A highly ambitious proposal recently advanced by Samsung describes the deployment of a huge network of 4,600 near-Earth satellites that would provide internet coverage on a truly global scale. The artificial constellation would more than double the number of working satellites in orbit around our planet and lead to low-latency and (potentially) low-cost access to about 200 GB of internet traffic a month for up to five billion people, no matter their location.
Recent studies estimate that as many as 4.2 billion people, over 60 percent of the world's population, still lack internet access. Bringing the Web to every corner of the globe is sure to be a huge undertaking, but the repercussions of, say, bringing freedom of information and low-cost access to high-quality education materials to anyone who can put their hands on a cheap smartphone would surely bear consequences worth noting.
Samsung is not the first to advance such an idea. Google has been among the pioneers in this field, initially turning to hot-air balloons and then, more recently, partnering with SpaceX to deploy their own satellite constellation. Facebook has also unveiled plans including the use of solar-powered drones, and Richard Branson's OneWeb satellite network is yet another major contender.
Samsung expects global monthly data demand to increase more than a hundred-fold and reach the staggering figure of one zettabyte (one billion terabytes) by the year 2028. Since putting in place a complex infrastructure of communication satellites is sure to take several years, the emphasis with the electronics giant's approach is an aggressive attempt to get the most bang for the buck in terms of bandwidth, and to do so in the largest possible scale.
Communication satellites usually operate in a geostationary orbit, about 36,000 km (22,000 miles) from the surface. In this orbit, satellites remain at a fixed point in the sky when seen from Earth, so their data can be accessed with relative ease through a small, stationary dish. Samsung, however, reasoned that this wouldn't do for satellite-based internet, since at such a high altitude radio signals would take about a quarter of a second for a round-trip, too long for practical applications.
Samsung's plan is to instead have its satellite fleet operate much closer to Earth, around 1,400 km (900 miles) above the surface. And because radio signals in space can travel in a straight line, as opposed to signals in fiber optics (which travel by constant zig-zagging as the signal is reflected from one side of the cable to the other), Samsung says that its network would actually provide lower latencies for medium and long distance communications.
Geostationary orbits are also often used for convenience, since the entire surface of the globe can be covered with as few as three satellites. Samsung, however, plans to turn this dynamic on its head, attempting to cut costs by mass-producing a giant fleet of 4,600 low-cost satellites each able to provide data rates in the terabit range. Besides the cost savings, such a large fleet would also offer more flexibility, providing higher capacity over more densely populated areas.
As of now there are no definite plans attached with Samsung's proposal, but given the amount of interest shown from competing companies, it wouldn't be a stretch to assume that large scale satellite-based internet has an increasingly high chance of becoming a reality. When this might finally happen, and who will be the first to achieve this milestone, still remains to be seen.
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