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Satellite Internet fills holes in global connectivity, but cost remains an issue

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launches 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in 2019. File Photo courtesy of SpaceX/UPI
1 of 4 | A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launches 60 Starlink satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., in 2019. File Photo courtesy of SpaceX/UPI | License Photo

June 16 (UPI) -- Satellite Internet is helping to fill digital deserts, but roughly half the world's population still lacks online access as many remain priced out.

The United Nations has set a goal that "every person should have safe and affordable access to the Internet, including meaningful use of digitally enabled services" by 2030.

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But the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union notes that a majority of the 3.7 billion people who remain without regular or high-speed Internet access live in the world's least developed countries.

That number could drop a bit after U.S. aerospace company SpaceX launches a $540 million Satria communications satellite for Indonesia to provide broadband Internet and communications capacity for schools, hospitals and other public facilities in rural regions.

Liftoff is planned for Sunday from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

Starlink, operated by SpaceX and owner Elon Musk, is one of the leaders in the effort to use satellites to grow the 5.18 billion -- 6.46% of the global population -- connected to the Internet as of April.

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The company provides high-speed, low-latency broadband Internet to about 1.5 million customers worldwide with a "constellation" of low-Earth-orbit satellites -- that has eclipsed 4,000 -- able to beam signals between themselves, creating fast and reliable Internet access.

Japan last fall became the first country in Asia to get the service and this year, Starlink made its service available in Nigeria and Rwanda with plans to expand to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania by December, with further expansion next year.

David Michelson, who leads the Radio Science Lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and serves as president of the Canadian National Committee of the International Union of Radio Science, told UPI in an interview that while global Internet coverage has been technically possible for about 25 years, cost presents a significant barrier.

"The problem is not whether it is technically possible, it's to make the business case. That's going to be the big challenge," he said.

While North American service providers can spend billions to connect rural communities to the Internet using an ever-expanding fiber optic cable network, that solution is not as feasible in more sparsely -populated parts of the world.

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"When you have a high-density area, the cost of deploying the fiber is amortized over lots of subscribers and you can bear it. And in places where you don't have those subscribers and you can't amortize the cost of deploying fiber, the satellite system works," Michelson said.

"Their strengths and limitations dovetail almost perfectly."

Starlink is no stranger to the cost issue as Michelson said the company must maintain the ability "to bring in enough income in order to offset the cost of operating a very expensive system."

"They have an expensive system to maintain. They've got space-based assets. They're going to have to regularly replace those satellites. Maintaining a satellite network is expensive, it requires a lot more monitoring and caretaking and maintenance than a conventional system does," Michelson said.

Musk said in October the company could not continue to support financial losses incurred from providing its service in Ukraine, which relies heavily on the Starlink system to operate its defense systems and intelligence amid the war with Russia.

He estimated losses for 2022 at about $100 million but later pivoted and said he would keep the service going despite the losses. Earlier this month, the Pentagon confirmed it would buy Starlink satellite dishes and fund the service to ensure Ukraine remained connected.

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To Michelson, one issue that bears watching is how Starlink is able to function as part of a larger goal and pull in the same direction.

"The vision comes from the International Telecommunications Union. There are standards in place that have been developed for 5G non-terrestrial networks, essentially aeronautical and space-based networks. One of the interesting parts is that the Starlink system is not part of this vision," said Michelson, an engineer who began his career as a member of a joint team from AT&T Wireless and AT&T Labs-Research.

"One of the things that the telecommunications committee is going to be looking forward to is the manner in which Starlink will integrate with the satellite network, as opposed to the way it would integrate if it was built to the standards or developed at the behest of ITU for 5G.

"Starlink is sort of an outlier. So that's a big question mark for a lot of us. How will Starlink fit into the 5G and 6G vision? Or will it just be an outlier?"

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