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ben there, done that for May 11, 2022

Move the cloud above the clouds

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The internet-undeniably the backbone of our modern world – it influences our banking, communication, shopping, and entertainment. In the last decades, we, as consumers, are increasingly reliant on the internet. The majority of us receive this service through some sort of cable or tower-based wireless system. However, a significant shift is coming to internet service, one that promises better services for rural states like our Montana.

Ever wonder what the internet is? A good description is a (mostly) interconnected network of computers circling the world. The majority of this interconnectivity is supported by more than 430 undersea fiberoptic cables. Together these cables span more than 800,000 miles. This marvel of technology provides you with nearly instant access to information on a computer located on the other side of the globe. Without underwater fiber optic cables, the internet, as we know it, wouldn’t exist.

This submarine approach to internet infrastructure is excellent for densely populated coastal areas where the substantial cost of laying cables can be offset by a large base of customers who pay a monthly fee for access. Consequently, for rural, landlocked Montana, the financial viability of installing such infrastructure is often not feasible. Instead, rural areas are forced to rely on slower methods of connection such as copper phone lines or wireless tower systems. The combination of slower connections and fewer paying customers culminates in higher prices for lower quality service for our state. The inequality of service disadvantages rural areas in participating in the modern world, with proven negative socioeconomic effects.

The U.S. government has offered incentives to encourage building additional communication infrastructure. However, painfully slow progress and spotty coverage still plague rural areas. So, what if the internet wasn’t something that required all this physical infrastructure? And what if the internet could be delivered from above our heads instead of under the sea?

Enter Starlink, OneWeb, Project Kuiper, and other space-based internet companies that have launched in recent years. While satellite internet has existed for many years, it has traditionally been slower and more expensive than other conventional options. Thankfully, both of those things are beginning to change with this new generation of products.

Older versions of satellite internet were notorious for being quite slow: satellites were positioned in high orbits. But the new generation of products is ushering in changes. To resolve speed issues, newer services are placing satellites in a lower orbit, around 340 miles up. The reduced distance the signal needs to travel greatly improves the reliability. Together a faster and more steady connection is provided than in previous iterations of service.

Launching any satellite into space is extremely expensive, even more so for a network of thousands. As a niche product, few paying customers were available to offset the costs. Newer companies are trying to solve this problem by bringing satellite internet to the mainstream. With more users, the costs can be lowered to be more competitive in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, a larger number of users comes at a cost. Each satellite, no matter how well designed, can only support a finite number of users. The new generation of satellite internet relies on very large networks of satellites in orbit to send and receive information from the surface. Starlink, created by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is the most advanced new space-based internet with 2,000 satellites in the sky. While this is impressive, it is only a small fraction of the 42,000 they plan to install in orbit. Even with this limited “beta” version of their service, Starlink has managed to provide faster speeds than most of the non-fiber optic internet options available in rural and isolated areas.

I view the brave new future of the internet to be a very bright one. Specifically, more advanced internet service will have a profound and positive impact on our state. Increased access to the online world opens the door for new tech enterprises, better connection with the rest of the world, and a plethora of added benefits. Moving the cloud above the clouds will profit numerous isolated areas of the world too, helping to usher in a new era of increased equality of access to information. How exciting is that?

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