How LEO satellite technology can connect the unconnected

  • Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites can help connect the unconnected and bridge the digital divide.
  • The race to deploy LEO satellite constellations is increasingly competitive and will require multi-stakeholder cooperation to provide inclusive connectivity.
  • The World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance mobilizes a global movement of public and private sector leaders who prioritize digital inclusion.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are said to be the technology that will revolutionize the internet. With more than a third of the world always offline, this constellation of satellites can help connect the unconnected and bridge the digital divide that leaves remote and rural communities behind.

Why are governments and companies investing in LEO satellite technology?

The European Union recently announced plans for a LEO satellite system worth 6 billion euros. This fleet of satellites aims to provide secure communications and better broadband access to the region, while strengthening the cybersecurity and resilience of EU countries.

The EU will spend €2.4 billion of its budget from 2022 to 2027, with the rest coming from member states and industry. The plan is part of an effort to reduce the EU’s dependence on foreign companies and protect key communications services and surveillance data from outside interference.

The EU is entering a space internet race where tech giants are spending billions of dollars on LEO satellite technology to fill global connectivity gaps. Space X’s Starlink, Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Business, has deployed nearly 2,000 satellites into orbit and applied for licenses to fly more than 40,000 satellites. Their service is currently available in a few countries on a first-come, first-served basis for $99 per month, plus $499 for home equipment.

Amazon has announced plans to launch a similar initiative called Kuiper Project, which will deploy more than 3,000 satellites later this year. The LEO Company OneWebwhose major funders are the UK government, India’s Bharti Enterprises and France’s Eutelsat, has more than 350 satellites in orbit and plans to double the number of its constellation.

Competition is fierce as more governments and businesses explore the potential of LEO satellite technology to deliver high-speed Internet access around the world. But with great opportunity comes great responsibility to meet the challenges presented by this new technology.

Can LEO satellites really help achieve universal connectivity?

Today, high-speed Internet is not only convenient, it has become a modern necessity. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalization globally, 2.9 billion people still do not use the internet. Access and affordability remain the main barriers to connectivity.

Developing a robust digital infrastructure that can reach everyone everywhere is key to closing connectivity gaps. Broadband requires an extensive network of underground cables, and in more remote parts of the world, satellite connectivity may be the only option. LEO satellites can connect people to high-speed internet where traditional terrestrial infrastructure is hard to reach, making them an attractive solution for bridging the rural connectivity gap.

LEO satellites orbit much closer to the planet (up to 2,000 km above the Earth’s surface) than traditional geostationary satellites (about 36,000 km above the Earth’s surface). They operate in a rotating network where multiple satellites are needed to provide internet coverage. This allows them to provide connectivity during air travel and even in the middle of the ocean. But with more and more companies launching thousands of satellites into orbit around Earth, space has become more crowded than ever.

The issue of space traffic and increased space debris, in addition to astronomers’ concerns of light pollution obstructing views in the night sky, must be considered when exploring LEO satellite connectivity.

How can we ensure that everyone can benefit from this technology?

As the world becomes increasingly digitized, tackling the cost barrier of technology is crucial to reducing existing digital inequalities and increasing opportunities for all.

Satellite connectivity is expensive, but if the goal is to truly connect the unconnected, LEO-based internet must above all be affordable. While satellite broadband systems are in various stages of development, service affordability must be a key component of global deployment strategies once systems are ready for launch.

The race to deploy LEO satellite constellations is increasingly competitive and will require multi-stakeholder cooperation to provide inclusive connectivity. No government or business can bridge the digital divide on its own. Partnerships that invest in the future of the Internet are essential for connecting unserved and underserved communities around the world.

The World Economic Forum’s EDISON Alliance mobilizes a global movement of public and private sector leaders who prioritize digital inclusion. The EDISON Alliance builds on government and industry commitments to improve the lives of one billion people through affordable and accessible digital solutions in healthcare, financial services and education by 2025.


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