It used to be that the only options for rural internet were old school dial-up and DSL. Then satellite internet came on the scene. Satellite is certainly better than the older options, but it still does not compete well with wired broadband. Enter cellular services based on 4G and 5G technologies. Both are gaining ground in the rural internet market. So much so that satellite providers are having to up their game.
Leading the pack is Starlink, a satellite internet provider owned by SpaceX. The company now has approximately 2,000 satellites constantly circling the globe and sending data back and forth. They are giving their competitors in the satellite internet business regular fits due to the speed of their service and their much lower latency.
Distance Is a Problem
Both satellite and cellular internet options suffer from two inherent problems: distance and latency. In terms of distance, the easiest way to understand it is to imagine taking a trip in your car. The farther you have to drive, the longer it takes to reach your destination. The same thing applies to driving back home.
Satellite internet has serious distance issues. Data has to travel from a satellite orbiting the Earth to a dish mounted on a customer’s roof. That is a long way to travel. Matters are made worse when the number of orbiting satellites remains small. That is why Starlink has put 2,000 satellites into orbit and plans to launch tens of thousands more using reusable rockets.
As for cellular internet, any distance problems are related to the density of cell towers in a given area. The shorter the distance between subscriber and tower, the better the service. Blazing Hog, a Texas company that provides 4G LTE rural internet, says that its service offers competitive speeds. However, they know that 5G can be faster because its technology relies on a higher density of cellular receivers in order to reduce the distance between data connections.
The Latency Problem
In the data transfer world, latency equals delay. Latency increases commensurate with distance. Therefore, satellite internet tends to suffer from more latency issues than 4G for 5G. Cellular internet’s lower average latency is yet another reason satellite internet providers have had to up their game.
A typical 4G rural internet service competes very well with standard broadband in terms of latency. Data transfers are slower, but not by much. Subscribers can still stream videos and enjoy online gaming. Neither works very well with satellite internet services.
So, what’s the solution? It is exactly what Starlink is doing: putting a ton of satellites into orbit. Launching tens of thousands of satellites accomplishes the same thing as installing large numbers of 5G cellular receivers. The more you have in service, the less distance and latency are a problem.
The Infrastructure Question
Seeing what Starlink is doing and comparing it to the roll-out of 5G brings up the important infrastructure question. Is it more economically viable to extend traditional broadband infrastructure to underserved rural areas than develop better satellite and cellular services?
It is clear that Starlink would rather put its money into satellites. Companies like Blazing Hog would rather invest in better 5G and 4G LTE rural internet. Meanwhile, lawmakers seem more willing to spend money on building new broadband infrastructure.
Time will ultimately reveal the best strategy. In the meantime, satellite internet providers have had to up their game. If they don’t, they will be overtaken by 4G and 5G rural internet. Its survival of the fittest in its purest form. Starlink aims to be one of the survivors.