Why satellites could be the key to bringing data center functionality to the extreme edge and finally unlocking true global internet connectivity

In May of 2019, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched the first batch of satellites and began the march to creating what the company called a “mega-constellation” aimed at bringing broadband internet connectivity to the farthest reaches of the planet.

Satellite connectivity for consumers or small businesses in remote or rural areas isn’t a new concept. But the speeds at which the likes of SpaceX’s Starlink system are aiming to deliver that connectivity is. Satellites have traditionally been used as last-mile alternative connectivity options for less latency-sensitive end users that have more limited bandwidth needs. And while backhaul between large network points will remain the domain of fiber, the growing popularity of  hyper-connected, low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite networks is slowly beginning to change connectivity for other uses.

Setting aside those current limitations, is there a place in the future for satellites in enterprise operations? More specifically, data centers already use satellites for keeping computer clusters ontrack and on-task, but what role could they play in the future for global communications and data transmission?

High cost of fiber, low performance of satellites prevent global connectivity

There are approximately 5.1 billion internet users worldwide, a figure expected to reach 5.3 billion by 2023. While many of those new internet users will come from established, high-density markets in North America, Europe, and Asia, a health portion of them will also come online from more remote parts of the world.

It isn’t just that these new internet users — especially those in remote, emerging, and historically disconnected locales — will want to make the best use of their fancy smartphones or mobile devices (they will) by browsing the internet or texting with friends and family. They’ll also need that connectivity for more essential things like coordinating emergency response, digitizing hospitals and healthcare systems, connecting schools with the outside world, and a range of business applications inherent to a flourishing society.

Yet, the primary reason that even in 2021 we’re still talking about the lack of internet access around the world is a matter of sheer geography and economics — a matter that in the near future could reasonably be solved, in part, by satellites.

Modern telecommunications networks — the 4G and 5G varieties — require high-bandwidth backhaul over shorter distances to core network interconnection nodes. But laying that “mid-mile” fiber — espeically through dense urban cores or hard to reach exurban remote locations with fewer users — is time-consuming, expensive, and extremely difficult. Worse, it’s nearly impossible to make a compelling business case for such an investment at either the enterprise business or even governmental level.

However, to date, satellite backhaul and legacy technologies like copper-based wires that may be more cost-effective and slightly more technically feasible to implement are insufficient for supporting the latency demands of modern applications and network infrastructure. Still, the steady and predictable growth of modular data centers in edge locations and the rapid expansion of 5G capabilities rolling out worldwide we can begin to envision how satellites could feasibly play the part of backhaul connections to rural areas around the world.

Emerging technologies for endless possibilities

Taking satellite backhaul from back-of-the-napkin concept to full-blown reality won’t be easy. But with our current technology and those coming down the pike, it’s at least possible.

The first component required is portable data center capacity to serve as a junction and connectivity point to a core network from virtually any location on the planet. Modular data centers are inexpensive to build, are more efficient than static data centers, and are plug-and-play with support for up to 20kW.

Situating these data centers in strategic edge locations, companies could leverage low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites like those in the Starlink fleet to provide the last mile link between 5G cell sites and the data centers to provide mid-mile connectivity for growing populations in remote, hard-to-reach places.

However, rather than using conventional radio signals to transmit data — the main issue with current satellite connectivity — the LEO satellites could instead use free space optics (FSO). Like underground fiber optic cables that uses lasers to transmit data via bundles of enclosed glass fibers, FSOs similarly transmit visible or infrared (IR) beams through the atmosphere to its destination.

Predicated on carrier-grade optical communication technology that already exists on Earth, these literal lasers in space could be the missing link to overcoming bandwidth and performance limitations and bringing true broadband connectivity everywhere on the planet.

Though this arrangement is purely theoretical, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. And in the coming years, it’s a good bet that some form or another of the concept will take shape to try and resolve long standing connectivity challenges.

Until then, individuals, businesses, and governments will still need to rely on undersea and underground fiber networks connecting colocation and enterprise data centers like STACK INFRASTRUCTURE’s portfolio of high-performance facilities to meet their communications needs.

Learn more about how our data center solutions solve your connectivity challenges here on Earth and how the right partner can help prepare you for whatever the future may hold.

Tim Hughes is VP of Strategy for STACK INFRASTRUCTURE