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Look Up! Satellites changing the world again

Elon Musk and Starlink will change the world this year just as broadcast satellite did nearly 5 decades ago

· compute,technology,enterprise,telecommunications,satellite

Look up! Satellites in low orbits to provide equal hi-speed communications to the world.

Satellite technology innovation first seemed to suddenly change the world 46 years ago, and all things point to the next big change happening again later this year thanks to investments by Elon Musk through SpaceX and Starlink.

Fans of Elvis Presley can’t forget that he was the first artist to video broadcast on satellite back in January 1973 (see “Elvis: Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite”, if you have the DVD set, be sure to watch the “rehearsal concert” instead of the final concert, amazing energy and music). It was a wonderous time back then when the United States and Russia had just gone through a space race resulting in manned trips to the moon, and suddenly concerts and other events were being broadcasting live around the world.

Satellites, those in GEO synchronous orbit (a bit about that later) are great for broadcasting, but not so good for today’s interactive Internet communications; and it’s not so much a technology problem but a distance problem; the speed of light limitation combined with distance exposes a weakness in how the Internet communicates in small packets.

Elon Musk is executing a plan that will again change the world almost overnight using satellites! In fact, he has over 300 of these VLEO (very low earth orbit) satellites whizzing over our heads with a total of 1,584 planned and says he is seeking permission to have up to 42,000. Monday’s February 17

launch of 60 saw the reused booster rocket miss the landing pad.

Internet network technology connects continents, countries, and remote places using combinations of submarine (under sea) and terrestrial (over land) fibre cables, but also through satellites in orbit around our planet. Local use sees wireless technologies such as mobile, microwave towers, even lasers; and we’ve all heard a lot of hype for what is known as 5G mobile networks coming soon.

Beginning in November 2019 SpaceX has so far launched 302 VLEO satellites for Starlink. Elon Musk has decided to give the world equal and consistent access to the Internet with high speed interactive communications by “flying” thousands of small satellites in as low an earth orbit as possible. Instead of trying to wire the planet he decided to put up nearly 12,000 satellites, those already launched are whizzing around our planet at 7,000km/hour. SpaceX will be launching 60 satellites at a time, about every 2 weeks, throughout the year 2020. Some will be in orbits as close as 100km, others at 550km, and some at 1,150km and will be referred to as a ‘mega-constellation”.

Satellites are known by their distance from earth in their orbit:

  • GEO = 35,786km in a geostationary earth orbit
  • MEO = 10,000km to 20,000km in a medium earth orbit
  • LEO = 160km to 1,600km in a low earth orbit
  • VLEO = very low earth orbit, recognized as anything less than 200km because there is atmospheric drag and these satellites need engines to boost their orbit a number of times a year and can operate for about 1 to 5 years before being replaced.

Obviously, you can see that Elon Musk’s VLEO satellites flying at over 100km+ overhead are much closer than the GEO satellites at 35,000km away, they will provide high-speed 2-way Internet communications. In fact, there will be many more uses such as needed by autonomous driving cars and all things connected using Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. The technology is very interesting, known as a “mesh network”, because each satellite is only “in view” for a few minutes before it must hand-off our communications to the next satellite(s) coming into view.

Throughout my career I’ve been energised to pursue effective business use of new technology capabilities. I had started out as a system and “user experience” expert when suddenly 10 years along I needed to enhance my network and telecommunications expertise. I had been promoted to be Oracle Corporation’s Principal Network Architect and sent to The Pacific Telecommunication Conference which Oracle still sponsors every January (I know, it was tough to be in Honolulu Hawaii every January). A key conference where global networks are discussed (see It was fascinating to learn about the business of global telecommunications and the art of the possible. If you’re interested, see the global submarine cable map here

The big problem for networks is distance. Distance means the signal must travel and this causes “latency” (delays) to wait for it to travel, be processed, and travel back. Unfortunately, the speed of light is not fast enough and I was hoping that the likes of Larry Ellison or Elon Musk would discover “warp speed fibre” (for those Star Trek fans, warp being multiple times the speed of light). Unless Quantum Physics finds another way (remember when it was thought nothing was faster than the speed of light?, well Quantum mechanics believes there are faster methods of communications). But until we find how to use it, and/or until we manufacture “warp speed fibre” we’re limited to the speed of light whether over cables or microwaves to satellites.

This new mega-constellation uses principles of mesh networks. To bring this to our home experience, those with Wi-Fi signal problems would buy a Wi-Fi extender, but the extender has many problems. If you are using Wi-Fi home network extenders – look to upgrading to a true mesh network, you will be very happy with the improvement! (see Nest or Eero or other mesh home networks)

Elon’s Starlink is basically a mesh network for the planet and our mobile devices. The ability to have good performance while just about anywhere on the planet surface will be outstanding and will certainly change the world as we know it. After 6 launches (3 to go) Starlink is expected to provide services to the USA and Canada, after all 24 launches its services will be global.

Keep looking up! Changes are coming quickly to global communications, which will open the door to rapid additional innovations.