Amazon and SpaceX Think Satellite Constellations Are the Key to Faster Internet

But they’re already polluting the sky

Alex Wulff
OneZero
Published in
7 min readJan 1, 2020

--

A SpaceX Starlink satellite during deployment. Image: SpaceX

YYou may have seen one of the countless articles peppering news feeds about satellite constellation-based internet connectivity such as Starlink by SpaceX or OneWeb. A few companies have deployed their first satellites, and many more, such as Amazon, have filed applications with the FCC and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to get permission to develop their constellations. There are even rumors that Apple is working on a cluster of satellites to provide internet connectivity to its devices. The interest in satellite-based internet is high, and there’s plenty of opportunity for financial gain.

Satellite internet already exists, but it’s a different kind. Almost all satellite internet today is served by massive satellites in geostationary orbit, which means the orbital speed matches the rate of the Earth’s rotation. This gives the impression that the satellite remains at a fixed position in the sky (hence the “stationary” in geostationary). Such an orbit is only possible around the Earth’s equator.

The picture below is a computer-generated image of some known space objects. You can clearly identify geostationary orbit, which is the ring of satellites around the equator.

Image: Nasa Orbital Debris Program Office

Geostationary orbit allows telecommunications companies to construct only one satellite that can serve entire regions at once. Geostationary satellites serve upwards of tens of thousands of people at one time, so these satellites must be very large and costly to accommodate sophisticated antennas and processing equipment. One geostationary satellite can typically cost over $100 million to build.

Geostationary satellites are often the only way individuals in remote areas can access the internet. The “satellite dishes” visible on buildings are almost always used to communicate with satellites in geostationary orbit, and are found more frequently in rural areas far away from high-speed fiber links.

--

--

Alex Wulff
OneZero

I'm a Harvard student, maker, and radio enthusiast. Check out my book on radio communications at amzn.to/341cywA and my website at www.AlexWulff.com