Very low earth orbit satellites (VLEO) will provide a fresh source of bandwidth to consumers in the next 6 to 10 years. VLEO’s are intended to play a significant role in connecting consumers’ Internet of Things devices to the web. They will provide an especially useful pathway to the internet for the approximately 3.5 billion people who lack affordable access through today’s Internet Service Providers.
In November 2018, the FCC authorized a SpaceX (Starlink) plan to launch 7,518 satellites at an altitude of 340km. Earlier this year, the FCC had approved the launch of 4,425 VLEO satellites, bringing SpaceX’s fleet to nearly 12,000 satellites for its Starlink broadband service. The FCC authorized the use of 37.5GHz and 42GHz for space-to-Earth transmissions and frequencies between 47.2GHz and 51.4GHz for Earth-to-space transmissions. The 4.5Ghz of bandwidth capacity in each direction is an enormous amount.
Investments in VLEO are aggressive and worldwide. OneWeb, AirBus and Softbank owners, plans to operate 900 VLEO satellites. China plans for 300 VLEO satellites. Telesat (Canadian) plans to operate 512 satellites, LeoSat (Japanese and Latin America backers) plans for 108 satellites and Iridium will have 66 VLEO satellites. Morgan Stanley projects that the space industry will grow from $350 billion in 2016 to more than $1.1 trillion by 2040.
The advantages of VLEO satellites are several. First, they cost about $200,000 each, compared with millions each for the larger satellites used for geostationary orbit. VLEO satellites are relatively light (150 kg) and can also be launched in batches instead of one or two at a time.
The geostationary satellites in use today are in an orbit 36,000 miles above the earth. Because VLEO satellites are so much closer to the earth, the time it takes for a signal from the earth to the satellite and back to earth is just a few milliseconds instead of a half second for geostationary satellites. A few milliseconds translate into very low latency (about the same as cable) for devices using VLEO to reach the internet.
A consumer using VLEO would send a message from his broadband terminal through the home antenna to the satellite. The satellite would relay the message back to an earth gateway directly connected to the internet. The VLEO satellite would be moving briskly across the sky as it orbits around the world. To aim the message from home, the home antenna would need to track the position of the satellite or hop to the next satellite. That tracking can be accomplished electronically without physical movement of the antenna.
The sheer volume that low earth satellites add to space clutter is an issue. About 500,000 objects between one and 10cm “were estimated to be in orbit as of 2012,” and at least 23,000 were man-made. The chances of a collision among space objects increases as each new object is added to the orbit space.
To communicate through the VLEO satellites, consumers would use a broadband device and an antenna. OneWeb says the antenna will need to be priced below $200, in order to be affordable for the consumer market they plan to serve. VLEO satellites will add an extra layer of competition for low latency broadband service in urban areas and will be the first layer of broadband service in rural unserved areas. This new capacity will be welcomed in the Internet of Things.