back to article Americans' broadband access is so screwed up that the answer may lie in tiny space satellites

What's harder: putting a pipe of cables in the ground, or launching a satellite into space? Well, when it comes to the screwed-up world of internet access in the United States, it seems that space is the better option. Next month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is due to vote on no less than nine issues related …

  1. aregross

    "...are intended to orbit the Earth for up to five years..."

    And then what happens to them?

    1. Denarius


      they accidentally knock down Chinese satellites or make pretty shooting starts ?

    2. }{amis}{

      "And then what happens to them?"

      In an orbit that low and given the small mass they burn up, you have to be well above 400km to have a long-term stable orbit.

    3. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Page 56 of this PDF has an approximate answer to the expected lifetime question:

      Precise answer depends on the mass/area ratio (i.e. drag coefficient of sorts) along with the Sun's activity in driving the upper atmosphere.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward


        So you're saying it's a simple question of weight ratios?

        1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

          Re: so...

          No, it is never that simple and re-entry predictions are still not accurate for various reason (early on the difference in drag from differing atomic species along with the variation in solar atmospheric heating as sun spot activity, etc, changes, in the final orbit or two due to tumbling satellite orientation and bits coming off changing the drag characteristics).

          But if you increase the area/mass ratio it falls in faster under all condition, so in a sense it is easy to see how to make it decay quicker.

  2. ThatOne Silver badge

    Jug of the Danaides?

    > it will take six years for SpaceX to get half of those satellites into orbit

    If they have a life time of 5 years, by the time they get half of them up there a part of those will be already spacefill. And by the time they shoot the rest up there (assuming another 6 years), the full first half will have to be replaced... Definitely missing something here.

    1. SminkyBazzA

      Re: Jug of the Danaides?

      It gives SpaceX five years to get the rules changed again so the ones already up there can stay longer. Presumably they're engineered to last longer than 5 years?

      1. Baldrickk

        Re: Jug of the Danaides?

        Or increase the launch rate.

      2. vtcodger Silver badge

        Re: Jug of the Danaides?

        It gives SpaceX five years to get the rules changed again so the ones already up there can stay longer.

        I believe that the "rules" in question are Newton's laws of motion. While the FCC is certainly free to command changes in the rules, I suspect their dictates would be ignored.

        BTW, using higher orbits would have many effects besides increasing lifetime. Increasing the number of potentially conflicting users by increasing per satellite coverage area, and increasing latency, would be two of particular concern

        1. mosw

          Re: Jug of the Danaides?

          "I believe that the "rules" in question are Newton's laws of motion."

          Not really, since you can use propulsion systems to keep a satellite up longer. Just releasing a small amount of compressed gas could be used increase the useful life in orbit. If someone has, or can develop, a miniature ion drive then even longer life orbits become possible.

  3. Mike 137 Silver badge

    So much for 'digital by default'...

    If the US (the founder and technological driver of the internet) is in this parlous position, it does not bode well for others, such as the UK, the governments of which are driving hard to put all services including routes for citizens' fulfilment of statutory obligations, exclusively online.

    The problem is further exacerbated by a noticeable growing habit of service providers of 'securing their customers' by limiting access to the only the latest client side tools. A 'your browser is unsupported' message is little use when you're trying to file your tax return to avoid a fine for being late.

    All of 'online' business from hardware infrastructure to apps has lost touch with what it's actually for - to allow folks to do their own stuff. It thinks the only people worth serving is the sub-population of geeks for whom keeping up to the bleeding edge is a primary motivation. That's actually a tiny proportion of the global population of users, who are increasingly being failed.

    Ultimately, this attitude will be the death of online services.

    1. Steve Todd

      Re: So much for 'digital by default'...

      This is related to the article in what way? Governments being slow to embrace new technology was what it was about, and you go off on a rant about them refusing to work with old technologies (probably because the old software you are using is known to be insecure).

      1. Primus Secundus Tertius

        Re: So much for 'digital by default'...

        The issue is not security; the big boys are not interested in the security of the common man. The issue is the cost of supporting 57 varieties of old and new browsers.

        It would not be a problem if the web pages used just static text and pictures. But no, it has to be all-singing all-dancing technology to support what the b****y advertisers want.

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: So much for 'digital by default'...

