We Could Have Good Satellite Internet If We Wanted
Satellite internet was once seen as a holy grail of connect-anywhere online access. But for various reasons, it hasn’t worked out that way—yet.
A HughesNet satellite dish. (Alan Levine/Flickr)
A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.
As the recent vote in Congress over online privacy rules reminded us, people tend to hate their internet service providers.
Case in point: Offbeat rocker Todd Rundgren once wrote and performed a poorly-aged song called "I Hate My Frickin' ISP," in which he railed against the anonymous loser that was preventing him from getting online, along with the service that promised him 20 free, addiction-starting hours. (It's a bad entryway into his catalog, by the way; you're way better off with "I Saw The Light.")
Perhaps the worst kind of frickin' ISP is satellite-based internet. And the reason for that, to put it simply, is because it could be the best.
"A body in such an orbit, if its plane coincided with that of the earth's equator, would revolve with the earth and would thus be stationary above the same spot on the planet. It would remain fixed in the sky of a whole hemisphere and unlike all other heavenly bodies would neither rise nor set."
— Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, writing in Wireless World magazine back in 1945 about the idea of stationary satellites that could be held in place around the Earth's orbit, allowing them to be used to service communications around the world. Clarke's essay proved incredibly influential on the satellite industry. Just 20 years after his essay was published, the satellite Intelsat I went up into orbit, effectively following his geostationary strategy. The satellite was put into orbit by the Hughes Aircraft company.
A video simulation of the Teledesic constellation of satellites that would have given us fast worldwide satellite internet.
We haven't actually seen the dream of satellite internet as it was originally intended
As I wrote last year, the internet wasn't initially globally accessible, though it eventually worked its way up to that.
But some saw the global potential early—particularly in the world of satellites. For example, the company Teledesic wanted to create a whole network of hundreds of satellites that would provide high-speed internet access around the world. The company had a big name backer—a guy named Bill Gates—and ambitious plans.
At one point, Teledesic pitched the idea of building a $9 billion satellite system, complete with the support of Boeing. This system, which would have involved hundreds of individual satellites circling the globe, was built around a broad vision of turning satellite internet into a mainstream product.
(And it wasn't alone: Motorola, at one point, backed the satellite firm Iridium Communications, which planned a $5 billion network of its own.)
Daniel Kohn, who helped operate the company, put forth an impressive vision of what the Teledesic network, once completed, would look like. In an essay for the Internet Society, he described a low-Earth-orbit satellite network, based on the Ka satellite band, that would provide internet speeds as fast as fiber-optic cables, no matter where you were globally.
"The promise of the information age is constrained by the lack of access to switched, broadband services in most of the developed and virtually all of the developing world," Kohn explained in the essay. "The Teledesic Network will provide a means to help extend these switched, broadband connections on demand anywhere on Earth."
There was a problem, however, and only the passage of time highlighted how big a problem it was. In his essay, Kohn made a prediction about fiber-optic-driven internet access that turned out to be incredibly wrong:
While there is a lot of fiber out there in the world—and the number of places is growing—it is used primarily to connect countries and telephone company central offices. Even in a country like the United States, little of that fiber will be extended for local access to individual offices and homes, which represents 80 percent of the cost of a network. In most of the world, fiber deployment likely never will happen.
As any FIOS or Google Fiber subscriber will tell you, we do in fact have fiber optic cable that goes to many homes—not all, but far more than Kohn's general prediction implied. The value of the internet was such that companies were actually willing to spend massive amounts of capital on those last-mile fiber-optic connections. Additionally, the success of coaxial cables in providing fast internet access to users around the world helped muffle some of the need for a massive satellite internet network.
That said, Kohn's point remains valid. There are still lots of parts of the world that don't have fast internet access. It just turned out that there were far fewer than the audacious plan anticipated.
And as a result, the market for satellite internet is immensely disappointing in comparison to Teledesic's aspirations. It's no wonder that the company eventually faded away. Despite talking a big game and having big-money backers, the company eventually stopped building its audacious idea in 2002, with little to show for it despite hundreds of millions of dollars in investments.
"We think there's still demand in the market for these services," Teledesic spokesman Todd Wolfenbarger told the Seattle Times at the time. "But absent of some other partner, it's not going to happen."
Iridium did slightly better, but only out of sheer luck. In 2000, former Pan Am executive Dan Colussy, along with a group of fellow investors, bought the bankrupt satellite company for just $25 million, in what might rank as one of the best business deals of all time. The company bought a network of 77 satellites for 0.5 percent of the price it cost to build the network from scratch, making it easier to turn the concept into a success.
Cloussy sold the network for $591 million in 2008, effectively making his investment back 24 times over. (Again, smart deal.)
Iridium's network is based on low-Earth-orbit satellites like Teledesic, but the company decided to focus on niche needs, such as the US military, rather than creating an internet-of-everywhere. As Fortune notes, this was a winning strategy; the company is in the midst of upgrading its satellites, which make hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year for the company, despite there being fewer than 800,000 subscribers to the network.
We did get satellite internet, but it didn't look anything like the big idea Teledesic was trying to sell.
The satellite internet we actually got is lame and frustrating
Ever see the movie The Aviator , about reclusive pilot and billionaire Howard Hughes?
Yes, the Hughes in HughesNet, the internet service, refers to Howard Hughes. No, he doesn't really have a connection to the concept of satellite-based internet, other than the fact that it's a distant descendant of his aviation business.
