The Internet heads into orbit

(Stay tuned for a full disclosure at the bottom of this post.)

In late 1969 two host computer systems, one at UCLA and the other at Stanford Research Institute, engaged in an electronic communication using a new process: packet switching. Without getting overly technical, this involved a network that broke digital information down into small chunks and then sent them out over a communications circuit via a device that directed the packets to the correct destination. (That device is commonly called a “router” today.) That network was called ARPANET and the technique it pioneered has grown to be the dominant form of data transmission today. ARPANET has also grown, itself, and literally covers the globe. We call it the Internet and you’re using it right now.

Packet switching revolutionized communications and permitted this concept that we enjoy today were multiple host systems – the computers that connect to the ‘Net – can communicate with multiple systems over the same data path. You don’t need a separate phone line to every system out there in order to get data from it. Our access to information has grown exponentially as a result. There has been 1 place, however, where the rules of communication have remained as they were before the advent of packet switching and that’s in the realm of satellite comms.

Communication satellites are critical to our global awareness and they permit the common Joe to talk to businesses and relatives out of the reach of cabled phone networks. They are comparatively slow, however. Just as an example, a data packet takes just 80 milliseconds to travel from my location near DC to Los Angeles, CA and back, a distance of about 5300 miles. Comm satellites orbit above the Earth at an altitude of just over 22,000 miles so it’s not uncommon for the same trip taken via satellite to take 5 times that long. To make matters worse, satellites operate using the older process of “circuit switching” where data must travel from an earth station up to the satellite and then back down to a specific earth station at the other end. If the destination is yet another satellite hop away, the timing of the communication gets to be so long that some types of communication – voice calls, for instance – become practically impossible. If satellites could operate as earth-based router nodes do, sending the data directly to earth stations dependent on the data’s destination (or even, possibly, to another satellite in orbit) then the communications timing would be vastly reduced. That means making the satellite act like a router node. Which mean putting a router in orbit.

On Tuesday Cisco Systems announced that they have taken the first step in doing just that. Cisco’s Internet Routing in Space (IRIS) project seeks to extend the global Internet into orbit and bring to satellite communications the same flexibility and efficiency that routers have provided to terrestrial links for years.

For starters, a space-based router can intelligently allocate bandwidth, prioritizing more important traffic and allowing telecommunications companies to respond to changing demand, Pelton says. Hence, if one customer no longer needs bandwidth – a broadcaster covering a just-canceled political event, for example – that bandwidth can be assigned to another customer – such as a government agency dealing with a sudden natural disaster.

Space-based routers would also make it practical for telecommunications companies to offer high-bandwidth, on-demand services such as Cisco TelePresence, Pelton says. That’s not an option with existing satellite networks because customers must reserve bandwidth in advance and pay for it whether they use it or not, he says.

Read Cisco’s press release for greater details and more examples like this one.

This project could dramatically change the landscape of global communications. The notion of having “any time, any place” communication and information access down to the end-user level becomes a real possibility with the capabilities IRIS enables. We already have cell phones that receive satellite signals – I’m referring to GPS, here – so the concept of those phones evolving into using satellite communication when no other transmissions are available isn’t science fiction. The weak link, up to now, has been in the provisioning of satellite transmission bandwidth. IRIS will allow the satellites to make more intelligent decisions on what bandwidth is available and how it can get used. Think of it: 20 years ago the average person didn’t even know what the Internet was, let alone had access to it. Today, access is so commonly available that it’s barely noticed. People expect it to be there just like they expect electricity to be there when they flip on a light switch. IRIS could be the first step into providing that level of access anywhere on the globe.

Now, for a bit of disclosure. For a variety of reasons, I’ve never actually mentioned the company I work for. I’ve spoken of information technology and my expertise within that field but the name of my employer wasn’t part of the conversation. Given the importance of this story, I couldn’t not address it and that makes it ethically important to be up front with where I stand on the company in question. I’m a System Engineer for Cisco Systems working in their Public Sector, Federal account team. I don’t work directly with the IRIS project nor (to the best of my knowledge) directly with any IRIS team member. I’m proud of them all, however, and I’m proud to be a member of the Cisco family. Cisco has number of projects in the works in many, many fields within information technology. IRIS just happens to be one with the real potential to change the world. I look forward to hearing more about it and I’ll pass along what I find.