Elon Musk vs. Richard Branson: The Race For Cheap Satellite Internet

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Over four billion people don’t have Internet access. That’s more than half the population of Earth. How do we fix that? The answer lies over our head. Two billionaires are in a battle to create a network of tiny satellites that can bring cheap Internet access to the masses.

In November 2014, Elon Musk confirmed rumours that he was building a fleet of satellites to provide affordable Internet. He officially announced the project this January, but was beat to the punch by Richard Branson of Virgin, who is launching the world’s largest satellite constellation in collaboration with Qualcomm and OneWeb.

Neither of these billionaires is new to the space race. Musk is the founder of SpaceX, the electric sportscar manufacturer Tesla and other technological ventures. Branson is an inspirational entrepreneur with many investments, one of which is the world’s first commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic.

So what’s special about space Internet, to attract the likes of Musk and Branson?

Isn’t Satellite Internet Already Available?

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Yes, but today’s satellite Internet is expensive and high latency. In simple terms, latency is the true speed of your network — it’s a measure of how long it takes for a packet you send to travel to its destination. The “15mbps” connection you have matters when you’re moving a lot of data (like streaming a movie), but for loading small files like web pages, latency is the biggest factor in how long it takes for the page to show up after you hit ‘enter.’

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Today’s satellite Internet uses satellites in geostationary orbit (GSO), which is 22,000 miles or more above the surface of the earth. At this distance, the satellite rotates in sync with the earth, so from our perspective on terra firma, it’s like the satellite is stationary above our heads. However, the large distance results in high latency, which makes satellite Internet a poor option for several applications like gaming, video conferencing, live streaming, and even just browsing the web. These satellites are also larger and costlier, raising the price of Internet services available through them. For more details, read our full explanation of how satellite Internet works.

Musk and Branson plan to put their satellite networks in low-earth orbit (LEO), roughly around 680 miles from the surface. They estimate the latency at this height would be 20ms to 30ms—comparable or better than existing broadband solutions which use a network of fibre-optic cables laid under the earth’s seabed.

“The speed of light in vacuum is somewhere 40% to 50% faster than in fiber,” Musk said at SpaceX Seattle 2015. “So you can actually do long distance communication faster if you route it through vacuum than if you route it through fiber. It can also go through far fewer hops.”

What’s The Difference Between Musk And Branson’s Ideas?

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OneWeb is serial entrepreneur Greg Wyler’s third big venture, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Branson’s Virgin Group and chip-maker Qualcomm have both invested in OneWeb, where Wyler has been envisioning this LEO Internet constellation since 2007. On the face of it, this group has a head start.

Their plan is to launch 648 micro-satellites into LEO, using Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket. These satellites will talk with earth-based receivers using radio spectrum, and that’s where Wyler scores as he owns the rights to this critical chunk of spectrum. Additionally, there are already a whole bunch of satellites (not Internet-related) in LEO, making it a crowded space.

Due to these factors, Branson is confident of Musk not being able to compete. “”I don’t think Elon can do a competing thing,” he told BusinessWeek. “Greg has the rights, and there isn’t space for another network—like there physically is not enough space. If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I would say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”

Lessons From Past Failures

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However, Musk says there is a fundamental difference in their approaches. And that comes down to history.

This isn’t the first time tech giants have thought about LEO satellites. Bill Gates and a few investors pumped $9 billion into Teledesic back in 1994. But the costs far exceeded estimations and it tanked. However, Musk has an important lesson from that.

“I think it’s important to assume that terrestrial networks will get much better over time,” Musk said. “One of the mistakes that Teledesic made was not assuming that terrestrial networks would get much better over time. So we need to make sure that the system we design is good, even taking into account significant improvements in the terrestrial systems.”

He isn’t too concerned about the space junk, saying his eventual target of 4,000 satellites more than doubles the number of currently active LEO satellites. He reckons there is enough space, as long as it’s planned well. He wants to tap SpaceX’s engineering prowess to make better satellites than competitors.

“Greg (Wyler) and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture,” Musk told BusinessWeek. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”

When Will We Actually See This And How Does It Benefit You?

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OneWeb expects its satellites to be up and running by 2018. There’s already a team of 30 building the satellites, antennas and software. Musk estimates the first version of his venture to be active in five years, but 12-15 years is more likely for full capability.

Musk says that such a system benefits both developing and developed countries. For developing nations, fibre-optic cables are too costly, so a space-based system can cut cost and provide Internet access for cheap. In developed nations, it’s about providing options. If you’re in a region where you can only get Internet through Comcast, this would be an alternative—furthering Musk’s core philosophy that competition is good and drives better products for the consumer.

The ultimate aim for him, though, is Mars. The satellite Internet constellation serves both as a revenue stream for Musk’s mission of building a habitable city on Mars, as well as providing the architecture to have a two-way means of communication there.

Wyler told The Wall Street Journal that he has no such grandiose plans and is focussed on the job at hand: “Our mission is enabling affordable Internet access for everyone.”

Who Do You Think Will Win?

In one corner, we have Elon Musk. In the other corner, we have Richard Branson. Come on, Internet, who are you rooting for?

Image credits: OneWeb, NASA, tpsdave, Steve Jurvetson, OpenClips, Wikimedia, jayofboy

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