With the help of satellite internet from space: will there soon be a network for everyone?

Paris (dpa) – Just checking emails in the desert, reading the latest news in the jungle? Most people are used to mobile internet. But there are places where very few people expect to have Internet access.

Not to mention the annoying dead spots. New projects now promise to provide the world with cheap internet access – with the help of satellites in space. Can it work?

OneWeb Satellites is called a project. It is a joint project between the aerospace and defense group Airbus and the American telecommunications company OneWeb, behind which stands the pioneer of the Internet, Greg Wyler.

Airbus is responsible for the development of the satellites. On February 26, the first will be launched aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Kourou spaceport in Guyana. Hundreds more will follow in the coming years – 21 rocket launches have been agreed with rocket maker Arianespace. “The constellation is intended for 900 satellites”, explains Nicolas Chamussy, head of the space division at Airbus.

What is new in the project is that the satellites must be placed in a low earth orbit of 1,200 kilometers. Currently, there is generally a satellite Internet from so-called geostationary satellites which orbit the Earth at more than 35,000 kilometers. Another peculiarity is that the satellites are produced in series – several are built every day. They are smaller and lighter than regular satellites, so a number of them can be launched into space with a single rocket launch.

On Earth, user terminals communicate with satellites in space. In the case of OneWeb, it works via small satellite dishes that are mounted on the roof and are powered by solar energy. OneWeb promises that you can bring 3G, LTE or 5G internet and WiFi to the region.

The quality of the Internet cannot be determined in advance, explains Roland Bless of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). “Because the satellites have a relatively low orbit, it can be assumed that the delay will be quite short compared to conventional geostationary satellite links.” The smallest possible delay is essential for a fast Internet. However, the expert also sees a downside in the proximity to Earth. “The radio frequencies have to be relatively high. This means that weather conditions such as fog or clouds can influence reception conditions.”

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In addition, satellites must be replaced regularly because their lifespan is limited. According to critics, this creates a lot of space waste. Airbus’ Chamussy refers to a French law that requires a satellite to be launched or developed from France to be put out of orbit again. Although he could not guarantee this for every satellite, there was in principle an obligation to ensure that no space debris was created from the start of the mission.

Not just OneWeb Satellites is working on such an Internet from space. The Canadian company Telesat wishes to offer a worldwide service with its “Telesat-Leo” project from 2022, also with the help of Airbus. The American space company SpaceX of Tesla founder Elon Musk is also working on a similar project and wants to use “Starlink” to bring many more satellites into space than OneWeb: thousands should be there. The first satellites were launched in early 2018 with a Falcon 9 rocket. If the tests are successful, “Starlink” should start soon.

Facebook had abandoned a similar project developed since 2014 – the Internet drone “Aquila” – last year. The plane should have been flying autonomously at great heights for months. A first test flight in 2016 ended with a crash landing. A competing project with large drones had already been abandoned by Google’s parent Alphabet. However, Alphabet is not completely out of the race: the tinkering with an Internet offer of balloons continues. “Loon” balloons are said to move at a height of about 18 kilometers and on the ground, special antennas are usually required for network reception.

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“It is crucial to be the first to offer this service,” said Chamussy of Airbus. “Rhythm is the key.” The aim is to launch a large number of satellites into space as quickly as possible over the next few years. As long as only a fraction of them are in space, the Internet space does not function properly. “It only erodes the life of the satellites,” Chamussy said. The company plans to close the digital divide in the world by 2027 at the latest. The project is expected to start much earlier.

So will there be the Internet anywhere in the world in a few years? “Well, a lot of things are still uncertain,” says Bless from KIT in Karlsruhe. In principle, it is already possible to illuminate most of the earth. Places without fast internet in Germany could also benefit from the space network. However, a large number of user terminals on earth are required to convert the signal from the satellites. “Because you can’t receive the signal with a smartphone alone,” says Bless. But it could be expensive and time consuming.

The exact cooperation with telecommunications companies has not yet been clarified in detail. Do users have to sign a contract with “OneWeb”, “Starlink” or other providers? “Of course that would be rather impractical,” said Bless. Or do existing companies cooperate with space service providers and pay roaming charges? So the customer probably wouldn’t even notice if they were using the internet space. Another open question is whether the network will be truly affordable for people in all parts of the world.

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