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Microsoft and SpaceX Partner to Take the Cloud to Space

Michael Behr

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Microsoft SpaceX

With half the world disconnected from the internet, satellite-based networks can help ensure 4 billion people are not left behind in the global digital transformation.

A new partnership will see Microsoft connect its Azure cloud computing services to SpaceX’s Starlink network of satellites.

Under the deal, Starlink’s low-latency satellite broadband network will provide Azure data centres with the means to communicate with computers around the globe, helping bring cloud computing to remote locations.

“The collaboration that we’re announcing today will allow us to work together to deliver new offerings for both the public and the private sector to deliver connectivity through Starlink for use on Azure,” SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a video.

The move comes as Microsoft unveils a series of ventures aimed at providing cloud services in space. The company recently created a new business unit, Azure Space. The new venture aims to gather and interpret satellite data as well as provide global satellite networking capabilities.

In addition, the tech giant has also launched Azure Orbital, a service that provides customers with the use of the company’s satellite ground stations, connecting satellites directly to the cloud.

“The space community is growing rapidly and innovation is lowering the barriers of access for public- and private-sector organisations,” said Azure Global Corporate Vice President Tom Keane in a company statement.

“With Azure Space, we have the ambition to make space connectivity and compute increasingly attainable across industries including agriculture, energy, telecommunications, and government.”

Microsoft has also revealed the Azure Modular Datacenters (AMD), a shipping container-sized portable data centre with a satellite connection for use in areas that lack conventional data centres or have limited or disrupted internet infrastructure.

The AMD can work with multiple satellite systems, with Microsoft also working with SES and KSAT’s satellite networks as part of a “multi-orbit, multi-band, multi-vendor” approach to connectivity.

The new project dovetails with the SpaceLink satellite constellation, which aims to provide high speed internet connectivity to underserved areas.

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Currently, the world is split roughly in half between internet users and non-internet users. Most people without the internet are in African countries, the Middle East, and Central, South and Southeast Asia.

These places generally suffer from poor infrastructure and offer challenges to creating new traditional internet connections.

As such, satellite connections provide a logical solution to providing internet connectivity to these underserved areas. Satellite-based internet services can also reach places traditional infrastructure physically cannot, such as ships and oil platforms.

The Starlink network of 800 satellites currently only covers a fraction of the world’s surface. Once complete, SpaceX expects the network will be made up of around 12,000 satellites. The project is currently being beta-tested in the US state of Washington, with an expansion planned for the Northern US and Southern Canada.

The satellites will operate with one constellation at 550km and another at 340km. They will offer latencies of under 40-50ms when making a round trip to the internet, according to SpaceX. By comparison, 5G has latencies of around 30ms while fibre broadband generally comes in around 20ms.

Michael Behr

Senior Staff Writer

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