18 Nov 2022

Low earth orbit technology being used to offer high speed internet rurally

6:21 pm on 18 November 2022
business man hand working on laptop computer with digital layer business strategy and social media diagram on wooden desk

Photo: 123RF

New players are joining the race to provide satellite broadband to rural communities through a constellation of satellites travelling less than 2000 kilometres above the Earth.

Historically satellites were about 35,000km above the Earth which was too great a distance to provide fast broadband.

A key development using low earth orbit (LEO) technology offers high speed connectivity to hard to reach places for people living on lifestyle blocks, and for agricultural and tourism businesses.

According to data research firm IDC, Elon Musk's Starlink has about 5000 customers on its books here, while Amazon is making its move by launching 3000-plus internet satellites for Project Kuiper.

"Once you've got that constellation up and orbiting around the Earth, you can offer services in practically any country," IDC Australia and New Zealand associate director Monica Collier said.

"You do need to place some ground stations which is going to cost a bit of money.

"Overall the level of scale that you can get in terms of the number of customers - hopefully will that make that investment pay off.

"It's a pretty high-risk endeavour when you think about the cost to put payloads up into space."

With significant start-up costs, the service does not come cheaply to the consumer. Starlink's monthly charge is $159 per month with $1040 for hardware to get the service under way.

Whether Amazon, or another satellite company will join the space race soon, remains unclear but retailers Gravity, Bigblu, and Woi also provide satellite internet at high-speed outside the main cities.

Collier said the Starlink service was proving popular while the company was also diversifying into the motor homes and caravan, cruise ship and other business services market.

"The whole venture of getting satellites into space is extraordinarily expensive in the beginning so they've got to make their money back somehow," she said.

The latest technology developments come at a time when a new Institute of Economic Research report shows significant spin-offs for closing the rural digital divide.

Institute principal economist Christina Leung said the benefits totalled $16 billion over the next 10 years.

"For workers, it allows them to be able to work a wider range of jobs," she said.

"For businesses, it also means that they are able to tap into a wider pool of workers, so overall this leads to a better matching of skills."

Leung said the pandemic highlighted the importance of people having access to technology and connectivity.

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