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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.

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