke, renowned sci-fi writer, also was an ace mathematician and the first to have espoused a geosynchronous orbit. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

The discovery of a geostationary orbit is credited to famed science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke, best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey—he also authored nearly 100 other books—and the quote now used by any techie with a remotely clever technology, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Clarke exhibited the rare gift of real science to add to his fiction. He graduated with honors in math and physics from Kings College in London.

Geostationary satellites spend their operational life above the same patch of ground. Their distance from NOCs causes much of the lag in the signal. Radio waves traveling the speed of light take almost a quarter of a second for the signal to hit the satellite and come back. For continual, one-way communication, such as a streaming a movie, what does it matter? But when communication turns two-way, like the awkward pauses between a news anchor’s questions and the reporters answering from in the field connected via satellite links, it’s a different story. For interactive applications, like CAD (Onshape, for example, is strictly Internet only) and communications (video conferencing, VOIP telephones), a quarter-second lag is intolerable.

It’s as big as a mini-fridge, Astranis founders say of their planned satellite—the first of many to provide a really World Wide Web. (Image courtesy of Astranis.)
It’s as big as a mini-fridge, Astranis founders say of their planned satellite—the first of many to provide a really World Wide Web. (Image courtesy of Astranis.)

Can’t We Have Internet for All

No world leader has campaigned on an “Internet for all” platform, similar to the “chicken in every pot” campaign. While those in lands of plenty have come to believe that electricity, water and even food can be government supplied, it has been left to a few enterprising startups to explore what it takes to orbit enough satellites to blanket the Earth, raining Web access to all mankind.

But depending on private, for-profit companies, has its limitations. Private companies may be reluctant to put up towers or cables where they cannot be guaranteed a return on investment that only many potential customers would provide.

While it can be argued from a strictly business sense that private companies are justified in expanding business and following the money, that more or less guarantees a large bulk of the world’s population, too poor to pay, will continue to be kept wanting.

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