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Technology Startup OneWeb’s micro-satellites aim to expand Internet access globally

Once deployed, the satellites are intended to form a “constellation” that, OneWeb says, will provide Internet access to the billions of people across the globe who still have no reliable means of getting on the Web.

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Last week, as Canada's telecommunications regulator continued its hearing on the future of communications technology in this country, a possible glimpse of that future surfaced – in Florida.

In a quiet announcement, a startup called OneWeb made public its plans to build a new manufacturing facility about an hour's drive east of Orlando. The facility is designed to churn out, at unprecedented volume, so-called "micro-satellites." Once deployed, the satellites are intended to form a "constellation" that, OneWeb says, will solve what is perhaps the biggest challenge of the digital age: providing Internet access to the billions of people across the globe who still have no reliable means of getting on the Web.

It is, in every sense, an audacious goal. And should OneWeb manage to build and deploy its satellite network – something that could become reality as early as 2019 – the impact on remote and rural communities in places such as Canada could be immense.

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But even as countless traditional Internet providers have heralded satellite technology as a panacea (and a convenient excuse not to spend billions building land-based Internet infrastructure in remote and often lower-income communities), the reality of satellite-based Internet access has often failed to meet its lofty expectations.

For years – and as recently as last week – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has called for a national broadband strategy. The central thesis behind that call is simple: For a variety of economic, education and societal reasons, access to high-speed Internet has become a necessity for virtually all Canadians.

And because of the country's size and relatively minuscule population density, many Canadians often have no choice but to rely on satellites for that access.

However, critics claim that satellite technology still isn't nearly as reliable and cheap as it should be, especially if it is going to remain a central digital backbone for many of Canada's remote communities. In previous hearings before the CRTC – and one that is currently under way – some Canadian Internet service providers have held up the promise of satellite technology as justification for not investing in more traditional digital infrastructure in remote locations across the country.

"Those promises did not materialize, and to the extent that satellite has been able to connect more Canadians, it often does so at high costs and lower speeds than what Canadians can functionally use," said Geoff White, counsel to the Affordable Access Coalition, which lobbies for better and cheaper broadband internet for all Canadians, especially ones with low income.

Current satellite-based Internet technology suffers from a number of drawbacks. For example, it can be difficult to maintain a connection with a stationary satellite from a location on the far north or south of the planet. Satellite connections also tend to suffer from latency issues, making them less suitable for real-time uses such as online gaming. Satellite-dish reception can also turn decidedly temperamental as a result of snow, rain or a a brush with a passing bird.

"Until such time as satellite has proven it will actually do the job," Mr. White said, "it cannot be relied on as a justification for doing nothing."

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There is, however, some cause for optimism. Satellite-based Internet has undergone a transformation over the past half-decade – from an often prohibitively expensive, unreliable technology to something that could one day become the default means for most of the world to get online.

"If you go back four years, you're looking at download speeds of 1.5 [megabits per second]," said Chris Johnston, executive vice-president at New Brunswick-based Internet provider Xplornet, which currently serves about 175,000 customers with satellite technology. "That number is now 10."

The chief reason for that turnaround is – as is the case with most new technology – plummeting costs. Geosynchronous satellites, which orbit the Earth some 35,000 kilometres above sea level in sync with the Earth's own rotation, are traditionally very expensive and time-consuming to manufacture. However, a number of private companies (including OneWeb) have invested billions in cheaper, smaller satellites designed to orbit the Earth at between 500 and 1,000 kilometres. The difference in both time and money can be astounding – OneWeb's new Florida plant aims to churn out as many as 15 satellites a week.

The surge in satellite-technology advancements is also propelled by fierce competition, mainly between two camps. In addition to OneWeb, which is backed by the likes of aerospace giant Virgin Galactic, there's SpaceX, the group founded by Tesla Motors CEO and tech billionaire Elon Musk. Both teams have been engaged in a race to do for space technology what the assembly line did for cars.

The network of 900 low-Earth satellites proposed by OneWeb, should it function as intended, would solve a number of problems with the existing technology – most notably, issues related to trying to access a satellite whose relative position is fixed.

"The nice thing about this is that it doesn't have a limited geographic area," said Robin Winsor, president and CEO of Cybera, a not-for-profit technical agency responsible for overseeing the development of Alberta's digital infrastructure. "Once you get into business, [the resulting satellite network] won't just be in service for one region."

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Still, even if the technology works, the new age of satellite-based Internet faces several hurdles. Mr. Winsor notes that low-Earth satellites are much more susceptible to drag, meaning they will likely need to be repaired or replaced much more frequently than geosynchronous ones (that's one of the reasons the satellites need to be so cheap to build). And no matter how good the technology gets, it won't change the fact that many of the communities most in need of that technology will always be hard to reach (making it more expensive to send technicians there, for example) and are often not financially lucrative enough for companies to prioritize.

As such, Mr. Winsor notes, satellites represent just one component of what could be considered a holistic digital strategy.

"Canada was connected in the 19th century with railroads and the 20th century with highways," he said. "In the 21st century, we need information, and that means fibre-optic networks."

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