Close to 3 billion people have never used the internet, and billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are on a mission to narrow the digital divide. With their Starlink and Project Kuiper networks, the two entrepreneurs are competing to launch thousands of small satellites that will orbit the Earth in low-Earth orbit (LEO), connecting remote areas and regions affected by natural disasters or conflict.
LEO satellites are positioned between 500 to 2,000 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, enabling faster data transfer compared to traditional high-orbit communication satellites. The high-orbit systems have significant latency, making them unsuitable for technologies like live video streaming and self-driving cars. Starlink aims to achieve latency as low as 20 milliseconds, which could rival ground networks in terms of speed.
Starlink and other LEO networks require a large number of satellites due to their proximity to Earth. Each satellite travels at around 27,000 kilometers per hour to maintain a stable orbit, circling the planet in 90 to 120 minutes. As a satellite passes out of view, another must appear on the horizon to maintain continuous coverage. This necessitates a vast number of satellites distributed along intersecting paths.
To generate revenue, Starlink and its competitors plan to offer connectivity services to consumers, governments, businesses in remote areas, and 5G wireless and fixed-line broadband providers. Starlink has also attracted interest from military customers and secured contracts to provide connectivity in Ukraine and with the US Space Force. However, controversies have arisen, such as Starlink refusing to extend coverage to Russian-held Crimea for military purposes in 2022.
Currently, Starlink is available in several countries at varying prices. The rising interest in LEO networks is driven by technological advancements, decreasing launch costs, and the increasing demand for connectivity in remote locations. Improved launch capabilities and reusable rockets have significantly reduced the cost of sending satellites into space. Starlink estimates an installation cost of up to $30 billion, with the potential for annual revenue reaching $50 billion, supporting Elon Musk’s long-term goal of colonizing Mars.
Starlink faces growing competition. Amazon’s Project Kuiper plans to send over 3,000 satellites into orbit, China is developing its own LEO network, and European companies are collaborating on the IRIS² satellite project. By the end of this decade, there could be over 100,000 satellites in orbit, more than twenty times the number in operation in early 2022.
LEO networks, however, present challenges. The fast-moving satellites increase the risk of collisions, posing a threat to the viability of the orbits. Debris from collisions, along with dead satellites and old spacecraft, already pose a problem in LEO. Removing space junk is an expensive proposition, and governments have yet to determine who would shoulder the costs.
The race to connect the unconnected is in full swing, and while the technology holds great promise, addressing the challenges and ensuring sustainable satellite operations are vital for the future of global connectivity.