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Global Climate Change And Satellite Broadband

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If current temperature trends are an indication, the coming two decades may show a growing population shift to northern latitudes, particularly north of 50°. This isn’t a futuristic prediction; the permanent Arctic ice pack has been reduced by 41% since 2000, which trend, if continued, could open northern latitudes to greater oil and gas exploration and production. The Northwest Passage has already been used for transit of commercial ships and the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy and Canadian Navy are all increasing their presence in Arctic waters. In other words, the far north in the western hemisphere is rapidly becoming a new frontier for human activity. Among other challenges will be providing broadband access to this new far-north population.

The problem with broadband communication links with high latitudes is that the current constellation of communication satellites in geosynchronous orbit over the equator are too low on the horizon for efficient use. Ground scatter and atmospheric interference, particularly storms and heavy cloud cover, quickly degrade the ground-satellite signal.

An alternative to geosynchronous orbits are molniya orbits. Named after a series of satellites launched by the Soviet Union beginning in 1965, these orbits present a persistent footprint over high latitudes. They follow an elliptical orbit with a perigee over the southern hemisphere and an apogee at approximately 63° North. This orbit has a time of 12 hours, of which 8 hours are spent over northern latitudes. With a constellation of at least three satellites per orbit, continuous broadband delivery can be achieved, even in the far north. Approximately 150 satellites have been launched into molniya orbits since the 1960, the majority of which were Soviet (now Russian).

The United States, Canada and some Scandinavian countries have established some molniya-orbit satellites over the past decades, but as the Arctic becomes more important to commercial activity, there is a greater motivation to increase the coverage. The Iridium satellites have reached the end of their technological and practical lifespan, but the Iridium Next series is nearly ready for launch. Some of these satellites may be in place in molniya orbits as early as 2016, offering IP broadband channels at rates up to 10 megabytes per second. The Canadian Space Agency is also developing their Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) system, also to provide better communication in the far north.

Since the nature of the molniya orbit requires multiple satellites for continuous coverage, molniya orbit-delivered broadband will be expensive. Since 21st century technology is already dependent upon broadband communication, however, there is little choice but to use this system and pay the price.

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Laura writes for uSwitch, the UK’s leading satellite broadband comparison website.

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