Low Earth Orbit Satellites: Potential to Address the Broadband Digital Divide


As the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic began to unfold, many federal, state, and local governments, in addition to large and small businesses, implemented remote working or distance learning options to help abate the spread of the virus. As these decisions were made, some of the population had the option and the capability to shift activities online, while others did not. The term digital divide is used to characterize the gap between those who have access to telecommunications and information technologies and those who do not. One subset of the digital divide debate concerns access to high-speed internet service, also known as broadband.

Broadband technologies are currently being deployed, primarily by the private sector, throughout the United States. While the number of new broadband subscribers continues to grow, rural areas—and tribal areas in particular—tend to lag behind urban and suburban areas in broadband deployment and the speed of service offered. Federal support has been provided for broadband infrastructure deployment. While that funding has contributed to progress in closing the digital divide, there are some parts of the United States—particularly rural and remote areas—that still lack access to broadband. These are typically areas where it is difficult to deploy terrestrial broadband technologies, such as fiber optic cable or cable modem, due to build out challenges with terrain or cost. Broadband offered through satellite technologies may be the only option for some such communities at present, but service provided by satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO) may not be as reliable and resilient as wired broadband technologies, such as fiber.

A newer satellite broadband technology—provided by satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO)—may hold promise for further addressing the digital divide, especially in remote or rural areas. With the introduction of LEO satellites, which are positioned at a much lower altitude than GEO satellites, there is potential for satellite broadband to deliver speeds closer to those that can be achieved with fiber, as well as lower lag times or latency.

Companies are in the process of developing, testing, and deploying LEO satellites for broadband delivery with the hope that they may provide higher speeds, lower latency, and expanded coverage. There are many unknowns—for example, whether LEO satellites can consistently provide the anticipated lower latency and higher speeds. Other uncertainties include what LEO satellite provider competition might look like, or how affordable broadband service provided by LEO satellites may—or may not—be.  Purchase on Amazon