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4 Reasons Why Global Satellite Internet Is A Fantasy

By Guest Writer on April 3, 2015

planète terre

World famous entrepreneurs Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, have both recently announced separate initiatives to provide global Internet access via a vast network of small satellites spanning the globe. The plans propose to blanket the planet in coverage, overcoming many of the obstacles standing in the way of connecting four billion people that still lack Internet service.

As someone who has been running an organization to deliver rural areas in developing countries with connectivity, I greet these announcements with both excitement and a bit of skepticism.

While the focus of high-profile entrepreneurs on this vitally important effort will bring increased interest and attention to connecting the world, their approach solves very few of the actual barriers to providing access. So, what are the real challenges?


Billions of people lack electricity on the ground. Power serves as the foundation for true community development. People can connect computers, lights, and any other device to a few solar panels, but access to these opportunities remains limited. So, while a network of satellites might make connectivity possible in theory, in effect, billions of rural people will still have no means of leveraging this potential.

Terrestrial Receivers

To bring service to a community, one needs a receiver on the ground to distribute that signal to a decently-sized area at an affordable price. If communities have not installed one of these, then a satellite becomes pretty useless. There is no way of avoiding work on the ground to set up a connection.

Political and Regulatory Barriers

There exists plenty of technology to beam wireless Internet signal great distances on the ground and low-cost base stations to distribute a signal. It is a simple, flexible, and agile political and regulatory environment that is most lacking. Employing new technologies in the field requires navigating years of red tape in each individual country. A satellite network does nothing to improve this process.

Community Adoption

Getting a community with little previous experience with communications technology to maximize the potential that connectivity provides poses the greatest challenge. Rural communities fervently seek ICTs, but it takes time and training to educate people on how to use computers successfully.

Without this focused effort, these technologies may intimidate some individuals. Especially in areas where traditional methods of living have existed for hundreds or thousands of years, introducing a novel technology requires trust and cultural understanding. No doubt individuals are excited about technology, however, a sensitive facilitator must aid the process.


All of these barriers share a common theme. The true challenges of extending connectivity come in the form of community development. An organization must be on the ground delivering electricity, navigating political barriers, and understanding socio-cultural needs if the potential for improved education, healthcare, and economic opportunity is to ever come to fruition. While a global network of satellite connectivity seems to theoretically solve a lot of problems, in practice, much of the work remains.

Many realistic, scalable solutions for the delicate work of navigating local contexts to introduce and maximize the benefit of technology already exist. Local partnerships and collaboration allow organizations to flexibly adapt to the cultural specifics, logistical organizing, and regulatory realities of each project.

Low-cost telecommunications technologies like wireless backhaul and small-cell base stations make extending networks to rural areas economically feasible. Dedicated individuals and organizations with the experience and passion to bridge these gaps tie this complex ecosystem into a cohesive, functioning, and sustainable whole.

Alex Blum is the Founder and CEO of Rugged Communications, a designer of holistic ICT4D solutions and consultancy.

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5 Comments to “4 Reasons Why Global Satellite Internet Is A Fantasy”

  1. Mike Dawson says:

    Global satellite internet is not a fantasy; it’s a reality available almost every piece of land on the planet and a considerable amount of the ocean. What I think this article has missed is the single most important barrier of all: the cost of satellite internet vs all other options. 1Mbps dedicated/unlimited via DSL is available in Afghanistan which has most expensive fiber cables for is $300/month ( see http://www.instatelecom.com/trf_dsl.html ). 1Mbps is about 10GB/day, and on satellite that would cost you at least $585 USD on Ka Band (see http://www.neda.af/calc/test.html ).

    Internet delivered by normal GSM mobile networks is far more cost effective partly because the mobile towers connect to those fiber optic cables. People can access it using their normal phones or dongles with no special setups needed. They can use the same phones that they have already; which they already with or without external support have figured out how to charge/keep powered.

    • Alex Blum says:


      You make a good point. I think the article’s title is misleading. Satellite internet is certainly a technical feasibility. The article could be better titled, “Global Satellite Internet as a Game Changer is a Fantasy” or something similar. However, I will say, that I imagine the people planning to launch these networks are aware of the price barriers and intend to change that. In addition, there are already some examples of low-cost satellite emerging, for example, in Africa:


      I expect that the price will drop dramatically, as the price of almost all technologies do, over time. It will still be difficult to get service to most rural areas though because of the challenges I mentioned above.

  2. Juan Paco says:

    Considero que lo indicado en el artículo es, en general, acertado, sin embargo, tu apreciación sobre el Internet satelital también lo es, aunque solo para los servicios actuales pues se espera que los costos de servicios que usan banda Ka se reduzcan progresivamente (especialmente los costos de los terminales) No es seguro pero si es posible que lleguen a tener precios competitivos en un plazo no tan lejano.
    Por otro lado, creo entender que el artículo se refiere fundamentalmente a zonas rurales aisladas de países en desarrollo (como el mío) y para estos casos no es cierto lo que indicas sobre las torres para servicios móviles pues no existen tendidos de fibra óptica y sobre todo, no existe cobertura en muchos lugares y donde la hay, normalmente no hay servicios 3G disponibles. Además, las personas no cuentan con smartphones en casi la totalidad de los casos.

    • Alex Blum says:

      Juan Paco,

      Estoy de acuerdo. Yo creo que la barrera de precio no va a seguir por mucho tiempo. Como usted dice, el problema va a ser todavia que no hay infrastrctura en areas rurales y que la gente no tiene, al menos, smartphones. Pero, hay tecnologias, como ubiquiti (ubnt.com) para traer servicios de internet a areas rurales sin mucho dinero. Tambien, hay empresas como DATAWIND (datawind.com) y por America Latina, Mochilla Digital (http://mochiladigital.com/) que vende devicios muy barratos para usar la internet y compresar data para ser mas eficiente.


      • Juan Paco says:

        Alex, es correcto, aunque nosotros (gtr.telecom.pucp.edu.pe) hemos probado con soluciones abiertas y otras propietarias que, consideramos, tienen mejor desempeño (en general) que ubiquiti para entornos rurales realmente alejados (por ejemplo, Mikrotik) En lo que me permito discrepar es en la vabilidad del tipo de empresa que mencionas pues, al menos en Perú, la falta de infraestructura y la alta dispersión poblacional (entre otros) dificulta la implantación de ese modelo. Parafraseando un lema que alguna vez escuché, diría: Conectividad primero, servicios le seguirán.