Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, is looking to launch a massive fleet of micro-satellites into Earths’ low orbit to provide the world with internet and mobile data, according to a recent rumor reported by the WSJ. These satellites will be at least two times lighter than its current counterpart and when deployed in massive numbers will greatly reduce overall satellite cost and, hence, internet and mobile bills. Both Google and Facebook have clearly voiced their intention of providing free internet anywhere in the world as part of their growth strategy, and Musk’s most recent venture might fit in very well with the tech giants’ plans.
Musk expanding his tech reach
According to inside reports, Musk will be partnering with Greg Wyler, founder of O3b Networks Ltd. – a next generation network communications service provider building a medium Earth orbit satellite constellation. Wyler is also a former Google executive, having resigned only two months ago. At Google, Wyler was involved with a department as part of a $1 billion-plus effort to offer Internet access to unwired parts of the globe. Apparently, the satellite industry veteran left Google because the search giant doesn’t have enough manufacturing experience. When he left, however, he also took with him rights to certain radio spectrum that could be used to provide Internet access, according to a person familiar with the matter.
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After talks with industry executives, it seems the Musk-Wyler joint venture intends on launching a whooping 700 satellites, each weighing 250 pounds. The smallest communications satellites now weigh 500 pounds and cost several million dollars each. Considering SpaceX’s experience and in their intention of finally launching a reusable rocket system in the foreseeable future, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to consider a launching cost of only one million for each satellite. In fact, people involved in the matter say that the whole project might end up costing $1 billion and the satellite constellation would be 10 times the size of the largest current fleet, managed by Iridium Communications Inc.
So, when are going to see the first hints of this fleet coming online? First of all, these satellites need to be built in the first place (a client or two would be nice too…), and with this in mind there’s reports that Musk is considering to build a new plant where these could be designed and developed. Recently, Tesla Motors – another Tesla venture – announced that it will be building a new battery plant, the Gigafactory, in Nevada. Apparently, Musk is a man who wants to control his production flux as much as possible, for economic and quality considerations. But will he have the capital to do so? The $2.6 billion NASA awarded SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and fro the International Space Station will definitely come in handy, but certainly not enough. He’s stretching his capital far enough with SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City and god knows what else. No, Musk needs partners. He might find these in Google and Facebook which seem the likeliest fit. The two companies have publicly declared that they are looking to bring satellite internet to every corner of the globe to greatly expand user numbers and, hence, market reach.
At this moment, beyond rumors and speculations, it’s very difficult to tell what’s Wyler’s and Musk’s “angle”. Are they looking to building their own mesh and provide their own services or will this be a joint ventures involving other companies, like Facebook, Google or some other communication giant? Is the venture prepared to take all the risks associated with such a challenging project? Iridium filed for bankruptcy protection nine months after it launched in 1998, after attracting few users willing to pay $3,000 for a phone and up to $7 a minute for calls. Rival Globalstar Inc. sought bankruptcy protection in 2002. Both re-emerged as mobile-data providers.
We’ll certainly find out more in the coming few months after an official announcement from behalf of Musk and colleagues will appear, as reported on Musk’s twitter account.
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