Aardvark Daily

New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

Content copyright © 1995 - 2018 to Bruce Simpson (aka Aardvark), the logo was kindly created for Aardvark Daily by the folks at

Please visit the sponsor!
Please visit the sponsor!

It's a bird, it's a plane...

22 September 2017

A century or so ago, the only things you'd find in the skies above our heads were birds, the sun the moon and stars.

These days however, the skies are filled with all sorts of things.

Down where there is an atmosphere we have all manner of winged craft now scudding about from place to place. Aeroplanes, helicopters, gliders, hot-air balloons, weather balloons, drones, etc.

Escape the thin veneer of draggy gases that shroud our planet and there are satellites, lots and lots of satellites.

These "birds" deliver all manner of services to their terrestrial masters below.

Communications, mapping, navigation, weather data and a whole lot more that we're not allowed to know too much about "cough X-37B cough".

In fact, there's so much stuff in orbit that the issue of "space junk" is rapidly becoming an important one.

And now there are plans to lob a whole bunch of new birds into low-earth orbit, beyond the stratosphere.

SpaceX is planning a satellite-based low-latency "gigabit" network that will service virtually the entire planet.

According to this Arstechnica story, that network is likely to be called Starlink, although the company itself won't confirm that name (despite having trademarked it).

Quite a few big-name companies, including Google and Facebook, have mooted the prospect that they may roll out extended broadband networks based on overhead technology.

Google's Project Loon plans on using gas-filled balloons to hoist its radio-based network gear high into the sky over remote regions of the planet, delivering an LTE-based broadband service to those below.

Facebook has gone the drone route and its Aquila project expects to use solar-powered fixed-wing unmanned aircraft to achieve pretty much the same results as Loon.

But back to satellites.

Internet by satellite is nothing new. It's been around for a decade or two. In fact, I recall using the iHug satellite-based internet service in the 1990s and it was gobsmacking good, when compared to the alternative (which was dial-up).

iHug's service would deliver about 400Kbps of download speed but the uplink was still by way of a dial-up modem so the results were reminiscent of the old 1200/75 acoustically coupled modems I once used more than a decade earlier. It was great for downloading stuff but utterly sucked if you wanted to send stuff the other way.

The iHug service, and most satellite-based internet options, tend to use fixed dishes and transponders on satellites that are in a geosynchronous orbit. To maintain a geosynchronous orbit, a satellite has to sit a very long way above our heads (about 35,000 Km at the equator) and that means uber-high latency.

I'm sure that some of the older Aardvark readers will recall the days when satellite links were sometimes used for toll-calls. The huge latency meant that it was very common for both parties to start talking at once -- then stop -- then start again.

Latency is a bastard in any kind of interactive realtime environment so, although geosync satellite internet is fine for streaming video, downloading files and such, it's a real mess for things like VOIP, gaming, etc. These old-school satellite internet services often ended up with latencies that were over 600mS -- about 20 times that of a regular ground-based service.

SpaceX however, is going to change all that, or so we're told.

Their plan is to create a network of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites which fly much closer to the earth. Typically, these are just a few hundred Kms above the planet and thus the latency can be much, much lower.

There are other benefits to flying so low -- you don't need so much power or antenna gain to send and receive a signal so the cumbersome dish normally associated with satellite services can be tossed away and a far more compact, omnidirectional antenna used instead.

However, every silver lining has a cloud, and so it is with LEO services.

In order to provide continual service, SpaceX is going to have to put enough birds into orbit that there are always some "visible" to the user. As one satellite completes its pass overhead and disappears below the horizon, there needs to be another (one or two) already in sight to continue the conversation. This means lots of satellites.

Fortunately, SpaceX is in the satellite launching business so its cost to create such a network is undoubtedly lower than other competitors seeking to create their own LEO network of broadband-delivering satellites.

And yes, there are others wanting to play this game.

As mentioned in the Arstechnica story, there is OneWeb and there is LeoSat.

There's noway of knowing which of these networks will actually make it into service and of the ones which do, which will survive in the long-term. However, one thing's for sure, the sky above us has never been busier.

Please visit the sponsor!
Please visit the sponsor!

Have your say in the Aardvark Forums.

PERMALINK to this column

Rank This Aardvark Page


Change Font

Sci-Tech headlines



Beware The Alternative Energy Scammers

The Great "Run Your Car On Water" Scam


Recent Columns

Gidday big brother (cobber)
Australia has taken on real "big brother" overtones of late...

Whatever happened to commonsense?
In the USA over the past week, two aircraft were purposely flown in a reckless manner that resulted in the deaths of their pilots and a significant risk to those on the ground...

Google: we know where you have been
People around the world are shocked and horrified that Google has been tracking their every move, even without their permission...

The USA's Space Force
Ronald Regan started it all with his "Star Wars" initiative...

Buy your tech stuff now?
The Kiwi dollar has taken a bit of a tumble on news that the Reserve Bank will keep interest rates low for at least the next 18 months...

ArsTechnica, the Daily Mirror of tech news?
When we think of "fake news" we almost always refer to the mainstream news outlets which have increasingly focused on sensationalising stories in search of extra clicks and ad revenue...

Climate change, things just got hotter
Reports began appearing in the media this week which indicate that AGW is now growing at such a rate that the "tipping point" may be upon us in less than a decade or two...

Core blimey!
The price of the new Ryzen Threadripper 2990W processor has been leaked...

Tax, plastic, assassinations
Yes, it's another pot pouri of topics rather than a common theme today...

Drone... groan!
Okay, it's time for my regular moan about drones so don't groan...

More power!
I'd already the story which prompted today's column when a reader dropped me an email with a link to it...