Elon Musk is known for two things: having crazy ideas, and making crazy ideas into billion-dollar businesses. The man who led the development of Tesla’s high-end, high-performance electric cars and founded SpaceX — the first private company to deliver goods to the International Space Station — now has something else up his sleeve. In an effort to provide high-speed Internet service to the billions of people who don’t yet have it, he wants to send Internet satellites into space.
Musk isn’t the only one to consider this possibility. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is funding OneWeb, a company founded by Greg Wyler, which plans to launch a constellation of satellites into orbit to provide worldwide Internet access.
In the past, Bill Gates, Google, and Facebook have also looked into the idea of delivering Internet access from space, but they’ve all given up for various reasons — with cost being a central factor. But Musk and Wyler are serious about making it happen, so let’s take a look at what they have planned to get around these limitations, and what this means for your monthly internet bill.
The Plans For Satellite Internet
Elon Musk originally announced his satellite Internet plans in January. As if he doesn’t already have enough on his plate — between Tesla Motors, SpaceX, and the Hyperloop — he wants to rebuild the Internet in space, with ambitions to one day use the resulting infrastructure connect Martian colonists to the Web. Yeah, seriously.
Before we put people on Mars, though, the satellites will serve two main purposes here on Earth: they’ll speed up the flow of data on the Internet and deliver affordable high-speed Internet to the 3 billion people who have unreliable or no access to the Web.
“Our focus is on creating a global communications system that would be larger than anything that has been talked about to date,” Musk told Bloomberg in January.
The plan is to launch hundreds of satellites into orbit 750 miles above the Earth — significantly closer than traditional communications satellites, which orbit as high as 22,000 miles up. Lower satellites would decrease the distance that signals have to travel, resulting in lower latency. However, because they aren’t high enough for their orbit to line up with the rotation of the earth, these satellites would not be stationary: they would move, and that means that many of them will be required to provide consistent coverage.
Musk envisions a world where data packets no longer have to travel through dozens of routers and networks. Instead, they’ll travel to space, where they’ll bounce from satellite to satellite until they reach the one closest to their destination. Why? “The speed of light is 40 percent faster in the vacuum of space than it is for fiber,” he said. “The long-term goal is for these satellite networks to be the primary carriers of long-distance Internet traffic and to serve people in sparsely populated areas.”
Entrepreneur Greg Wyler has similar ambitions with his startup OneWeb. Backed by Qualcomm and the Virgin Group, the $2 billion project will launch 648 satellites into low orbit to beam Internet down to the unconnected.
A team of more than 30 engineers are working to develop the satellites, antennas, and software to make Wyler’s vision a reality. OneWeb has already secured the required spectrum to enable such a service, and Wyler plans to be delivering satellite Internet from space by 2018.
Musk vs. Wyler: Who Will Win?
Elon Musk and Greg Wyler have known each other for years, and now they’re working on competing satellite Internet initiatives. There’s no bitterness, though; they’re working toward the same important goal of connecting the billions of people who still don’t have access to the Web.
But which project will come out ahead?
There’s a lot to consider, and there’s no clear winner in this initial planning stage. Musk has the support of SpaceX’s engineering and manufacturing expertise, but Wyler has been working to connect the “other three billion” through various methods for 15 years. Both projects are well funded.
“Greg and I have a fundamental disagreement about the architecture,” Musk told Bloomberg. “We want a satellite that is an order of magnitude more sophisticated than what Greg wants. I think there should be two competing systems.”
What This Means For Us
Thanks to Musk and Wyler, low-orbit Internet satellites are expected to be in service within five years. What does this mean for us? Well, while satellite Internet will undoubtedly be a big step for humanity, it may not change much in your day-to-day life – at least in the short term.
The satellite projects led by Musk and Wyler have the potential to deliver affordable, accessible Internet service to the 3 billion people who don’t yet have access. Satellite Internet could also be a viable solution for people in rural areas without more suitable infrastructure, and it could help law enforcement and first responders communicate outside of normal coverage areas.
But for consumers in the developed world, it’s unlikely that satellite Internet will be a viable alternative to traditional Internet service. As Forecast International analyst Bill Ostrove told MIT Technology Review, satellites physically cannot compete with the bandwidth and cost-effectiveness of fiber-optic cable and other established infrastructure.
However, this technology may provide an alternative to cell phone networks, which are relatively slow and expensive, compared to landlines, and are primed for disruption by satellite – especially for consumers who live outside of cities with good cell tower coverage.
Either way, giving 3 billion people access to the entirety of human knowledge is an important cause — one we all can get behind.
What do you think about satellite internet? Would you drop your data plan for a satellite internet package? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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