Elon Musk has proposed a network of some 4,000 micro-satellites to provide broadband Internet services around the globe. SpaceX is partnering with Google and Fidelity Investments, which are investing $1 billion for a 10 percent stake in the endeavor. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Qualcomm, meanwhile, are investing in a competing venture called OneWeb, which aims to build a similar network of micro-satellites.
Satellite technology has advanced, bringing the cost of deployment down significantly. Toaster-sized micro-satellites can be launched dozens at a time, and don’t have to operate at very high orbits, reducing launch costs, but they can deliver performance comparable to larger, older satellites at higher altitudes.
The speed of light is 40 per cent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fiber. Elon plans to use optical lasers to communicate between the micro-satellites.
Elon will have 60 people working on the space Internet project initially and that could rise to 1,000 in a few years.
“You’ve got large swaths of land where there is a relatively low density of users,” Musk told an audience at the opening of SpaceX’s new satellite development center in Seattle last week. “Space is actually ideal for that.”
Musk and Branson are not alone in recognizing the market potential. Besides investing in Musk’s project, Google is working on a high-altitude balloon-based Internet delivery system called Loon. And Facebook is developing high-altitude, high-endurance drones to deliver Internet capability to remote areas. The Google and Facebook projects would be similar in concept to the space-based systems, while operating within the Earth’s atmosphere.
OneWeb is a supercharged version of O3b. Instead of dozens of satellites, Wyler plans to put up hundreds—648, to start with.
The satellites will be in a low-earth orbit 750 miles up, much closer than even O3b’s machines. Engineers expect data to travel between space and the surface in 20 milliseconds, which would provide a state-of-the-art Internet service capable of handling any application.
Musk’s plan is to build thousands of satellites at a SpaceX factory, launch them with his own rockets, and use them to handle much of the world’s Internet traffic. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg [Wyler of OneWeb] wants,” he says. “I think there should be two competing systems.”
SOURCES – Business Week, Technology Review