      If you think that not supporting your old browser is the biggest problem with government IT in the UK then you've clearly not been reading about half the articles on elReg.

      If it works in any browser whatsoever then it's a cause for celebration.

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    I can't believe it

    Pai is actually going to decide something that is not directly useful to Verizon ?

    Somebody pinch me.

    There has to be some hidden advantage Verizon can abuse. Otherwise, I just can't understand.

    1. DCFusor

      Re: I can't believe it

      What makes you think that? However many satellites you could put up will simply continue the creation of deliberate scarcity, with only those willing to pay high rates getting more. Sure, people who live in "nowhere" will perhaps be able to buy faster internet (but with nasty latency) where now, there's no other option at all (where I live that's the case - yes the latency of low orbit birds will be less than GEO now, but still nasty - and all the money you can spend here won't get you past a 6 megabit down/one up DSL).

      But you can always put down more fiber...not so with satellites and radio bandwidth. Both run out of room pretty quickly - they just don't scale.

      Just because the cable companies don't own an artificial scarcity resource today...what makes you think they won't buy it up as soon as it makes sense to them to do so (like they have with content providers)?

      Our FCC has become as dysfunctional as some big parts of the EU and needs to be rethought. Kinda reminds me of issues with too much power in a bureaucracy, like the patent office (both sides of the pond, somewhat different issues but...).

      1. Brangdon

        Re: nasty latency

        SpaceX are claiming a latency of 25ms. That's not too nasty.

  5. larokus

    "hit" movie Gravity

    looks to be missing a letter

  6. Graybyrd

    Screw the satellites; relax the restrictions!

    Here in the US, we don't need no steenkin' satellites! What we need is for the corporate-ensnared droids at the FCC to relax the rules to allow rural towns and counties to acquire and operate their own community broadband systems! There are any number of innovative ways to evade the cable monopolists, but the FCC forbids community competition. As for satellite, we already have two commercial providers. More of a last resort for desperate ruralites: exceedingly expensive, severely limited, and hugely unsatisfactory. So why would we want yet another? Insanity is defined as doing the same useless thing over & over, hoping maybe to finally get lucky. No thanks.

    1. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: Screw the satellites; relax the restrictions!

      Not that I completely disagree, but I would make two points:

      1. Community broadband demonstrably can work. But it's not all that simple and it can also fail dismally leaving the community with a whopping bill. Not convinced? Google the sad story of Burlington (Vermont) Telecom. you could start at

      BTW, I clearly remember climbing up to the top of a small hill in back of a rural Vermont School to check out the possibility of a digital radio link to the rest of the school system about 10km down the road. What did I see? Trees. Thousands of trees. Maybe tens of thousands of trees. No cheap way that I could see to cobble together a microwave link. We ruled out satellites because of cost and latency. We eventually ended up with, after a lot of work by the phone company, a not especially cheap T1 line(1.544 Mbps) which was I was told, deep down inside, what might have been, at the time, the world's longest functioning DSL connection

      2. The satellite systems are proposed to have substantially different characteristics than existing systems. Somewhat more like putting a bunch of cell phone towers into orbit than orbiting fixed microwave links. Will they actually work at reasonable cost? Quite possibly not. OTOH, these aren't government efforts and it's quite likely that very little of your or my money is involved. I personally couldn't care less if Elon Musk and his backers lose a fortune.

      1. JohnFen

        Re: Screw the satellites; relax the restrictions!

        "it's quite likely that very little of your or my money is involved"

        I think it's more likely that quite a lot of our money will be involved.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Screw the satellites; relax the restrictions!

      I worked on the periphery of a community broadband project years ago. The broadband part sort of took off (for a while). They also wanted to do a community cable system. FCC didn't have a problem that I can recall. The community cable system never flew because the local $BIGCABLE rep stopped by and had a chat with the organizers. He explained that they were more than welcome to roll out their cute little community cable project. He also explained that once they launched, $BIGCABLE would offer a special discount in their community. If the community system offered a package at $50/month, $BIGCABLE would offer the same package at $40/month. They would continue undercutting until the community cable system went belly up.

      Anon, cuz the big cable cos scare me more than gubmt black helicopters!

      1. Charles 9

        Re: Screw the satellites; relax the restrictions!

