Elon Musk’s Starlink Won’t Make Giant Undersea Cables Extinct: Experts





  • Satellite internet like Elon Musk’s Starlink won’t make undersea cables extinct, experts say.
  • They told Insider that satellite systems and submarine telecoms cables would exist side by side.
  • Cables are cheap and have great capacity but satellite systems are better for rural areas, they said.

Satellite internet constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper won’t lead to the extinction of giant undersea telecoms cables, industry experts say.

Over the past year, thousands of satellites have been launched into orbit to build out internet service for people on Earth. Elon Musk’s Starlink has about 2,000 satellites in orbit presently, and plans to have 42,000 by mid-2027. Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation plans to put more than 3,000 satellites in orbit, while the UK’s OneWeb has already launched more than 400 satellites.

Meanwhile, there are more than 400 undersea internet cables connecting the world.

While undersea cables handle hundreds of terabits of data per second and can connect entire continents, satellite internet systems target individual homes, businesses, and communities in rural, underserved, and remote locations.

Brian Lavallée, a senior director at telecoms equipment supplier Ciena, said satellite internet networks and undersea cables were “highly complementary” and not intended to compete against each other.

“Think of satellite networks as on-ramps to highways with the highways being the submarine networks,” he told Insider. “For small islands with no submarine cables, satellite networks are a viable, or sometimes the only, alternative.”

He added: “Satellite internet access is not likely to overtake undersea cable infrastructure in our lifetime, primarily because they’re not intended to compete.”

Howard Kidorf, managing partner of undersea telecoms consultancy Pioneer Consulting, said satellite networks were “synergistic” and posed “no threat” to undersea cables.

“When it comes to delivering traffic to underserved regions, either in the United States, Africa, or Australia, yes, the satellite constellations are the game-changer,” he told Insider.

Satellite networks have a key advantage over undersea cable networks: If a satellite network already serves a particular area, users need only buy an uplink kit to get online. Meanwhile, it takes weeks or months to lay an undersea internet cable – and that’s not including the planning process beforehand, which can take up to two years because permitting, environmental, and regulatory hurdles need to be jumped.

Satellite systems are expensive, though. Musk said Starlink would likely need up to $30 billion in investment to become a viable business. Submarine cables are “tremendously cheaper” by comparison, Kidof said, costing the industry around $2 billion a year.

In January, Tonga was hit by a volcanic eruption that triggered a tsunami and severed the island’s 514-mile undersea internet cable, cutting off the country’s communication links to the rest of the world. SpaceX’s Starlink jumped in to restore Tonga’s internet while the cable was repaired.

But even if Starlink had been up and running before the eruption, it might not have helped maintain Tonga’s connection, Lavallée suggested.

“The undersea volcano spewed a giant plume of dust and ash into the atmosphere, which could adversely affect or outright block communications between satellites and ground stations, even if you had sufficient satellite connectivity,” he said.




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