It sometimes can feel like the Internet is a gift from the heavens. If Elon Musk has his way, that description might be closer to the truth than we have ever dreamed. The brains behind electric
company Tesla and orbital vehicle manufacturer SpaceX has just applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to operate a network of satellites capable of offering Internet service anywhere around the world.
The goal is to build an extensive system of non-geostationary satellites that provide high-speed broadband Internet, at a fraction of the cost of current ISPs, according to SpaceX’s regulatory filing. The company said the network would be capable of reaching both fixed and mobile users anywhere around the globe, even in the most rural locations.
Uploading to the Stars
If the FCC gives SpaceX the go-ahead, the project truly would be monumental in scope. The company said it has plans to manufacture, launch, and operate all the satellites in a network composed of up to 4,000 separate satellites. Musk said he plans to build the satellites at a new plant in Seattle, Wash. If the FCC agrees to his proposition, preliminary tests could begin as soon as 2016, with parts of the system operational by the end of 2020.
The satellite network would be positioned in low-earth orbit, only about 1,100 kilometers high. By locating the satellites in lower orbit, SpaceX would be able to avoid the limitations of geostationary orbit. DirecTV and Dish Networks both provide satellite Internet service using transmitters located at higher altitudes.
However, because satellites located in geostationary orbit remain above the same location relative to the ground, they are only able to serve specific geographical areas. SpaceX’s designs call for multiple satellites to continually pick up and hand off their Internet connections, providing both broader coverage and more redundancy.
Musk is hardly the first to tout ambitious plans to provide worldwide access to the World Wide Web through satellites. Three years ago, a company called LightSquared announced a similar proposal that was given the preliminary go-ahead by the FCC. However, the firm was ultimately shut down due to logistical problems. Facebook also recently cancelled a planned $500 million project to provide satellite Internet service across the globe. Successfully launching a single communication satellite into space remains a technical challenge for any company, to say nothing of increasing that number to four thousand.
But the technology is basically sound. As a matter of fact, SpaceX might find itself competing with a number of other players looking to displace incumbents like Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Virgin Group founder Richard Branson has also started a company called OneWeb that has plans to blanket the world with Internet service.
And SpaceX apparently will not want for financial resources. Both Google and Fidelity Investments recently announced a combined $1 billion equity investment in the company, at least in part to support its satellite Internet initiative.
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