Between revolutionizing the car industry with Tesla and pushing human space exploration with SpaceX, Elon Musk seems to be everywhere these days. Now, Mr. Musk has a new project: bringing cheap, uncensored Internet access to the world at large.
Here’s what we know for sure: The Wall Street Journal reported on November 7th that, according to anonymous sources, Elon Musk is working with ex-Google executive and satellite industry alum Greg Wyler to deploy a large fleet of small communications satellites intended to bring inexpensive Internet access to people across the globe. Elon Musk has since confirmed at least some of the rumors in this tweet:
SpaceX is still in the early stages of developing advanced micro-satellites operating in large formations. Announcement in 2 to 3 months.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 11, 2014
After this revelation, the following exchange occurred,
…confirming that the satellites are, indeed, Internet related. However, it looks like the WSJ article may not have been entirely on the money:
@RolfeWinkler No, WSJ was wrong on several important points. The article shouldn’t have been written on rumor and hearsay.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 11, 2014
Accepting that the rumors should be taken with a grain of salt, let’s look at the rest of the (unconfirmed) claims from the WSJ article.
Elon Musk and Internet for Everyone
According to the Wall Street Journal, the plan is to manufacture around 700 satellites, each weighing less than 250 pounds, and distributing them into orbit to provide the world with low-cost uncensored Internet access. These satellites would be less than half the weight of the next lightest communications satellite, and the network would be ten times the size of the next largest satellite fleet (owned by the Iridium Communication Network, which went bankrupt launching them).
The project could cost a billion dollars or more, even leveraging SpaceX to provide low-cost launch capabilities.
UPDATE: Some of this information now seems to be tentatively confirmed, with Peter B. de Selding (Bureau Chief of Space News Paris) reporting that WorldVu (Greg Wyler’s current satellite company) has issued an RFP (request for proposal) from industry manufacturers. The request is for quotes to build 640 125 kg satellites, to orbit at 1200 km, with 14 gbps per satellite. This would give the overall network a bandwidth of about 9 terrabits per second – enough to, at a fairly typical 10-fold oversubscription rate, serve about twenty million users with a 3 mbps broadband connection. The estimated budget for the project would be about $1.5 billion USD.
Estimate for WorldVu constellation is ~$1.5B for build/launch of 640 125-kg sats, 1200-km orbit, 14gbps per sat. SpaceX relation unclear.
— Peter B. de Selding (@pbdes) November 11, 2014
This isn’t Greg Wyler’s first stab at this kind of project. O3B Networks, a company that he co-founded back in 2007 and later left, is building a fleet of eight satellites in equatorial orbit (of which four are now in place). The plan is to use this infrastructure to provide broadband to historically under-served regions around the equator (O3B stands for the ‘Other Three Billion’ people outside the first world).
The satellites lie in medium-range orbit: more stable than tumultuous low-Earth orbit, but four times lower than traditional geosynchronous orbit. This has two consequences: first, the satellites move relative to the ground, which means that you need more of them in order to ensure consistent coverage. Two, one-fourth the distance from the ground means one fourth the delay (speed of light latency can be around a quarter of a second round trip, which is problematic for many applications).
O3B is on track to complete its network, but it seems likely that Wyler has his sights set on something much bigger.
Internet From the Sky
If the project is successful, the potential is enormous: the primary barrier to bringing broadband to impoverished communities is the enormous cost of laying fiber optic cables. Satellites solve this problem, allowing the entire world to access the same usage points. Satellites have another key advantage, which is that it’s extremely difficult to stop people from accessing them, making them a useful political tool for helping people communicate from inside of areas with oppressive regimes. Shooting down a satellite is much more difficult than cutting a fiber-optic cable.
SpaceX is far from the only company interested in bringing Internet to the masses. Google’s Project Loon is focused on building inexpensive, internet-supplying solar-powered balloons that can be deployed into the upper atmosphere to provide peer-to-peer Internet connectivity.
Facebook has a drone-based Internet project with similar goals in the early stages of development, and plans to deploy 747-sized autonomous, solar-powered drones, flying independently and delivering Internet access for years without being serviced or supervised. This proposal in particular faces massive hurdles to overcome, both regulatory and technological — battery technology alone will require massive improvements to make this practical.
How will Elon Musk’s satellite swarm stack up to these other projects? Will it help to liberate those in the first world from the tyranny of Comcast (as well as getting the third world a seat at the table?) Tough to tell, with the information available right now.
We’ll find out more in a few months time. One way or another, though, the Internet is coming to the world via the sky, and it’s going to be great.