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FactCheck: Is there faster broadband on the moon than in Roscommon?

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has claimed there is better internet connection 400,000km away than in parts of his constituency.

Factcheck

DENIS NAUGHTEN IS passionate when it comes to the problem of rural broadband.

Last week Naughten, the Minister for Communications and a member of the Rural Alliance of independent TDs, was interviewed on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland about his department’s plan for rural broadband.

Asked by presenter Cathal Mac Coille about previous comments in February when he compared the internet in Roscommon to that available on the moon, the minister said:

I live in rural Ireland. In parts of my constituency, yes, there is better broadband on the moon than we have access to at the moment.

In doing so he echoed his comments last February, when he said:

There is something fundamentally wrong if engineers can make it possible to receive around 20mbps on the moon but yet we cannot get it in many parts of the Roscommon Galway constituency.

So what’s the truth? With the help of some experts in space engineering, optical broadband and the more terrestrial kind, we found out.

(Remember if you see or hear a politician making big claims, about broadband, space engineering or otherwise, email factcheck@thejournal.ie or tweet  @TJ_FactCheck).

Claim: There is faster broadband on the moon than in parts of Roscommon-Galway, the home constituency of Minister for Communications Denis Naughten.
Verdict: Half-true.

  • A 2014 Nasa experiment beamed broadband to a satellite orbiting the moon using laser technology, proving it possible to beam high-speed internet to the moon and its satellites.
  • This broadband was very fast, certainly quicker than the patchy connection available in parts of Roscommon-Galway.
  • Yet broadband is not generally available at present to lunar satellites, let alone the moon itself, which doesn’t have any infrastructure anyway.
  • Nevertheless Naughten’s previous comments, that it is possible to send internet at 20mbps to the moon (faster than that available in some rural areas) were true.


Source: RTÉ Radio 1/SoundCloud

We asked the Department of Communications about the minister’s comments, and a spokeswoman said Naughten’s views on lunar broadband access “reflected the frustration” of those unable to access it in rural Ireland.

The department then sent us this story about of this 2013-14 experiment by scientists from Nasa and MIT.

Wired to the moon: the Nasa experiment

The experiment succeeded in transmitting internet at broadband speeds to a satellite orbiting the moon, and back again – at almost 20 megabits per second (mbps).

It proved that it would be possible to connect to fast broadband, and even stream movies, to the moon, almost 400,000 km from Earth.

According to its advance publicity, the experiment also proved that technology exists to:

provide space dwellers with the connectivity we all enjoy here on Earth, enabling large data transfers and even high-definition video streaming.

At the time, researcher Mark Stevens of MIT said:

Communicating at high data rates from Earth to the moon with laser beams is challenging because of the 400,000-kilometer distance spreading out the light beam.

Broadband speeds in Roscommon-Galway

According to a list compiled by CompareBroadband for TheJournal.ie, the average broadband speed in Co Roscommon is 11.3mbps.

The average for Co Galway, meanwhile, is 13.8mbps.

This map, meanwhile produced by Compare Broadband for FactCheck, shows a selection of various speeds in Naughten’s constituency of Roscommon-Galway.

Roscommon-Galway Selected broadband speeds in Roscommon and Galway, showing speeds under 1mb (red); 1-5mb (green); 5-10mb (yellow); 10-30mb (orange) and 30-100mb (blue). Source: CompareBroadband.ie

Yet, as the above map shows, in certain places of Naughten’s constituency (e.g. Roscommon town and Frenchpark) broadband speeds reach, and even exceed, the speeds of almost 20mbps transmitted to and from the moon.

(Click here to view an interactive map.)

shutterstock_285636983 Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969. Source: Shutterstock

The Experts

So: does that mean broadband received by a satellite near the moon was actually faster than in many households in Roscommon-Galway?

Yes. But – it’s only been done once, in a ‘proof of concept’ experiment, as Dr Alan Morrison, Dean of Engineering at UCC, explains to TheJournal.ie.

It was a demonstration to show you could send information at broadband speeds between the earth and the moon…. but there is no broadband on the moon.

“I understand where Minister Naughten is coming from,” he added.

There is technology out there that can send information over 400,000 km to the moon… faster than speeds many in Ireland are receiving.

Also, there was no ‘contention’ – meaning the lunar satellite didn’t have to compete with other subscribers in the same area, Morrison said.

Another leading expert, Dr David McCloskey, of the photonics group at Trinity College Dublin’s school of physics, explained to TheJournal.ie that the problems in connecting rural Ireland to broadband over 30mbps are quite different to those in transmitting to the moon.

He said:

Although Mark’s team can provide download rates of up to 600mbps this would only suffice to keep 20 homes happy in the west of Ireland.
“The link to the moon is essentially a fibre optic link without the cable,” he said.
Dr McCloskey added that Nasa will probably adopt the technology as a regular link, as it is reasonably economical to run in terms of power consumption.

Conclusion

The broadband in Nasa’s experiment wasn’t actually beamed to the moon itself but rather to satellites circling it.

Also, it’s not being done regularly - yet

Nevertheless, Nasa and MIT have shown it is possible for broadband to be sent to the moon at speeds faster than the average connection available in Roscommon-Galway.

Allowing Minister Naughten some leeway for making what was essentially rhetorical point, rather than a scientific analysis, we rate this claim Half-True.

Send your FactCheck requests to factcheck@thejournal.ie

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