In recent articles we covered the story about how serving the high arctic will not be possible with a fibre optic line owing to the thousands of miles of buried cabled that would be necessary to connect these very remote and sparsely populated communities.
However, some arctic locations are already being served by fibre optic, as they were in reasonable proximity and public funds were available to facilitate the connection to the south. A key project here is the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link (MWFL) which runs from Fort Simpson to Inuvik. The MWFL is connected to the southern links at Fort Simpson in the Yukon. This fibre optic cable is 1,154 km long and offers many services and new opportunities to the region.1 https://www.mvfl.ca/
Figure 1: Map of the Mackenzie Valley Fibre Link
In those previous articles, it was indicated that satellites will be necessary to solve these remaining, significant problems. To that end, there are Canadian companies and other partners who are engaged in developing the next generation of satellites to serve the many requirements of the north.
In the meanwhile, Starlink – through SpaceX, a company owned by Elon Musk – has been busy launching a considerable number of satellites into orbit, which are now located around 550 km above the earth. This is only one part of a two-part satellite constellation which has in that second part of that configuration a reduced number of satellites in a higher orbit. These higher orbit satellites collect and return messages to the requestor, on the earth. To date, there have been 800 Starlink satellites which have been launched over 14 missions since 2016 [i]. Starlink satellites are being built at a rate of 60 per month and are quickly launched thereafter. At this rate, these satellites are state of the art .[ii]
These satellites are formed in a mesh network working within the V band (40-75 GHz) to connect to each other. Some satellites are then tasked and allocated in the Ka (26.5-40 GHz) and Ku (12-18 GHz) radio bands to return these signals to earth and deliver the data packets to the requestor. Messages do not all come to one source, they are efficiently directed at gigpop and other satellite receiving sites on the ground.
Starlink satellites weigh about 260 kg which includes solar panels and a storage battery. As these satellites are rotating around the earth, they need to be periodically adjusted in orbit. These orbit adjustments are accomplished with krypton-fueled Hall thrusters. [iii]
Starlink claims to offer 1 GBps (1 Giga Bytes per second) services with latencies as low as 25 ms (milliseconds). This will allow Zoom and other applications to perform quite well-using satellites as their delivery method. Canadian customers will need to ante up about $800 CAD to initiate these services – $649 for a household terminal which includes a ground dish, tripod, and Wi-Fi router + $129 for monthly fees.
For this package of service, the customer gets unlimited monthly uploads and downloads (for the time being). For those of us struggling with 10 GB cell phone packages here on terra firma, this level of service is quite good considering that we are paying more than that for a few phone lines, some texting, and data. It is also possible to make phone calls via Starlink: users use the WiFi connection, then VOIP and Google Voice to accomplish this task. This option is not available with other satellite service providers (discussed later in this presentation).
One remote Indigenous community has already bought into the Starlink service. At the end of November 2020, Pikangikum (located in Northern Ontario, Latitude 51.8, Longitude -94.0) became the first Indigenous community to get connected to Starlink. This community procured 60 satellite dishes which were reserved for homes and businesses in the community in the initial phase of installation. A further 40 installations are planned by the end of December. [iv] This site and other ground stations are considered by Starlink to be Beta sites for the time being.
The following chart, Figure 2, shows the download and upload speeds observed via the Starlink network. Download speeds have increased to almost 80 Mbps, with upload speeds improving similarly to almost 14 Mbps over the past year. As Starlink at this time claims to be in beta testing for their services, they are not rated by certain industry sources. [v]
Figure 2: Starlink Average Speeds (2020) – Uploads and Downloads in Mbps
This challenge to support better satellite services started in 2016 with a preliminary FCC (Federal Communications Commission) filing which was later adjusted to further regulatory filings calling for the deployment of 12,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Other competitors are also vying to get into this expanding market. Unserved markets are found in rural North America and the remote, far regions of Canada.
Hughes Network Systems is one of these competitors. Hughes has been around for quite a while. The original company started with a proverbial engineering team working out of a garage in 1971. After several staging’s and selling of the company, it is now owned by Hughes. The company claims to have 60% of the market (in the USA) for rural and out-of-reach of wired infrastructure as part of their customer base.
