Could broadband services delivered by high or lower-orbit satellite technology blow away their fixed wireless competition? Not anytime soon.
Back in February last year, we reported on Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is developing a satellite system promising low-latency and superfast broadband services across the planet. We’re not just talking a few satellites, but thousands of small devices in low-earth orbit. SpaceX isn’t the only player to embark on such a venture, some of which are approaching prime time.
Big claims are being made about the impacts this technology will have – some here in Australia say it will almost “obliterate the NBN” and others say it eat the lunch of non-NBN fixed wireless services that have been popping up.
Satellite broadband shares some similarities with fixed wireless internet.
How Does Fixed Wireless Broadband Work?
Lightning Broadband is an example of a provider using fixed wireless broadband technology. In a nutshell, we install a fibre link to an area and then via microwave links, direct bandwidth to a receiver centrally located on the top of a tall structure in nearby – for example, an office building. We then re-broadcast the signal to a small fixed wireless internet receiver/transceiver mounted on the rooftop of a home or business. You can read more about Lightning Broadband’s technology here.
How Does Satellite Broadband Work?
As the name suggests, satellites transfer data to and from a dish installed at your premises and to and from a service provider’s ground stations here on terra firma.
The Tyranny Of Distance
A big difference between the two technologies is the distances covered. Whereas fixed wireless transmission usually occurs over a distance over a few kilometres, the distances involved with satellite broadband are much, much greater.
With high earth synchronous orbit systems, a satellite’s altitude can be around 36,000km. Bearing in mind radio travels at the speed of light, that works out to around a 600ms round trip – which is quite slow and a bear to work with for applications such as gaming. On the positive side, only 2 or 3 satellites can cover a country such as Australia; but this then limits total bandwidth – as NBN Co. discovered.
The next big thing are the aforementioned very small low earth orbit satellites flying a few hundred kilometres above the planet that solve the latency issue. However, their size and comparatively very close distance also means lots of them are needed and mechanical tracking is required.
All this extra equipment – both in space and here on the ground – is accompanied by a significant cost. While it’s very interesting technology and could provide great benefit in remote regions, it won’t be economically viable to compete per Mbps with the NBN – or the new generation of non-NBN fixed wireless services operating – in metropolitan and regional areas in Australia.