Now owned by EchoStar, HughesNet carries its current name because it was at one point owned by the Hughes Aircraft Company, but the firm wasn't acquired until about a decade after Howard Hughes had died. But the reclusive tycoon's firm did have a legacy in satellites before that point.
A graphic explaining how DirecPC initially worked. Image: SatelliteDish.com
The roots of the modern service date back to 1996, when Hughes—which owned DirecTV at the time—launched its DirecPC service, one of the earliest broadband services available in homes nationally. It was an awkward approach, letting users download via a speedy-at-the-time Hughes Network Systems Galaxy IV satellite, but managing the upload part of the equation through modems on the ground. (Considering the somewhat convoluted process, it's understandable why it didn't take off.)
The service slowly evolved from there, becoming DIRECWAY back in 2001, and eventually HughesNet in 2006 after DirecTV and Hughes were separated from one another.
Then and now, HughesNet follows the Arthur C. Clarke ideal—a single satellite that effectively stays in place 22,000 miles above the earth. This kind of distance is fine if you're beaming television into your living room or loading a webpage, but if you're trying to play a game, it's not so hot. As a result of this distance factor, a whole lot of money has to be spent to modestly improve the quality of the internet connection you get via a satellite.
Fortunately, competition also helps: In 2011, the ViaSat-1 satellite got up in the air, allowing for the competing Exede internet service to help slowly nudge HughesNet into the future.
Since then, EchoStar and ViaSat have been going back and forth upgrading their satellites to offer better connections to rural satellite users.
For example, last month, HughesNet announced a speedier internet service after launching a new satellite last year. But it's only speedier compared to the previous version of HughesNet.
The upgrade only gets the network to 25 megabits per second, which is a speed that pales in comparison to most home-based internet connections. For comparison's sake: When cable internet technology first came on the scene in 1995, the technology was capable of transmitting data at 27 megabits per second.
Despite its technology being upgraded at a regular clip for two decades, satellite internet has only just now crept up to where cable internet was 22 years ago. Think about that.
A promotional clip for NightShift, a time-shifting service for satellite internet platforms.
The various quirks that come with modern-day satellite internet access
- Limited bandwidth. Ever been on an airplane Wi-Fi connection, or perhaps on a train? Now imagine sharing a slightly faster version of that connection with the entire country. That's pretty much what you're doing when you use satellite internet—in the case of an airplane, often literally.
- Slow upload speeds. Always the achilles heel of satellite internet, uplink speeds have been a small fraction of downlink speeds. The reason for this is that users are effectively sharing the ability to upload with a single satellite, meaning your data gets sent in bursts—and have to wait your turn. In industry parlance, this is called Time Division Multiple Access, or TDMA—a technology that was once commonly used with cellular networks.
- High latency. When your connection has to communicate with a satellite 22,000 miles in the air, there are going to be delays. HughesNet specifically recommends against playing real-time games using its network, because of latency problems. "While browsing for a website or downloading content, this delay goes unnoticed," the company writes in an FAQ. "But during real-time multi-player games, this delay creates game latency (high ping) and an unreliable connection with the gaming server. Many game servers will auto-kick players who have a high ping, as it creates 'lag' and disrupts gameplay for others." So no Quake for you.
- Data caps. You think data caps are bad on your mobile phone? You've never dealt with satellite connections, which often face artificial speed limitations because there are only so many satellites in space. As a result, satellite connections are way more expensive than other types of home internet access.
- Overage problems. You know the satellite internet setup has problems when a service like NightShift exists. NightShift, which gets around satellite data caps by pre-loading programs from streaming services in the middle of the night, is designed essentially to work around the caps of services like HughesNet or Exede, which loosen their caps on bandwidth in the middle of the night.
"Now, let's talk about what made me want to beat this thing to death with a chair."
— MacWorld reviewer Séamus Bellamy, discussing his experience reviewing the Iridium Go portable satellite internet device, a $799 device that offers online connectivity through Iridium's satellite network, which is generally used for satellite phones and business communication needs. The problem is, the network is really slow for internetting—about the same speed as a 2400-baud modem—and as a result, the device has very limited capabilities. It can only surf the web through a dedicated app, offers low-quality calling, and was only really good for texting when it came down to it. Faster portable satellite options exist, but they cost even more.
HughesNet and Exede, while certainly a lot better than nothing at all, don't properly represent what Teledesic was pitching two decades ago. They're single satellites, built on the Arthur C. Clarke model and located tens of thousands of miles above the Earth, rather than mesh-like model of hundreds of satellites that Teledesic was pitching.
The failings of this model can be seen in the slow upload speeds. If there were more satellites and if they were closer to the Earth, the technology would simply work better.
(Iridium's network, based on low-Earth orbit satellites, is about halfway there, but is in dire need of a technological upgrade and serves a more niche audience at this juncture.)
Fortunately for everyone, companies are starting to give Teledesic's audacious idea another shot.
Last year, Elon Musk's SpaceX made a pitch for launching thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites into a spot roughly 715 miles to 823 miles above the planet. And because it's Elon Musk, the odds of it happening instantly go up by 50 percent.
And Musk isn't alone. OneWeb, which has Richard Branson on its board, hopes to ensure satellite broadband will close the digital divide by 2027. That network will be made up of roughly 700 satellites when initially completed. Last month, the company broke ground on its satellite manufacturing facility, because if you're building hundreds of satellites, you're going to need a factory.
This stuff is all new technology, but it's based on an old idea—an idea that might finally see its moment in orbit.