Well, when old-school telecom companies are pushing the limits of ground-based telecom services by doing extensive research on the technologies like 5G, there are some newcomers in the industry, trying their hands in a new direction.

SpaceX backed Starlink, Amazon backed Project Kuiper and private companies like OneWeb are the leaders in this new approach. They are trying to provide internet, even to remote places on the earth by using Satellites.

In past 20 years, the cost for launching satellites by using rockets had been reduced significantly, so much so that even after providing internet by using satellites, these companies can make profit.

Satellite Internet system will surely help those countries which have poor infrastructure and also can provide internet to remote locations on earth in a affordable way.

According to the facts, SpaceX’s Starlink is currently the market leader in this segment with currently 904 satellites in orbit (as of 25th November, 2020).

Next to the competition, we have OneWeb with 74 satellites launched till date (as of 28th November, 2020).

And at last we have Project Kuiper of Amazon. Till date, it's only a planned program of Amazon and no satellites had been launched. Amazon announced that it will invest more than 10 billion USD in Project Kuiper. For this, Amazon also hired ex-SpaceX’s Starlink Vice President Rajeev Badyal and appointed him as the president of Project Kuiper.

So let’s dig into the details of each company, one by one….

1) SpaceX’s Starlink:

Satellite Internet Wars: Starlink vs OneWeb vs Project Kuiper The Dynamic Frequency Ratnadeep Das Choudhury

Among these three competitors, Starlink is most progressive. Ranging from SpaceX’s Dragon and Crew Dragon program and Big Falcon Rocket to this, 2020 was a great year for SpaceX and for Elon Musk also.

All of the SpaceX’s satellites are in Low Earth orbit. Till now they have launched 955 satellites but only 904 are operational. They have planned to launch more satellites in coming years. All of their satellites were launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and except the first launch, when they used Falcon 9 Full Throttle (FT), in every other launch they used Falcon 9 Block-5.

Speaking about Satellite Hardware of Starlink, they all are SmallSat class satellites and have weight of approximately 100 to 500 kgs. All are in LEO orbit (Low-earth orbit). These satellites will employ optical inter-satellite links and phased array beam. These satellites will provide signals in Ku (12 to 18 Ghz) and Ka (26.5 to 40 Ghz) bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Phased array beams refer to the computer-controlled array of antennas which creates a beam of electromagnetic beams and those beams can be steered electronically without moving the antennas.

A minimum theoretical round-trip latency has been assumed to be 25 to 35 milliseconds as these satellites will orbit at the height of 1/105 to 1/30 that of geostationary orbits.

The satellites will also use Hall effect Thrusters which are a type of ion thruster in which the propellent is accelerated by an electric field. These Hall effect thrusters will be used with krypton gas as the reaction mass as it tends to exhibit significantly higher erosion of the flow channel compared to a similar to a system operated with Xenon. In my subsequent articles, I will explain about Hall effect thrusters.

Speaking about applications, do not expect that these smallsats will be used for satellite phones like Globalstar or Iridium. Rather, it will use terminals which will have phased array antennas and will track the satellites and thus transfer the data.

2) OneWeb:

Satellite Internet Wars: Starlink vs OneWeb vs Project Kuiper The Dynamic Frequency Ratnadeep Das Choudhury

OneWeb is a global communication provider company whose main purpose is to provide satellite-based internet services to the world. This company is headquartered in London, United Kingdom and the current owners of the company are Government of United Kingdom and Bharti Enterprises (that same group which owns Airtel Telecommunications). Both the owners have 42.2 % stake in the company. This company was founded in 2012 by Greg Wyler.

Unlike Starlink, this company have troubled history due to COVID-19 and 2020 Stock Market Crash. So much so, that they have to file bankruptcy and later saved by joint venture of UK govt. and Bharti group by providing an investment of 500 million USD by each of the current owners. They started launching satellites in February 2019 and have planned to launch more than 648 LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites. By March 2020, they had launched 74 satellites. Their all satellites had been launched by Soyuz rockets of Russia.

Speaking about the satellite hardware and configuration, the OneWeb Constellation satellites have approximately 150kg in mass. The 648 operational satellites are to be operate in 18 polar orbits and will have an orbital height of 1200 km above sea level. Like Starlink, these satellites will also provide Ku Band of electromagnetic Spectrum. Also, like Starlink, phased antennas will be used to communication purposes and can provide internet access at 50 megabits/seconds.

3) Amazon’s Project Kuiper:

Satellite Internet Wars: Starlink vs OneWeb vs Project Kuiper The Dynamic Frequency Ratnadeep Das Choudhury

Amazon announced about Project Kuiper in April 2019 and they are expecting to launch a massive 3236 satellites to achieve their goal. According to Amazon, it would take a decade to launch full constellation.

Till date, they haven’t launched a single satellite. Their satellites are projected to orbit with an altitude of 590 to 630 km. These satellites will operate in 98 orbital planes in 3 orbital shells, one each at 590 km , 610 km and 630 km.


Major Concerns Regarding Satellite Internet Concept:

As these projects need to have large number of satellites, these satellites add to already increasing Space debris problem in our orbits and thus risk of causing satellite collision is increasing.

Disruption caused by Starlink Satellite imaging through a telescope The Dynamic Frequency Ratnadeep Das Choudhury
Disruption caused by Starlink Satellite imaging through a telescope 

Along with this, the large number of satellites also interfere with astronomical observations. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) and National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) already raised concern about these.

No doubt, these technologies will help out society to upgrade to the next level and also help people living in the remotest areas to access the internet but, if they can tackle the concerns raised against them and will not hamper the operations of our astronomers then only this technology will be successful…Lets see what the future stores for us…

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                                                                 -Ratnadeep Das Choudhury
                                                  Founder and writer of The Dynamic Frequency