New satellite tech promises to reach the last unserved parts of the world with affordable broadband in theory, but could it mean we'll end up cluttering up the skies with shiny space junk in practice?
Internet access via satellite reaches remote areas but done the traditional way it's a mixed bag. It works, but since the "birds" have traditionally gone in very high orbits, performance and responsiveness of the broadband service tends to be so-and-so.
Australia's two NBN Sky Muster satellites orbit the Earth almost 36,000 kilometres above the surface for example. High orbit means only a few satellites are needed to cover large areas, and not many Earth gateways, but the customer experience suffers.
That's because data packets take a long time to do the round trips between customers and service providers, somewhere between 600 to 800 milliseconds. Per-customer speeds for Sky Muster are low by 2020 standards, at up to 25 Mbit/s downloads and 5 Mbit/s uploads with low data caps, partly due to the latency, but also because each satellite has a limited amount of aggregate bandwidth. Many web and internet applications are difficult to use under those conditions, and gaming you can pretty much forget about.
How do you fix that? Well, Sky Muster is a geostationary (GEO) service. Putting satellites into a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) bumps up broadband performance heftily.
European operator SES says it has a fleet of 11 O3b mPower satellites to launch next year into an orbit of 8000km. The lower orbit, SES says, will result in a latency of 150 ms and speeds from 50 Mbit/s to gigabit/s.
The plan is to launch the O3b satellites from Elon Musk's SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets and the target market is broadcasters and communications providers.
Musk himself is going after end users with his Starlink satellite project, aimed at connecting the last few souls on the planet in remote areas to the internet for US$80 ($123) a month.
Starlink satellites orbit the Earth just 550km away from the surface.
That's Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) and with latency in the 25-35 ms range. Per-satellite throughput is said to be around 20 Gbps, and in theory, Starlink customers should get quick broadband service without the large dishes that GEO needs.
Starlink is operational with test customers breaching their non-disclosure agreements and posting speed tests on the web. These confirm the low latency of just over 30 ms but Starlink speeds are so far not very impressive, hitting a maximum of 60 Mbps down and 18 Mbps up with uneven performance. Lots of Starlink satellites are needed for coverage because of the VLEO and more will join the existing constellation.
A crazy amount in fact: 720 have been launched, and Starlink has permission from the United States Federal Communications Commission to fire 12,000 satellites into the skies. Musk has said 20-30,000 Starlink satellites are needed for the intended global coverage, but not 200,000 (phew). Put in perspective, there are currently 2666 satellites orbiting the Earth.
Astronomers and stargazers are already up in arms over Starlink on social media.
Maybe you detect a whiff of Nimbyism here. However, you only need to go out once at night somewhere with no street lights that drown out the light from the stars, to understand why darkness is so amazing.
Dark sky areas are rare, fantastic and popular attractions. New Zealand has the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, one of just 11 certified such places in the world.
Martinborough is seeking to become a certified Dark Sky Reserve as well.
Great Barrier Island and Stewart Island are Dark Sky Sanctuaries, and there's the Dark Sky Park in Wai-Iti.
Urban sprawl and excessive night lighting is eating into the remaining dark areas though.
Next there will be conga lines of shining "disco ball" satellites as well.
Starlink has tried to address the criticism of interference in a fairly token manner by testing dark, matt coating paint that couldn't be used as the satellites heat up, and a sun visor for the antennae. Even then, the satellites are still visible and obscure the stars.
Their data transmission signals create noise that drown out radio astronomy observations.
Yes, there is benefit to hooking up remote populations and areas to the internet.
Nevertheless, like Facebook's huge solar powered Aquila drones and Google's Project Loon high-altitude internet-beaming balloons before it, Starlink seems a bored billionaire's pet project that tries to provide a solution for a few in a way that's intrusive to many.
Watch this space, literally, while you can, in other words.