Later last year, ZME Science revealed that one of Elon Musk’s top priorities in the future is deploying a massive fleet of micro-satellites into Earth’s low orbit to provide internet and mobile data. The plan is to serve internet to billions in the developing world, but to do so the service needs to be very, very cheap. At the same time, while launching thousands of satellites into space doesn’t sound particularly cheap, but if there’s any company good at launching cargo into space affordably that’s SpaceX. This isn’t exactly a pipe dream, and Musk seems very serious about it considering he just filled an official request to the FCC to gain permission for a test of the satellite internet, according to the Washington Post.
If you live in a well connected city, you won’t need satellite internet. After all, right now it’s at least 10 times slower than fiber optic since there are quite a few lengthy connections that need to be made. When you’re on satellite internet and want to access a website, the request first goes out of the computer to the modem, out to the dish which transmits the data to the satellite. The signal is then bounced back from about 22,000 miles up (where the geosynchronous satellites orbit) to ground-based stations called gateways. The gateways have large antennas which they use to pick up the signal from the consumer’s home, what website they want to go to, and using the terrestrial system connect with the Internet, grab the data, take it back to the gateway, shoot it back up to the sky and back down to the consumer’s home. Sounds very complicated (it’s a lot more in practice), but the whole process still only lasts 500ms or half a second. This is still quite a lot if you play video games or need lag-free voice data, but still better than nothing if you live in the middle of nowhere or there’s no fiber optic infrastructure, like in most developing countries.
What Elon Musk’s wants to do with his internet venture is a bit different. For one, he intends on launching no less than 4,000 micro-satellites, comprising a networked information blanket above the Earth. This is where the real catch comes in, though: the satellites will stay at an altitude of 650 kilometers, or 150 km closer to Earth than any other com-sat. First, the company wants to run a test with two identical microsats, launched on SpaceX’s flagship Falcon 9 rocket. Once in low-orbit, the satellites will open their broadband antennas and send signals over the high-frequency Ku-satellite spectrum to reach three ground stations on the west coast of the US—SpaceX operations in Los Angeles and Redmond, Washington, and at Tesla Motors (Musk’s other company) in Fremont, California. The FCC approval is required so that the government may verify that the communication link won’t interfere with other broadcasts. It take up to six weeks for the licence to get approved.
SpaceX isn’t alone, though. Right on their heels is OneWeb, founded by Musk’s friend Greg Wyler who has extensive experience in telecommunication and satellite internet. He was initially enlisted by Google for their own version of a satellite internet service, but they eventually parted ways. His new company is now backed up by Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Group) and wants to deploy 700 satellites of its own in a similar fashion as SpaceX, only at 1,200 km above Earth. They will also have their own spectrum rights.
“The ITU manages all spectrum for space. When you’re in space, all space-related spectrum is managed by the ITU, and terrestrial spectrum by nations. In 1997, the ITU created a right for the use of certain spectrum, Ku and Ka, provided that with mathematical certainty, it would not interfere with current GEO satellite users.
OneWeb acquired the spectrum rights, designed its own technique to unlock that spectrum so it could be used for this purpose. In general, it’s called Progressive Pitch, and it’s a patent-pending methodology for maximizing throughput while ensuring no interference with the GEO operators. That technology allows us to unlock a very large amount of spectrum,” said Wyler in an interview with Fierce Wireless.
Some rumors allege that OneWeb and SpaceX will actually partner, which sort of makes sense considering the costs. Speaking of which, this is one of the riskiest business out there (anything that involves launching things in space is inherently risky, granted). For instance, in the 1990s a company called Teledesic, funded by Bill Gates, early cellular service entrepreneur Craig McCaw, and Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal, claimed it would launch 840 com-sats to serve billions with internet. It flipped soon after it was found that this kind of venture was non-profitable. Also, Mark Zuckerberg also had similar ideas. He founded a non-profit organization called Internet.org which would serve internet through satellites. But the idea has already been shelved, due to the huge costs involved. For SpaceX, these seem to be at least $1 billion. Granted, technology has drastically improved since Teledesic’s day, but if a global, cheap, anywhere-available satellite internet will ever come online, it’ll take a great deal of effort and energy.