Excerpts from this blog originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Submarine Telecoms Forum magazine.
You don’t need to be a space nerd like me to get excited about what’s happening in the private satellite industry. Although they don’t get as much mainstream attention as some of the manned space missions of the past, satellites promise to be far more transformational back on Earth. It’s no surprise Morgan Stanley predicted the global space industry will be valued at more than $1 trillion by 2040, with satellite communications accounting for almost 40% of that total.
Whether it’s enabling connectivity in places terrestrial infrastructure can’t reach or helping users reconnect quickly in the aftermath of conflict or natural disasters, satcom technologies are changing the world for the better. However, they’ll also require us to change how we think about digital infrastructure here on Earth.
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Decreases in transport costs are unlocking the power of satcom, but challenges remain
Satcom providers like SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon and Telesat are all working to prove the private space industry is more than just hype. The cost of launching a satellite—defined by the SWaP formula, considering size, weight and power—has fallen quickly, from approximately $20,000 per kilogram five years ago to $5,000 per kilogram today. Operators must also optimize the terminal cost of receiving signals on Earth if they want to reach their intended market.
SpaceX antennas currently cost about $500; since satellite internet is primarily aimed at developing economies, this number needs to come down to about $300 before it starts to make sense financially. The Starlink constellation is on the verge of becoming the first production retail communications satellite service with real paying customers. There are some who believe the challenges SpaceX will face around terminal costs, government regulations on Earth and in space, and ongoing litigation among competitors in space will ultimately lead to a decision that their time, resources, and the investment required would be better spent elsewhere.
New networking technology in space gives rise to new ecosystems on Earth
The Global Interconnection Index, Volume 5 is filled with data about who’s interconnecting, where they’re interconnecting, and why. The future of digital infrastructure may be in space, but the lessons the GXI can teach us about digital infrastructure on Earth will continue to hold true. For one, digital leaders need to optimize all three components of their infrastructure: the digital core, ecosystem and edge. The digital core of space communications is starting to take shape, with the launch of NASA’s Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) being one particularly exciting example.
The LCRD will enable transmission of data over infrared lasers, at rates up to 100 times faster than traditional RF transmissions. This is an important step toward making enterprise-scale networking in space feasible. A new microecosystem of companies will form to help convert this groundbreaking development into something users back on Earth can benefit from.
Already, at least 40 companies in the U.S. alone plan to start transmitting communication signals from the moon within the next five years. They’ll need partners operating accompanying terrestrial infrastructure to receive those signals from space and transmit them where they need to go. They’ll need to determine how and where to interconnect with those partners, and they can use data like that found in the GXI to guide their decision-making process. Enterprises that can quickly tap into rich, global ecosystems of partners and customers will be in the best position to succeed in the satcom era.
Organizations must rethink the edge in the context of private optical communications satellites
In recent years, “the edge” has become one of the most overused (and ultimately meaningless) terms in technology. Thanks to new developments in space communications—such as Starlink and LCRD—we need a fundamentally new understanding of what and where the edge is. In the future, signals from space will be able to reach everywhere on Earth, which means we must also think of the edge as being everywhere.
Within the next year, Commstar will build on the success of LCRD to become the first private company to launch an optical communications satellite. The new satellite will rely on an ecosystem of partners to help amplify laser signals and get them back to Earth; without amplification, the satellite simply wouldn’t be able to overcome the sheer distance between the Earth and the moon.
In addition, ground stations will start to proliferate on Earth to enable the edge-anywhere approach. Rather than residing in traditional data center campuses, these ground stations need to be close to endpoints and users to keep latency low and enable use cases like 5G, IoT and AI/ML. As a result, they’ll appear in smaller modular data centers that can be deployed in crowded urban areas with minimal human oversight.
Adapting your approach to digital infrastructure
The development of satcom technology carries with it the excitement of a promising new future but also a comforting feeling of familiarity. While the exact technology involved may be different, many of the steps organizations can take to prepare for the future of these transformation technologies are not that different from the steps digital leaders have been taking on Earth for years now. This means deploying distributed infrastructure at the edge (wherever that may be) and interconnecting with the right partners in the right places.
As the world’s digital infrastructure company™, Equinix is uniquely positioned to support these goals. Equinix International Business Exchange™ (IBX®) data centers are available in more than 65 metros worldwide, and our partner ecosystem includes thousands of service providers and enterprises. To learn more about how the Equinix approach can prepare you for digital infrastructure success, today and into the future, read the Platform Equinix® vision paper.
 SpaceNews, “SpaceX worked for weeks to begin Starlink service in Ukraine”, Jeff Foust, March 2022.
 NASA, “NASA’s Laser Communications Tech, Science Experiment Safely in Space.” December 2021.