The latest effort to create word-wide internet access is being championed by Elon Musk of SpaceX. Musk, the CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, recently filed with the FCC to begin testing a network that will grow to around 4,000 small satellites. Every month this column shines a light on the technology of our future- this month’s Fireside Chats is on SpaceX’s Global Satellite internet.
SpaceX’s network of satellites would operate differently than the existing satellites that supply internet and TV to Earth. The existing satellites are large, fly at a high altitude, and are geostationary. This allows a region of the globe to receive satellite internet but the satellites are expensive and have very high latency. SpaceX’s satellites will be small, cheap, fly at a low altitude (to decrease latency) and will be in orbit around the planet. This design will allow satellites to be replaced and deployed much easier.
Musk’s largest competitor is Google’s project Loon. Project Loon has been testing internet deployed with hot air balloons. Although Project Loon hasn’t been cancelled, Google and Fidelity have both invested 1 million dollars to the SpaceX internet project. Other investors including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have worked on separate large scale internet deployments using drones or satellites.
Developing countries and industrialized nations will be able to use the new network. Developing countries will gain access to less latent internet or may have access to internet for the first time. Industrialized nations will benefit by having an alternative to their current ISPs. Musk estimates 10 percent of internet traffic from urban and suburban areas will use his network.
The ultimate goal for SpaceX is to create a Mars colony. The profit from the satellite internet project will provide funding for this goal. “Mars is going to need a global communications system, too,” Musk said at a January event. “A lot of what we do developing Earth-based communications can be leveraged for Mars, as well, as crazy as that may sound.” If successful, this communication infrastructure will allow inexpensive transmission between the two planets. Musk estimates launches beginning in 5 years and a fully operational network in 12 – 15 years.