The future of the internet could be in orbit if tech companies across the country are successful in their bids to send satellites into orbit.
George Foote is with the law firm Dorsey & Whitney and works with the Federal Communications Commission representing utility companies.
Many companies, including SpaceX — which has a Redmond office — Boeing, Apple, Google and Amazon, are either developing or have developed their own space programs.
Foote said there are around a dozen applications with the FCC seeking the right to use certain portions of the radio spectrum band utilized by satellites.
The basic idea behind space-based internet is a customer would install a satellite dish at their house that would relay either a laser or radio signal to a satellite. The signal could be transmitted to the other receiver and bounced back to the original sender.
This is in contrast to cell phone internet, which relays a signal to a nearby tower before the signal is sent to land lines and returned to the phone.
Foote gave an example of a rural user in Colorado who isn’t serviced by current fiber-optic ground cables.
“It’s pretty amazing, it’ll provide that kind of near instantaneous delivery of data in a way that you couldn’t get on a mountain top in Colorado today,” he said.
SpaceX is interested in sending most of its 12,000 satellites into low-Earth orbit around 500 miles above Earth.
This would allow information to be relayed very quickly, even over long distances, which is where they would initially be applied, Foote said.
“I think that their plans are to attack the long-distance transmission,” he said.
Hardwired internet currently relies on fiber-optic cables to transmit data, sometimes underwater across oceans, which over long distances can result in around 600 millisecond responses.
This may seem fast for most uses, but for some like online gaming or stock trading, it can mean the difference between scoring a point or making a successful trade, Foote said.
A cloud of satellites could reduce the latency to 20 or 30 milliseconds.
Sattelite-based internet could additionally serve rural areas in the U.S. and around the world.
The drive for modern satellites hasn’t been without hiccups.
In 2016, a SpaceX rocket loaded with a Facebook-sponsored satellite designed to provide internet to large parts of Africa and Europe exploded on the tarmac, according to The Guardian.
Other challenges include how to allocate the broadcast spectrum, which has a limited number of channels that can be used.
The FCC controls who can use what frequencies domestically and other countries like the China, India and the European Union have their own agencies.
Another major concern is the problem of space junk.
NASA is tracking tens of thousands of pieces of debris, which humans have already sent into orbit.
With SpaceX’s plans to send 12,000 satellites into orbit, as well as tens or hundreds of thousands more from other companies, China, the European Union and India, it’s likely that will increase dramatically.
Foote said of the satellites SpaceX will be launching, some 7,000 will be in a lower orbit that will pull them back into the atmosphere where they will burn up around five years following their launch.
However, it is not clear what the impact of launching tens of thousands of satellites into orbit will be in the long run.
Despite concerns, Foote is optimistic about the future of satellite internet.
“The sense of excitement about the coming satellite-provided internet is justified,” he said. “People have figured out how to do it, the business plans are there.”
SpaceX announced it was opening an office in Redmond in 2015 with an explicit goal of creating satellite-based internet.
According to CNet, two broadband test satellites were scheduled to launch from California on Wednesday but the launch was delayed due to high winds.