        And the community didn't threaten to take the CableCo to court over predatory pricing WHY?

  7. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Space or cable...

    Well, with one, you have a building full of high-quality boffins working on it.

    With the other, you have a drooling retard without a high-school education running a backhoe, possibly "directed" by another drooling retard who actually might have made it through high-school on his second try. They're cutting through the road that just got resurfaced from the last 30 or 40 cut-throughs.

    No contest.

    1. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: Space or cable...

      (Re)surfaced road? Underground utilities? Clearly you haven't spent much time in rural North America.

  8. Ozumo

    Risk of colliding with a space shuttle?

    Are these things going to be flying through the Smithsonian?

  9. JeffyPoooh

    "...modest-sized to one another..."

    El Reg, "Thanks to the latest technology, it is now possible to launch modest-sized devices into space, and have them talk to one another."

    The satellites in the original Iridium constellation (circa 2000 ±) are both modest-sized (as evidenced by them being launched in batches of 5 or 7) and they talk to one another (famously "network in the sky"). Same for the newer Idirium NEXT constellation, already mostly launched. So the claim that these two characteristics are the "latest technology" or "is now possible" is clearly incorrect.

    I sometimes wonder if patent expiry is part of the delay process, but that only gets us to about ten years ago.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    A relative used to have satellite internet. Throughput was great, but the 2000ms *minimum* ping time was a bit of a problem - type in a web address, wait 2 seconds, the html file loads, wait 2 seconds, then the CSS and image files start loading...

    The eventual solution was an 80-foot-high tower in the back yard, to establish line-of-sight over the next hill for "wireless" access.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Latency?

      LEO vs. GSO orbits my friend. GEO is waaaayyyyy far away. So far that the speed of light is something like 250 msec of that round trip time (I forget if that's one way or round trip...). LEO is much much closer, but now you need many more satellites (or you have to delay your download until the next orbit, that would suck) and you need to have a radio system that works without requiring pointing an antenna at the satellite.

  11. JohnFen

    Satelite-based "broadband"

    Satelite-based "broadband" (scare quotes because I don't think it really qualifies as broadband) isn't great, though. It's better than dialup, but worse than just about every other option. Surely we can do better.

    1. mosw

      Re: Satelite-based "broadband"

      With satellite clusters in low earth orbit, you are about 500 miles from the nearest satellite so the transit delay is only 2.7 ms. Current satellite internet uses geostationary satellites, which are 22,000 miles away with a transit delay of 240 ms. Also a low earth orbit satellite will have a smaller radio footprint so that you are sharing the available spectrum with far less customers, so more bandwidth for you.You just need a lot of satellites.

  12. JeffyPoooh

    Installing fiber optic...

    Circa 2012-2014, our telco started rolling out fiber optic lines all over the place. Including many areas that are suburban sprawl or even rural.

    The speed of installing fiber onto existing telephone poles was way faster than one might naturally assume. Blink and they're gone, disappeared around the corner.

    The installation of the last 100m from the street to the house took maybe an hour, only because it had to be strung between 200 trees.

    Based on what I've seen, the last mile issue would be worse in the crowded downtown with underground utilities.

    That's not normally a rural issue.

  13. Paul

    "Connecting to the Galileo system should be a no-brainer"

    You don't connect to GPS or Galileo satellites, you don't "talk" to them, as the article says. You listen passively, and use the incredibly accurate time information they give to work out your location.

  14. John Geek

    What does the FCC have to do with GPS *recievers* ? if a reciever wants to pull in Galilleo, the more power to it, the FCC can only regulate transmissions.

    1. JeffyPoooh


      John Geek asked, "What does the FCC have to do with GPS *recievers* ? if a reciever wants..."

      The FCC has very clear rules on the correct spelling of the word "receivers".

      Hint: the "ei" in the middle are in alphabetical order.

  15. Criggie

    Why does the FCC claim control of any part of space ? The *federal* might have some jurisdiction over the US soil, but not elsewhere.

    Some impartial international governing body should take over this responsibility. "United Nations Space Administration" perhaps ?

    1. Charles 9

      The view is that NO governing body stays impartial for long; ALL of them inevitably get corrupted from within. Even using opposition techniques can be defeated by cartel behavior.

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