Get your phone plan from space?
Satellite phones already exist, but when we think of them, we imagine bulky, oversized gadgets that can’t fit in your pocket. And with today’s smart phone technology getting smaller and sleeker, bulky devices seem even more unattractive.
But there’s a change coming not too far into the future. Your current smart device might be able to use a satellite phone plan very soon, from anywhere in the world.
The implications are plenty. Imagine a world without telco borders, literally. Where rural Australians can find satellite mobile broadband plans that provide high speed internet. Or airplanes connecting easily to networks via satellite data plans. Or mining operations far away from civilization tapping into mobile broadband networks from space. The list goes on.
For the consumer, the most excitement comes for those in outskirts – those living outside urban developments. In such areas, high speed internet is scarce, if not nonexistent. But with your next satellite phone plan, that will change. Read on to get a glimpse into the future of mobile technology.
LEO, they key to satellite phone plans
Space satellites aren’t the huge bulks of metal they were in the late 1950s when Sputnik 1 launched into orbit. Today, keeping with the times, both rockets and satellites have been miniaturized.
Traditional communications satellites typically float around 36,000km away from the earth’s surface. In other wards, they’re very far. That distance results in some very high latency – the time it takes to transfer data from point A to point B, and back to point B if need be.
Your phone plan’s performance depends on your network. Current LTE and 5G networks have some very low latency, which is great. In fact, 5G boasts of latency that’s close to zero, which opens the door to a vast array of applications that would stall on older generations of mobile network technology because of how long they take to transfer data back and forth. But traditional communications satellite networks have around a 600-millisecond latency because of how far into orbit they are.
Enter LEO – Low Earth Orbit satellites – to save the day. These satellites roam around at 500km to 2,000km above the earth. This shorter distance means your data travels faster from point A to point B and back, if need be, cutting the latency drastically when compared to traditional satellites.
LEO satellites vs traditional satellites. src
A London-based company, OneWeb, was able to achieve an average latency of 32 milliseconds from LEO to South Korea last year. And Elon Musk, the founder SpaceX and Starlink, a LEO satellite communications company, is targeting 20 milliseconds latency when the service first launches, and half that number after that.
Advantage of satellite phone plans over traditional phone and data plans for consumers
You’re probably asking yourself why all this is necessary in he first place. Why do we need satellite mobile phone plans when we already have great mobile network technologies here on planet earth? Well, the short answer is that not everyone does.
Here in Australia, you get better mobile service in urban areas and suburbs. For those in rural areas, network might be spotty. At best, they might get good service from 3G networks, hence the reason why Telstra 3G has the highest coverage. This is because its not cost effective for telcos to build the infrastructure necessary to bring high speed broadband and mobile networks to rural areas. Such infrastructure is very expensive, and such rural areas are sparsely populated, which means there won’t be enough customers to sign up to make it worth their while.
With LEO satellites filling the gap, those areas will get some much needed high speed data access. Because LEO satellites orbit close to earth, they provide reduced latency. And because companies plan on launching thousands of satellites, service won’t be spotty as each satellite zooms by at very fast speeds – around 27,000kph, fast enough for the next satellite to come around and take over providing a signal to your phone, in around 2-minute intervals.
In practice, this should be a boon – not just in theory. Network signals travel faster through a space vacuum than through cables. So when compared to wired data solutions, LEO satellite phone plans should provide faster data than your average fixed line internet.
Another advantage is the decentralized nature of these satellite communications networks. While current telcos require licensing from governments and other lengthy red tape have to be cut, satellites will be available worldwide. A company in the United States might sell its network wholesale to Telstra, for example, who will not resell satellite phone plans to you in rural Australia. This way, pricing may be competitive it the telco will not have to build infrastructure to bring the service to you – the infrastructure will already be there, zipping by hundreds of kilometers in the air, literally.
Final words – Companies currently leading the way
This all sounds interesting and great, but if you think it sounds expensive, then you guessed right. Satellites, despite losing a lot of weight by getting miniaturized over the years, still cost a lot of money. Rockets, too, have been miniaturized, but are still expensive.
In fact, companies that ventured into this space in previous decades often ended up bankrupt. But today’s tech giants see the current climate as different, due to the mentioned miniaturization of rockets and satellites. They believe, that although they are still pricey, they are much more cheaper than they once were.
As a result, the top players will be launching over 46,000 satellites into orbit over the next few years. Here are the top players:
- Starlink by SpaceX
Elon Musk’s SpaceX will lead the way with around 42,000 of those satellites, per their FCC license applications. Last year, 480 Starlink satellites had already been launched, followed by 120 this year, and another 120 is expected before the end of the year.
- Amazon’s Project Kuiper
Jeff Bezos is also stepping into the LEP satellite communications game. His company, Project Kuiper, has sought approval for a 3,236 satellite network.
This company plans to launch 650 satellites, and has launched 6 so far.
This company plans to launch around 300 satellites and plans to begin offering services by 2022.