30-11-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
As Russia and China present the world with numerous difficulties, including war and security, the West continues to build up its defences both in the physical and digital worlds. Recently, the EU announced their intention to create a satellite network that will focus on providing broadband internet services, but while this may offer some major benefits, it also faces numerous challenges. What advantages does a satellite internet network provide, why has the EU felt the need to establish its own network, and what challenges does it face?
Almost all internet connections on the planet are serviced by cabled networks such as copper and fibre optics, and these will either terminate into a router that provides ethernet access or wireless access via Wi-Fi. While such networks offer high speed and low latency, their physical nature means that they are often restricted to built-up areas, which see remote places either having poor internet access or no access whatsoever.
In such locations, reliable internet access is only ever realised through the use of satellite broadband services which take advantage of orbiting satellites to connect devices on the ground to ISPs. Of course, these internet services do suffer from their own challenges, such as low bandwidth and large latencies, but the development of low-earth orbiting satellites such as Starlink (SpaceX) and OneWeb is aiming to minimise these challenges while providing internet access across entire countries.
But going beyond the obvious advantages of broadband satellite, there are numerous advantages to space-based internet services that are not entirely obvious at first. The current Russo-Ukraine war and the continuing advances of China in the field of technology present numerous threats to world stability, the global economy, and national defence.
For example, the reliance on the internet in the West to monitor and control critical infrastructure enables foreign nations to attack power networks, water distribution, and even traffic systems, which Russia and China have been known to conduct. Another example of the dangers faced by the West was the destruction of the Nordic 2 gas pipeline and numerous undersea internet cables connecting the Shetland Islands to the UK. The dependency on physical connections that can be easily cut allows for an enemy nation to effectively sever critical communication infrastructure with ease.
Satellite internet, however, is not as easy to interfere with, thus providing nations with a critical line of communication. Any enemy nation that attempts to destroy orbiting satellites with missiles would be faced with numerous challenges, including potential counterattacks on their own orbiting infrastructure, risking Keppler Syndrome (a cascade effect where all satellites in orbit break down through collisions), and causing possible loss of life through deorbiting satellite collisions with the ground.
Recently, the EU announced that it has raised over €6 billion in funding to create its own satellite internet service that would serve the EU bloc and some countries in Africa. The name of the new constellation of satellites is IRIS2 which stands for Infrastructure for Resilience, Interconnectivity, and Security by Satellite, and this suggests that the primary goal of the constellation is to provide internet redundancy to the EU.
Some reports suggest that the network will utilise around 170 low-earth orbiting satellites, which will help to reduce system latency, and it is expected that these satellites will be launched between 2025 and 2027. However, it is also likely that the service will be restricted in use so that it can be used for critical infrastructure during emergencies.
The driving force behind this new fund comes from the challenges presented by Russia and China, especially considering that Russia has blocked terrestrial internet services in Ukraine in an attempt to control information. At the same time, China continues to launch numerous satellites while simultaneously being reckless with the destruction of older satellite systems and allowing rockets to fall uncontrollably. However, it was also stated that the satellite network would be used to defend against cyberattacks and war and during natural disasters such as floods, storms, and fires.
By far, one of the most significant challenges faced by internet satellites is cost. Despite the numerous promises being made by Elon Musk about how Starlink will help solve everyone’s internet problems, a quick bit of napkin math reveals that Starlink is far from being economical in practice. An excellent video which dives into this challenge was published by Common Sense Skeptic, who is famous for debunking many technological announcements and developments.
Further evidence that demonstrates the economic challenges faced by satellite internet services comes from the reliance on government subsidies to provide internet to the Ukrainian army, the fact that Starlink charged $2,500 per month for each of the 1,300 terminals provided, and the fact that many Starlink customers see issues with performance as the satellite network is quickly approaching its maximum bandwidth capabilities.
Some may say that the above challenges are those faced by Starlink only but considering that Starlink has been able to pioneer this industry and has the rocket infrastructure to send thousands of satellites into space, it doesn’t bode well for others. Even though high-orbiting satellites have latency and bandwidth issues, they can be made significantly larger, more reliable, and have a greater coverage area.
If the EU wants to create its own constellation, it will first need to ignore all the hype surrounding companies such as Starlink and do some basic math to determine if such a constellation is economically viable. Secondly, the EU will need to recognise that such a network will not be able to service everyone and will likely sit dormant until some natural disaster or attack occurs. Overall it is likely that such a plan will waste enormous amounts of money if not planned carefully, and just because everyone else has internet satellites in orbit doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to follow suit.