Why Billionaires Are Flinging Satellites Into ‘LEO’: QuickTake

Close to 3 billion people have never used the internet, and billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are on a mission that could narrow the digital divide. The two entrepreneurs are competing to launch thousands of small satellites that will zip around the globe in what’s known as low-Earth orbit (LEO). They can be used to connect places that are too remote for ground-based broadband or have been cut off by natural disasters or conflict. The technology was put through its paces in Ukraine, where Musk’s Starlink system helped to keep civilians and the military online after Russian forces invaded. But colonizing this special slice of Earth’s atmosphere comes with heavy startup costs as well as complex and potentially dangerous challenges.

Most LEO satellites circle from 500 kilometers (311 miles) to 2,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface, so they can send data to the ground more rapidly than traditional communication satellites that are stationed at roughly 36,000 kilometers out. Those high-orbit systems have a median signal delay, or latency, of nearly 600 milliseconds for a round trip — too slow for technologies such as live video streaming, self-driving cars and high-frequency securities trading. Starlink aims for latency as low as 20 milliseconds, which Musk hopes eventually to cut in half. At those speeds, LEO satellites may compete with the fastest ground networks.

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