Hughes’ sales are in the order of $1 billion for about 1 million customers in North and South America.[vi] Included in the client count are many industrial customers, such as Walmart, which uses this service for communicating with their rural locations. To accomplish these levels of service, Hughes has 20 satellites positioned in geostationary orbit above the equator. The following graphic, Figure 3, shows the Hughes Network Systems coverage of continental USA. Alaska and Puerto Rico are also indicated to receive satellite service.
Figure 3 – Hughes Network Systems coverage of continental USA
Viasat is another competitor that has a long history. The company was formed in 2002 to deliver TV channels. Viasat now operates 4 satellites in geostationary orbits over the northern hemisphere. These satellites are high capacity and can deliver significant data speeds. Each satellite has a unique design and deployment date, resulting in data speeds of about 100 Gbps, 124 Gbps, and more recently 1 Tbps (Viasat 3). This satellite service provider also has well-priced unlimited data plans for rural and remote customers. Figure 4 shows the coverage of its most recent installation, the Viasat 3.
Figure 4 – Viasat-3 Global Coverage
A further competitor is OneWeb, which was founded in 2012. This company continues to launch satellites after surviving bankruptcy and other business challenges over its brief history. The company currently has almost 150 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 1,200 kms which operate in the Ku band. OneWeb eventually wants to deploy 48,000 satellites to provide global coverage. OneWeb was recently refinanced through the UK government and Bharti Global in the amount of US $1 billion. [vi]. It is clear from these partners that plans for a global reach are being attempted rather than a specific North American focus.
Other companies (i.e., Project Kuiper) are being formed to participate in this arena, some with significant plans and partners. However, at this time there is nothing to demonstrate that real progress is being made.
Figure 5 shows the competitive landscape in terms of satellite speeds. Hughes network is shown to operate at 25% of the upload and download speeds of Starlink. Viasat seems to be about 33% of the Starlink upload and download speeds. While the Hughes Network sells to rural customers who do not have cell and DSL service services available to them, Viasat’s customers are more often industrial organizations and government.
Figure 5: US Satellite Internet Speeds (Mbps)
Latency has long been the Achilles Heel of geosynchronous (GEO)-based systems from HughesNet and Viasat which rely on satellites stationed some 20,000 miles above the Earth’s surface. Latencies here have been measured at 600ms or more by the FCC [vii]. HughesNet [viii] does not claim that this is an issue, but the difference between page requests via the internet and voice interactions is considerable. Voice is not readily available on that system and 600ms between Zoom and phone conversations elements would break up those conversations considerably.
These older networks are using satellites that are positioned 35,400 km in a geostationary orbit above the Earth. On the other hand, Starlink’s satellites are arranged in a band 550 km above the earth. The differences between these two systems are significant. Starlink can easily provide signifiantly reduced latencies as they are significantly lower in orbit than competing systems; additionally, their technology is considered to be state of the art. Their sending locations are also considerable as they do not rely on one point of data transfer on earth.
Servicing the North
While future satellites are being developed to serve the high arctic, it would seem from this discussion that an interim solution using Starlink is a going to be a speedy and good alternative. There is no need for additional infrastructure to be built at the ground level or elsewhere and the satellites are already being built and deployed quickly. The price point for the ground dish/station is not going to be any different when a new satellite is deployed, so this solution should hold for the time being.
The only uncertainty at this time for the high arctic is that in Canada only one First Nation, Pikangikum, is currently being served. That community is only at the 51.8 North Latitude, which is far off from the Arctic Circle. There should be ability for Starlink to serve the high arctic eventually as SpaceX has resubmitted their proposal in Nov 2020 to the FCC to put as many as 58 satellites in an orbital plane of 97.6o. This would provide them with a polar orbit to serve both Canada’s high arctic and Alaska. [ix]
The challenge with this type of ground system remains that it serves only a localized community with media, data, and text – as far as Wi-Fi can cast its signal. For Indigenous people and others who are traversing the big expanses of the high arctic, they will still need satellite phones to communicate with others, should they require assistance when some distance from their community.
Our story here now shows that the Digital Divide in the north does not have to be solved with government support alone. Others are seeing the opportunity to present their own business cases being presented and extended, and are moving in that direction.
[vi] Times, Financial (22 November 2020). “UK government buys chunk of bankrupt Starlink competitor, OneWeb”. Ars Technica. Retrieved 23 November 2020.