SpaceX launches satellite that will bring internet to isolated island nations

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Thousands of islands dot the Pacific Ocean between Asia’s southern coast and Australia, and the people who live on them have stayed mostly isolated from the digital age. The assumption by many internet providers is that “there’s not many people there, they don’t need connectivity, and there’s not a lot of money,” Christian Patouraux, the founder and CEO of satellite startup Kacific, told CNN Business.Patouraux said he knows that to be false.

Six years ago, he founded Singapore-based Kacific after he saw a market analysis that showed the Asia-Pacific region is starved for internet access, and people are willing to pay for it.Now, they are several steps closer to getting that access. On Monday evening, a SpaceX rocket launched Kacific’s first satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Patouraux said it could soon bring consistent internet connections to as many as 1 million people for the first time.

Internet for islanders

The biggest obstacle to extending broadband across the Asia-Pacific is one of topography: Broadband is delivered primarily by copper or fiber optic cables, including some that stretch under the Atlantic Ocean. They’re expensive to install, so internet service providers mostly target urban areas, where they can get the most bang for their buck, while rural communities are often left out.In the Asia-Pacific region, where more than 80% of the population lives in rural areas, the lack of connectivity is glaring, according to Patouraux.

Satellite-based internet is not typically cheap or of high quality. But Patouraux said it’s the best way to reach these remote communities, and his team worked out a way to do it at the right price points. Kacific’s satellite, dubbed Kacific-1, is high-throughput, a new breed of satellite that has much higher capacity than older models. To keep costs low, it’s built into a CondoSat, a type of two-in-one satellite that will allow Kacific-1 to share space with another payload. (In this case, it’s a TV service satellite for Japan-based Sky Perfect JCSAT.)

The CondoSat will sit in geosynchronus orbit about 22,000 miles above Earth, where it’ll stay continuously positioned over the Asia-Pacific region.A few ground stations, called teleports, will bounce Kacific-1’s signal to antennas, creating internet hot spots. At about $500 to $1,000 each, Patouraux said the antennas may be too expensive for most people to install at their homes, but they’re a perfect fit for schools, hospitals and community centers.

‘Connections save lives’

Patouraux is out to dispel the idea that islanders are uninterested in technology. He recalled visiting the isolated Kiribati village of Bontaritari on an island about 2,000 miles northeast of Australia. Reaching the area required a two-hour plane ride on a rickety aircraft, which landed in an empty meadow. From there it was a four-hour truck ride through miles of sandy terrain and a few shallow lagoons, Patouraux said. He arrived to find an educated community of people, and “most of them had laptops or electronic notepads or smartphones,” he said.

“They were using them to exchange pictures via Bluetooth, or they would go out to the city and download movies and share it with others,” Patouraux said.It was a community primed and ready for internet access, waiting for someone to bring in the bandwidth. And that was a common sight, Patouraux said, as he continued to travel across the region.”We quickly realized the market is even bigger than we anticipated,” he said.

Kacific began setting up connections using excess bandwidth that it purchased from other satellite operators. The startup has connected 75 health clinics in the island nation of Timor-Leste and five schools in Samoa. And when the sole fiber-optic cable connecting the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga was severed, Kacific helped bring the nation’s capital back online.

Companies including SpaceX and Amazon are building constellations of internet satellites that orbit much closer to Earth, solving the latency issues that typically plague geosynchronous satellites. They say their networks will blanket the entire planet in connectivity. But it’s still not clear if they’ll be able to offer consumer broadband at price points that make sense for under-served communities where most people don’t have much disposable income.


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