A new design could double the network capacity of future “internet from space” systems.
Satellites do not yet play a major role in the world’s internet infrastructure. However, this may soon be set to change.
Within the next decade, a new generation of satellites could lay the foundations for an “internet from space,” says Ankit Singla, professor at ETH Zurich’s Network Design & Architecture Lab. His team is investigating how to improve the performance of large-scale computer networks, including the internet.
Exploiting advances in cost-cutting technologies in the space sector, the new satellite systems would use thousands of satellites instead of the tens of satellites used in past systems. Laser light could then link these satellites to each other to form a network.
The coverage these satellites would provide could reach remote regions that currently have no or very limited access to the internet. These regions are either entirely unconnected or poorly connected to the intercontinental fiber-optic cables that power today’s internet.
The ‘Internet from Space’ Race
The capabilities of the LEO satellites have triggered a new, contested “space race,” with heavyweights such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon throwing their hats into the ring. These companies are developing large-scale satellite constellations with thousands to tens of thousands of satellites. These would orbit the Earth at speeds of 27,000 km/h (16,777 mp/h) at a height of around 500 km (around 311 miles) (traditional geostationary satellites orbit at around 35,768 km (22,225 miles).
SpaceX, for example, has already launched its first 120 satellites, and is planning to offer a satellite-based broadband internet service from 2020. In addition to global coverage, the technology used in the “internet from space” promises high data transfer rates without major delays in data transmission. The latency, as computer scientists call these delays, is significantly lower than that of geostationary satellites, and even that of underground fiber-optic lines for long-distance communication.
“If these plans succeed, it would be a huge leap forward in the world’s internet infrastructure,” says Debopam Bhattacherjee, a doctoral candidate working with Singla to investigate the optimal design of networks for satellite-based broadband internet in order to guarantee a high-bandwidth, delay-free data flow.Read more