Future Tech

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

Mihir Patkar 24-01-2015

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 Elon Musk is Building A Fleet of Satellites to Bring Broadband to the Masses Between revolutionizing the car industry and pushing human space exploration with SpaceX, Elon Musk seems to be everywhere. Now, Mr. Musk has a new project: bringing cheap, uncensored Internet access to the world at large. Read More . 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 10 Inspirational Entrepreneurs To Follow On Twitter The Internet has peeled away much of the mystery. The personal magic of today’s business leaders remains, but we can easily unravel the strategies and business ideas that make them prosper. In fact, they are... Read More 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?


Yes, but today’s satellite Internet is expensive and high latency. In simple terms, latency is the true speed of your network What Is a Ping? Is Zero Ping Possible? The Basics of Ping, Explained Trying to improve internet speed for online gaming? The best gaming performance requires zero ping. Here's how to get that. Read More  — 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.’


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 How Satellite Internet Works? [Technology Explained] Read More .

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?



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



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?


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

Related topics: Internet, Satellite.

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  1. Neil Lizotte
    January 7, 2017 at 6:42 am

    I have faith in Elon Musk, but I like competition too

  2. Wayne Caswell
    December 30, 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Could Elon Musk become a modern Cosimo de' Medici, the 15th Century Banker to the Pope?

    POSSIBLE IMPACTS of his Internet satellite network ambitions:
    * Democratization of Education to emerging nations through distance learning
    * Improved global health & wellness through telehealth, leading to dramatic increases in average lifespan, as well as over-population issues that might encourage some sort of genocide
    * Lower wages in developed countries as work is outsourced to populations with the cheapest workers, or automated by technology
    * Control of public opinion and "fake news" through deep packet inspection and filtering
    * Manipulation & control of world financial systems as they move online with systems like BitCoin
    * Control of global politics, favoring friendly politicians and nations
    * Spark a world war if China, Russia or others view this as a threat and begin destroying each new satellite as they go online

    It's one thing for such power to be in the hands of a government that is supposed to serve public interests but still might be manipulated by politicians and special interests. It's quite another for such power to be in the hands of a single individual, or a corporation that is legally bound to serve shareholder investment interests rather than public interests.

    Even as a retired IBM technologist and futurist with a historically optimistic view of the future, I worry about the potential negatives of the widening wealth gap and concentration of power as the pace of tech innovation accelerates exponentially and continually, and as capital adds more value than labor.

  3. Sanket Shende
    March 19, 2015 at 4:15 pm

    It will be great to see if internet could be provide at speed of thousands of Terabites per second by wireless networks because light travvells 50% faster through vaccum than in fibers

  4. Bobo
    January 26, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    O3B is more bullshit...
    multi hundred thousand dollar ground stations...unaffordable...
    whoops - they didn't seem to think of that...

    methinks that most of these big names don't understand the satellite business at all....

    someone will succeed but it will be much different as to what is proposed...

    • Mihir Patkar
      January 27, 2015 at 5:38 am

      Yeah, I'm not entirely convinced of this plan either, Bobo. It sounds good, but I dunno, there's something off about it, just like when you first heard of tablets. It made sense even back then, but the final avatar of how the technology actually took off was very different from what we were reading in Wired in the late 90s.

  5. Telecode
    January 26, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    None of these bullshit surpasses Ob3 networks - the future of Internet

    • Mihir Patkar
      January 27, 2015 at 5:36 am

      You mean O3B? Well, Greg Wyler founded O3B and decided to ditch that to launch this, so I'm not sure calling it "bullshit" is logical :D

  6. A41202813GMAIL
    January 25, 2015 at 9:06 pm



    • Mihir Patkar
      January 27, 2015 at 5:35 am


    • A41202813GMAIL
      January 28, 2015 at 12:53 pm

      @Mihir Patkar

      Thank You For Responding.