The Future of Satellite Internet: A New Digital Divide

The Future of Satellite Internet: A New Digital Divide

Our planet is now completely surrounded by telecom satellites. What will this mean for the future of connectivity?
Written by
November 28, 2023
Planet Earth with satellites surrounding it
Over 5,000 satellites are positioned in low orbit around our planet today.

Key Takeaways

  • Satellite internet offers a potential solution to bridge the digital divide by providing connectivity to long-underserved regions. However, it risks creating a new form of divide based on bandwidth limitations.
  • As we move towards a future filled with bandwidth-intensive technologies like VR, IoT, and AI, satellite internet services may struggle to provide the necessary speeds and latency, leaving satellite-dependent users behind.
  • Companies like Starlink and OneWeb are leading the charge in satellite internet but with different targets. While Starlink focuses on consumer services, OneWeb caters to enterprise and governmental uses, illustrating the varied approaches in this burgeoning industry.

Several of the world’s most influential companies are spending billions on a bet that satellite internet will play a pivotal role in the future of connectivity. They aren’t alone; space is primed to be big business, and it’s expected that the nascent space-based broadband sector could bring in billions of dollars in the near future.

The internet has revolutionized the way we live, work, and communicate. From its humble beginnings as a research project to its current status as a global phenomenon, our connections have continually evolved to meet the demands of its users.

While traditional broadband has served many well, vast regions of the world remain unconnected. Enter satellite internet — a promising solution that aims to bridge this digital divide. But what if, in the process of doing so, it creates a new one?

Starlink and OneWeb: The Major Players

You can’t get very far down the rabbit hole that is satellite internet without running into the two key players in orbit today – SpaceX’s Starlink and the U.K. government’s OneWeb.

Though it might appear on the surface that these two are in direct competition, the truth is that they are trying to accomplish two different goals, with some overlap in the middle. While Starlink primarily aims to offer consumer services, OneWeb targets enterprise and governmental uses.

There are others, too. Industry veterans Hughesnet and Viasat have been providing traditional satellite internet for decades and are now partnering with Low Earth Orbit (LEO) companies to offer service and technical consultation. For their part, Amazon also has Project Kuiper, which has been slow to get off the launch pad but is eventually expected to provide a similar level of service to Starlink for the consumer market.

These services can potentially be transformative for those in rural areas or regions otherwise underserved by terrestrial broadband. Currently, we experience the digital divide as a disparity between those with functional internet service and those with none. These technologies can help the latter group tremendously, which is undeniably good. But what happens when the definition of “functional” internet changes?

A Brief History: The Evolution of Satellite Internet and Its Limits

Drawing of various technologies underpinning the fourth industrial revolution
Much like the invention of the internet reshaped our world, technologies built off of it, like AI, VR/AR, and automation, will continue to transform our lives in ways that are difficult to predict.

Satellite internet has come a long way since its inception in the early 1990s, primarily serving enterprise and government clients due to high costs and limited bandwidth. Consumer-level services appeared in the late 1990s but were hindered by high latency and lower speeds. Fast forward to the current era, LEO satellites promise lower latency and are being touted as a solution for global connectivity.

Despite decades of advancements, satellite internet still grapples with inherent limitations such as speed and latency. As we look toward a future where increasingly bandwidth-intensive technologies become the norm, these limitations risk creating new problems for those living without a fiber connection. Users with access to high-speed, low-latency terrestrial networks will be primed to take advantage of next-generation technologies. At the same time, those dependent on satellite internet might find themselves continuously playing catch up.

Emerging Technologies: The Next Frontier of the Internet

We now find ourselves standing on a precipice where forecasting technological advances past the latter half of the 2020s is becoming increasingly difficult. This is due to the breakneck pace of progress we’ve seen since the start of the decade, spearheaded in part by a global pandemic that shook the foundations of society.

Several groundbreaking technologies are poised to radically change our online interactions, potentially requiring bandwidth capacities that satellite internet services may struggle to provide.

Let’s examine just a few:

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)

Current VR and AR applications already require download speeds of at least 50 to 100 Mbps for a smooth experience. With the introduction of more complex environments and real-time multi-user interactions, these requirements could easily triple.

Given that most satellite internet services offer speeds that barely touch the lower end of this range, users relying solely on satellite connections could find themselves excluded from these immersive digital experiences, widening the digital divide.

Internet of Things (IoT)

While individual IoT devices may not consume much bandwidth, the cumulative data transmitted and received by a fully integrated smart home could be significant. It’s easy to imagine triple-digit speeds and near-zero latency conditions becoming requirements, as more and more clusters of connected devices come online in our homes.

The lag and lower speeds associated with satellite connections could impede real-time data collection and automation features, limiting the usability of IoT devices for satellite-dependent users.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

AI-powered services like real-time language translation, advanced analytics, and general-purpose home intelligence could require a constant high-speed connection for optimal performance. It’s difficult to predict where the growth in demand might end, as models continue to evolve and shape entirely new industries and norms.

The limitations in latency and data throughput for satellite internet could inhibit the functionality of advanced AI services, restricting them to those with access to faster, more reliable connections.

The Bandwidth Dilemma: A Moving Target

As these technologies inevitably become integral to modern life, the ability to access and utilize them will increasingly dictate who is included in the digitized world and who is left behind. Suppose satellite internet can’t keep up with the bandwidth demands of these future technologies. In that case, we risk creating a new digital divide, where satellite-dependent regions miss out on the next wave of digital evolution.

ISPs worldwide have historically seen data usage per household double every four years or so. While that trend has slowed post-pandemic as more and more of us have moved vast swaths of our lives into the digital realm, new disruptive technologies like the ones mentioned above might see the return of this trend or an even more explosive one.

What works today won’t always work tomorrow. In the world of broadband, this is especially true, as the internet is now tangibly impacting the trajectory of modern society. It’s become entwined with our daily lives in a way reserved only for the most profound inventions throughout history.

Even today, 81% of American households are on plans offering 200 Mbps or faster download speeds — well above the average speeds satellite users experience. Extrapolate this out to 10 years from now, and it’s easy to see how this trend will likely hold steady as technological improvements close the current digital divide but pave the way for a new one.

The Bigger Picture: Closing One Gap, Opening Another

Let’s back up for a moment. Morgan Stanley estimates the industry could be worth more than $1 trillion by 2040. Much of that early influx of value is already tied up in telecommunications technology.

In addition, there’s no denying that having access to an internet connection at all is better than not having one. While we shouldn’t deny the growing promise of satellite internet for bridging our current divide, we should also recognize that, in the future, our bandwidth requirements are likely to increase exponentially. This will enable a New Digital Divide — one where the “Haves” enjoy transformative technologies like widespread AI, robotics, VR/AR applications, and more, while the “Have Nots” get stuck in the past all over again.

If we don’t want history to repeat itself, we need to view the issue of the digital divide as a holistic struggle to provide a standardized level of connectivity to all of humanity, the same lens with which we view access to running water and electricity. Any other solution should be viewed as what it ultimately is — temporary.

Are you a journalist or researcher writing about this topic?

Contact us and we'll connect you with a broadband market expert on our team who can provide insights and data to support your work.