Capabilities and Limitations of Fiber Optic and Satellite-Based Broadband Technologies

By Art Hiester

Some have suggested that Estes Park should delay deployment of a fiber optic network to deliver high-speed, cost competitive, reliable broadband because some better technology, such as satellite-based systems, lie ahead.  Waiting for some better, future technology is always an option, but results in endless waiting.

While both SpaceX and OneWeb have plans for satellite-based broadband, their plans involve significant technological, operational, legal and financial uncertainties.  In contrast, the technology, operations, and financial aspects of fiber optic networks are well known and reliable.  As a result, fiber optic technology will be the choice for broadband networks now and in the foreseeable future.

SpaceX and OneWeb plans for high speed satellite-based internet envision over 4,000 satellites in low-Earth orbits. At the consumer end, a pizza-box sized receiver would be installed on a wall or roof. This antenna would be able to track and switch to the satellite that is providing the best coverage as needed.

The projects that involve low-earth orbiting satellite constellations require a huge number of satellites to be launched. For truly global coverage, some 4,425 satellites would be needed. Currently, there are less than 600 working satellites with many different missions in low earth orbit. Thousands of dead satellites and other “space junk” are in low earth orbit with the potential to strike other junk or working satellites. More space junk could endanger other working satellites and manned space missions.

Today it costs roughly half a billion dollars to build and launch one satellite into space. The cost of launching 4,425 satellites must be drastically reduced for satellite-based broadband to be economically viable. To reduce costs, SpaceX is depending on using their Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon 9 has had inconsistent launch and vehicle recovery results.

To date, every satellite has been a unique product. To reduce costs, a new manufacturing methodology would have to be developed to be able to produce hundreds or thousands of identical, low-cost satellites in a mass-production factory environment. This has yet to be accomplished.

Satellite-based technologies face other challenges, including satellite repair and technology upgrades, transmission security, interference with and from other radio sources and interference from weather and objects, such as trees and mountains.  It is likely there is not enough radio frequency spectrum space for both OneWeb and SpaceX.

SpaceX indicates it will take many years to have their satellite-based Internet service up and running. “People should not expect this to be active sooner than five years,” Musk said. “And it’ll be expensive: Around $10 billion to build.”

New technologies are always risky.  In the past, other satellite communications ventures such as Iridium, Globalstar, and Teledesic have not fared well.  The failure of these projects has been attributed in part to high expectations, technical challenges, lack of specialization, lavish spending and unwillingness of their huge parents to support the ventures after initial problems.

Reports prepared by NeoFiber and Avalanche Consulting state that Estes Park needs cost competitive, high-speed, reliable broadband communications now.  While in five years, there will probably be additional, emerging competitive or complementary broadband delivery technologies, fiber-optic networks will be the technology of choice for broadband delivery.

For those interested in learning more, a more detailed version of this series appears on the EDC Broadband Committee web page at