Elon Musk’s Internet from the sky

Source: Elon Musk’s Internet from the sky | The Herald 18 NOV, 2019

Julia Mugadzaweta Correspondent
Elon Musk’s SpaceX deployed an additional 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on Monday November 11, 2019.

SpaceX confirmed the launch on Twitter.

In another tweet, the company shared a video clip of the Falcon 9 rocket and explained that, “Falcon 9 first stage supporting this mission previously launched Iridium-7, SAOCOM-1A, and Nusantara Satu.”

As a Zimbabwean watching this live on the Internet, I was excited and here is why.

First of all, it is always good to watch history in the making.

Recently, there has been a hype in the “Internet from the sky” business.

Space X a privately owned company founded in 2002, which designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft, is well ahead of its industry rivals like OneWeb, which will launch its network up with Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rockets starting in 2020.

Facebook has its own work with Internet satellite networks to deliver Internet services to Africa and other areas with few broadband options.

It is now apparent that we will be getting Internet from space in a few months/years. And it’s exciting to stick around and see what happens.

With SpaceX leading the way, it looks like fast, low-latency Internet from the stars may not be far in our future.

On the other hand Zimbabwe, according to the Africa Alliance for Affordable Internet’s (A4AI) 2019 Affordability Report, has the second most expensive mobile data in Africa, and the cost just keeps on rising.

The same report also goes on to give several reasons why the cost to access the Internet is high.

Among them is the fact that Zimbabwe is landlocked.

“Landlocked countries incur additional costs because of the need to lease international transit capacity,” says the report.

“To connect, we need to pay transit costs and the premiums are worse off if you do not have a choice or the flexibility offered by being a coastal nation.”

Another reason for the expensive cost of the Internet is that if you want fast Internet, your choices are, well, your cable provider, and that’s about it.

The competitive advantage has always been missing. However, things are about to change.

SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said she’s sure that SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet service can start offering broadband services in the US by mid-2020.

This year, on October 22, Elon Musk made the first tweet using this revolutionised technology sending his tweet through space via Starlink satellite saying “Whoa it worked!” Less dramatically, but a better proof point to the network’s usefulness.

The best thing about this project is that in the long run, it will best benefit African nations.

In a statement released by space X, it said that their goal was to provide affordable Internet services around the world,

“As demand escalates for fast, reliable Internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is non-existent, too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs,” read the statement.

Satellite Internet not a new concept

In the ’90s another US-based company HughesNet developed the idea and has been delivering the Internet from space since  then.

However, the problem with this traditional method has been its awful latency(which is the time between when you start an activity over the Internet and when you get a response back).

Compared to good Earth-bound broadband gives you latency of about 8ms to 20ms while traditional satellite Internet, due to its geosynchronous nature, sticks with you with a latency of over 600ms.

That makes it effectively impossible, to do much. In order to understand the exciting part behind SpaceX’s Starlink project, one has to comprehend the apparent limitations of our current internet infrastructure.

The Internet, in its simplest form, is a series of connected computers.

Users pay service providers for routing data to and from a web of devices.

A lot of our data is sent in pulses of light through fibre-optic cables.

However, fibre is fairly expensive and tedious to lay, especially between locations on opposite sides of the Earth and also cables have a speed limit too, mostly with international distances, which leads to high latency or lag as explained before.

SpaceX promises to cut that long-distance lag while also providing Internet access almost anywhere in the world.

According to wireless and satellite solutions provider Q-Kon, SpaceX’s 60 Starlink satellites will aid in meeting the demand for reliable Internet services in Africa.

Q-Kon says given the expected technical speed and latency performance advantages of the SpaceX StarLink service, the benefits to connect all “off-grid” users as well as providing a high-reliable, easy to deploy fibre-alternative service, SpaceX Starlink  builds a compelling case that Africa can’t ignore.

“It can, thus, be expected that a new generation of highly-focused, niche satellite service providers will target this opportunity.

For providers such as the Q-Kon group, this will be a logical next step in meeting the ever-growing demand for trusted broadband services in Africa.”

Q-Kon also explains the SpaceX StarLink service will require the installation of a fixed two-way communication dish and terminal at each user location, similar to a DStv installation.

“This means possible future service providers of the StarLink service must have the capability to install thousands of specialist terminals at end-user locations throughout the service region,” said Q-Kon.

“Next, the service provisioning, ongoing quality-of-service requirements, network operation, etc, require a specific niche engineering skill set which is not currently part of the general service providers’ technical environments.”

Q-Kon notes that initially, the probable target market will mostly be “off-grid” locations, meaning users at locations which are “off-the-telco-grids” and not connected to the 3G mobile networks or fibre networks.

These are the niche market segments and more so will need specific focused marketing campaigns

and target sales teams, it notes, adding the current service providers and national telcos are not readily equipped to deal with such a specific service and business set of requirements.

“To answer the question: ‘Will this be available in Africa?’ We must consider the business attractiveness of this special niche service and if any of the telcos will, indeed, adopt this as a go-to-market product,” said Q-Kon.

“At an average end-user price of 150 for the service, and based on an estimation of 100 000 terminals (10 percent of the base), the potential annual revenue income for a telco will be 150 million dollars.

“For the big telcos, this will probably not be considered attractive enough to invest the resources required for such a specialised satellite service product.”