Sorry, Elon! The Satellites of the Future Are Heading to Space Right Now

A rocket carrying two Amazon satellites blasts off in Cape Canaveral, Fla., earlier this month. REUTERS/Joe Skipper JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS
A rocket carrying two Amazon satellites blasts off in Cape Canaveral, Fla., earlier this month. REUTERS/Joe Skipper JOE SKIPPER/REUTERS

Summary

Elon Musk’s Starlink may soon face new competition from satellite companies offering internet service, available from anywhere on Earth where you can see the sky.

A new generation of satellites is redefining what’s possible in space.

They are radically different from what has been the standard for almost the entire history of humans hurling things into orbit. They tantalize potential customers—including governments, businesses and consumers—with the promise of fast, always-on internet access, anywhere on Earth, anytime.

Thousands of this new kind of satellite are already operational, most of them powering the Starlink satellite network from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which counts more than two million customers in 60 countries around the world, including Ukraine, where it has been critical to that country’s war with Russia, and Iran, where the network is helping citizens get around that country’s internet blockade.

Starlink may soon have plenty of competition, as countries and companies race to build their own internet-delivering constellations of satellites using this technology.

Efforts to build such networks, often in a public-private partnership, are currently under way in China, Europe, Taiwan, Canada and Germany. And last week Amazon launched the first two satellites of what the company has said will ultimately be thousands in a network that will go head-to-head with Musk’s offering.

Most of these new satellites will be just a few hundred miles above Earth’s surface, where they can communicate with the ground much more quickly than the older generation of satellites in higher orbit. Because they’re constantly passing over the horizon, receivers and transmitters on the ground—like Starlink’s pizza-size antennas—must constantly hop their connection to the next satellite to come into view, which adds to the technical challenge.

Engineers are meeting that challenge. Better rockets have enabled cheaper and more frequent launches. New software makes the satellites reprogrammable and upgradable from the ground. And new kinds of antennas and digital innards for satellites are allowing space-based networks to deliver fast internet connectivity to pretty much anyplace on Earth a person can get an unobstructed view of the sky.

Getting to this point has taken a long time, says Luigi Pozzebon, a grizzled veteran of the industry who has been designing satellites for more than 30 years. Pozzebon is now vice president of satellite systems at MDA Space, which is building satellites for Telesat Lightspeed, a forthcoming network that is receiving funding from the Canadian government. It will be launched by an Ottawa-based company called Telesat, and will be a low-Earth orbit satellite constellation, like Starlink’s, focused on providing internet access to enterprise customers, such as airlines, cruise-ship operators and telecommunications companies.

Old-style satellites had analog antennas on them, which were purpose-built to relay a particular signal from the ground to elsewhere on Earth. “You were stuck with whatever beam pattern you illuminated the Earth with, and however much power," says Pozzebon.

Starting just over a decade ago, satellite makers began incorporating digital antennas that are “steerable." An array of little antennas, controlled digitally, can aim a beam of precise direction, size and power, and turn it on and off incredibly quickly.

Telesat announced in August that it had decided to switch providers for its Lightspeed network. The new manufacturer of its satellites, MDA, will use a design that will save Telesat $2 billion, as the new digital antennas on its satellites allow MDA to radically shrink the size of each satellite and cut in half the number of antennas, while tripling the number of communication beams each satellite can generate.

Another form of communications that the newest satellites are beginning to incorporate are laser-based interconnects. This is, literally, satellites shooting each other with laser beams—albeit for high-speed communication, not some Star Wars-style battle for the soul of the galaxy. Laser interlinks allow satellite constellations to communicate with each other extremely quickly, which means that data can be transmitted through the network in space, all the way around the world if need be, before the signal returns to the ground. This could allow much faster communication over long distances, and more reliable connectivity in the event that any one particular ground station is overloaded or not working. Starlink has already switched this on for some of its satellites, and many other companies have proposed it for their constellations.

Another company launching next-generation satellites—albeit into a much higher geostationary orbit—is Intelsat, which was founded in 1964. The company has four such satellites in the works, the first of which will launch in 2025. By virtue of their altitude, they will cover wide swaths of the planet, says Chief Technology Officer Bruno Fromont.

Intelsat recently signed a deal with Air Canada and Alaska Airlines to provide upgraded in-flight internet connectivity from these and other Intelsat satellites.

“Before, you had coverage from a satellite spanning the entire U.S., and you’d share that bandwidth with thousands of airplanes," says Fromont. “Now, you can dedicate one channel to every single plane, and that’s going to change the customer experience."

The high-bandwidth connection that the next generation of satellites provides is also a military advantage in battle, and a potential lifesaver when a catastrophe has knocked out the local internet infrastructure. Connecting ships at sea is also an option—presently, most merchant ships have at best spotty or low-bandwidth connections. And then there are the unconnected billions of people all over the Earth who may soon have their first reliable internet access.

Still, it must be said: For most people in the developed world, terrestrial internet is already pretty good—and with the expansion of fiber and 5G, getting better all the time. So one appropriate response to the promise of all this extra internet bandwidth from space is, essentially, “how big a deal is this, really?"

“There are a few Elon Musk fans out there, but in general the economics of satellite internet are not as good as, say, 5G wireless on the ground," says Tim Farrar, president of TMF Associates, a satellite-communications consulting and research firm.

In 2015, Space Exploration Technologies, as Musk’s rocket company is formally known, made a presentation to investors that projected Starlink would have 20 million subscribers by 2022. In September 2023, Starlink said that it had about a 10th that number. The company just announced plans to offer direct satellite connections to cellphones, clearly an attempt to expand its potential user base.

Starlink’s failure to garner the huge number of users it was hoping for doesn’t bode well for the rest of the industry, no matter how advanced its technology, says Farrar.

Indeed, rather than a bold new space race, today’s build-out of space internet infrastructure might find a more accurate comparison in the boom—and subsequent bust—of terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure in the 1990s, he adds.

One big difference between satellite networks and ground-based ones made out of fiber optic and coaxial cables is that satellites last at most around 15 years, and the new ones making up low-Earth orbit constellations can stop functioning in as little as five.

Because of its huge lead in terms of launching satellites, securing customers, and driving down its costs for antennas and satellites, that might mean a future in which Starlink is the only satellite internet constellation breaking even, much less making a profit. If companies can’t find the customers and revenue necessary to sustain their networks of communications satellites by continually launching new ones, it could mean a future in which some airlines and other companies have to tear out existing antennas and find new providers.

“This may not be a problem for consumers, since people are used to changing their phone every two to three years," says Farrar. “But if you’re an airline, you’re not going to be very happy if you have to take your airplane out of service, and you cut a big hole in it and spent hundreds of thousands for the antenna and its installation," he adds.

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Write to Christopher Mims at christopher.mims@wsj.com

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