For the average urban internet user, the merger between Eutelsat and OneWeb is just an obscure stock exchange operation, not a real concern. However, the European giant thus created will be able to compete with a major competitor: the American SpaceX and its Starlink project. The object of their struggle? The conquest of space, or at least low orbit for satellites, and with it the domination of the high-speed space internet.
But beware of this misleading name. The antennas of the satellites are not pointed at the ISS or a lunar station so that Thomas Pesquet can read 20 minutes out of his suit but towards earth. In the direction of the famous “white zones” to be exact. High seas, mountain peaks or the heart of the desert, these are the goals of the space internet, which should make it possible to supply regions without fiber optics or terrestrial infrastructure to forward the signal.
Expand the boundaries of network coverage
Today less than 50 million people are connected via satellite. For others, ADSL, fiber optic and 4G/5G networks still run through a long network of more than a million kilometers of cables buried underground or rolled out at the bottom of the oceans. “5G connectivity via satellites in low-Earth orbit” must therefore allow “coverage in extreme geographical areas or remote locations”, underlined the groups Thales, Qualcomm and Ericsson, for example, in a joint press release at the beginning of July.
Located just a few hundred kilometers above sea level, Starlink’s satellites promise fiber-matching speeds and much faster query execution times than the traditional satellite internet network, including geostationary vehicles sailing at altitudes in excess of 35,000 km . More than 2,000 satellites have already been launched by SpaceX, out of the 4,400 that the Starlink “constellation” should have.
A flexible but polluting network
“The satellite network could also serve as a backup for terrestrial networks in the event of major outages or disasters,” they added. The most striking example: Ukraine’s digital minister’s request to Elon Musk to bring internet connectivity to areas hit by Russian army attacks since the invasion began in late February. SpaceX had also donated 50 Starlink satellite terminals to the Tonga Islands to help them reconnect to the world after a volcano erupted in mid-January.
The more flexible network of these low-altitude satellites, on the other hand, is more sensitive to meteorological conditions. So snow or storms will affect the flow, but solar flares pose a particular risk. In February, about 40 Starlink satellites were disabled during a magnetic storm.
In an era of sobriety and resource scarcity, the polluting potential of these satellites remains a major black mark. “They have to be constantly replaced,” with the risk that space junk “multiplies” even in low orbit, emphasizes an expert in the industry, which could prove dangerous in the long term. Especially since the proximity to earth makes it necessary to send out a large number of these satellites in a short time so that the system is ready for use. China alone plans to send 13,000 Guowang satellites, EU 250 and Jeff Bezos 3,200 to form its Kuiper constellation.