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4 Reasons Why Global Satellite Internet Is A Fantasy

Web Foundation · April 20, 2015

The following is guest blog post by Alex Blum of Rugged Communications. This article originally appeared on Inveneo’s ICTWorks blog.

World famous entrepreneurs Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, have both recently announced separate initiatives to provide global Internet access via a vast network of small satellites spanning the globe. The plans propose to blanket the planet in coverage, overcoming many of the obstacles standing in the way of connecting four billion people that still lack Internet service.

As someone who has been running an organization to deliver rural areas in developing countries with connectivity, I greet these announcements with both excitement and a bit of skepticism. While the focus of high-profile entrepreneurs on this vitally important effort will bring increased interest and attention to connecting the world, their approach solves very few of the actual barriers to providing access. So, what are the real challenges?


Billions of people lack electricity on the ground. Power serves as the foundation for true community development. People can connect computers, lights, and any other device to a few solar panels, but access to these opportunities remains limited. So, while a network of satellites might make connectivity possible in theory, in effect, billions of rural people will still have no means of leveraging this potential.

Terrestrial Receivers

To bring service to a community, one needs a receiver on the ground to distribute that signal to a decently-sized area at an affordable price. If communities have not installed one of these, then a satellite becomes pretty useless. There is no way of avoiding work on the ground to set up a connection.

Political and Regulatory Barriers

There exists plenty of technology to beam wireless Internet signal great distances on the ground and low-cost base stations to distribute a signal. It is a simple, flexible, and agile political and regulatory environment that is most lacking. Employing new technologies in the field requires navigating years of red tape in each individual country. A satellite network does nothing to improve this process.

Community Adoption

Getting a community with little previous experience with communications technology to maximize the potential that connectivity provides poses the greatest challenge. Rural communities fervently seek ICTs, but it takes time and training to educate people on how to use computers successfully. Without this focused effort, these technologies may intimidate some individuals. Especially in areas where traditional methods of living have existed for hundreds or thousands of years, introducing a novel technology requires trust and cultural understanding. No doubt individuals are excited about technology, however, a sensitive facilitator must aid the process.


All of these barriers share a common theme. The true challenges of extending connectivity come in the form of community development. An organization must be on the ground delivering electricity, navigating political barriers, and understanding socio-cultural needs if the potential for improved education, healthcare, and economic opportunity is to ever come to fruition. While a global network of satellite connectivity seems to theoretically solve a lot of problems, in practice, much of the work remains.

Many realistic, scalable solutions for the delicate work of navigating local contexts to introduce and maximize the benefit of technology already exist. Local partnerships and collaboration allow organizations to flexibly adapt to the cultural specifics, logistical organizing, and regulatory realities of each project. Low-cost telecommunications technologies like wireless backhaul and small-cell base stations make extending networks to rural areas economically feasible. Dedicated individuals and organizations with the experience and passion to bridge these gaps tie this complex ecosystem into a cohesive, functioning, and sustainable whole.

Alex Blum is the Founder and CEO of Rugged Communications, a designer of holistic ICT4D solutions and consultancy. He holds an MS in Global Technology and Development. He writes about ICT4D, entrepreneurship, emerging technology, and telemedicine. Find him on Twitter @ruggedcomms or follow up with him at

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  1. Juliet Lecchini

    April 30, 2015

    People just don't seem to learn from history......In a previous life, I was Director, Rural Remote Telephony for ICO Global Communications. For those that remember ICO had a plan back in the 90s i.e. last century to "Provide global telephony solutions via a network of satellites spanning the globe". Funnily enough ICO Global sponsored Richard Branson's bid to hot air balloon around the world back then - so really and truly he should remember us and what happened next.Satellite can play a really valid part in both telecomms and Internet and it makes absolute sense to use satellite in various places around the world - particularly remote areas away from fibre - but it makes zero sense to have the same blanket coverage across the world. It is the same as building massive dams all over the world including countries with plenty of natural springs and fresh water and then wondering why some people in some countries far from the dams still don't have clean water to drink.Spend the money to develop infrastructure where it is needed in a wholistic manner as Alex points out - rather than going for the macho global network option which sounds impressive on paper but is actually a pointless way to throw millions of dollars away in grandiose infrastructure schemes.


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    1. Brad's Electronics

      August 4, 2015

      Juliet mentions many of the common pros and cons of satellite internet, but having a satellite internet connection even in areas that already have solid infrastructure can still provide benefits. Imagine having additional satellite internet on top of your current cell phone data plan. Could double as an additional connection in emergencies where landline based internet or cell phone towers are down.


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    2. Alexander E Doak

      July 14, 2016

      I think electrical power is a bit more ubiquitous that you realize, even in impoverished countries.And terrestrial receivers are not, in fact, required technically. Don't get me wrong, I'm the owner of, and I'd love to get more work for the satellite installers. But satellite phones work perfectly well without any installation, and if they can send/receive voice, they can send/receive data. I imagine all satellite phones are based on a digital transmission system anyway, meaning it's already data.Okay, I just checked the Wikipedia on satellite phones, and most do offer low-bandwidth internet service already. So it looks like Global Satellite Internet isn't a Fantasy... It's already here. Depending on coverage of course. So all they really need to do is launch a few more satellites for total coverage. Hardly an impossible undertaking.


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