Can SpaceX make satellite-based Internet a reality?

Never one to shy away from ambitious projects, SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk has been working on a new project that would use satellites to bring low-cost broadband Internet service to the world for years, but could he actually be close to accomplishing that mission?

According to The Verge, recent filings have revealed that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) representatives have met with SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell twice within the last month: a wireless advisor met with her on February 28, and Chairman Ajit Varadaraj Pai himself discussed regulatory and licensing issues with Shotwell on March 10.

During both conversations, the SpaceX COO discussed a proposal to ease regulations governing commercial space launches and attempted to obtain a license for a proposed satellite network that would span the globe and bring Earth-based Internet into space, the website reported on Friday.

Back in November, SpaceX filed an application with the FCC which indicated that their system would involve the deployment of 4,425 satellites into orbit at distances of between 690 and 825 miles above the planet’s surface, Time revealed back in January. Once completely deployed, the system would cover most of the Earth, providing internet to nearly all corners of the planet.

A risky bet that could end up paying off big time

Based on the November filing, the SpaceX system would ensure that at least one satellite would remain 40 degrees above the horizon at nearly every location on the surface. The Verge reached out to SpaceX for comment, but the company declined to provide any additional information.

According to Time, the company would initially deploy 1,600 probes designed to offer Internet service across the US, with the remainder dedicated to expanding international coverage. It was not clear at the time if SpaceX planned to offer the service directly or if it intended to work with another tech firm such as Google, with whom it has partnered previously.

The plan is certainly ambitious, as Time pointed out. As of January 2017, there were only 4,256 satellites in orbit around the Earth, and only 1,419 of those were functional. Musk’s plan would call for placing three times the number of currently operational probes in orbit around the planet – a project he believes will take at least five years and a $10 billion investment to pull off.

Other firms have tried and failed to use satellite networks to deliver data services to the surface, The Verge said. In the 1990s, a project backed by Motorola went bankrupt just nine months after launching and was eventually bought out by investors in 2000, and a Qualcomm-led competitor met a similar fate.

But, as the website noted, the times are changing and “the dream of a globe-spanning satellite network looks like an increasingly feasible reality – particularly with 5G technologies just a few years away, promising new devices and new demand for data.” The risk of building a network like this would be “substantial” for a company like Space X, they said, but the payoff could be colossal. “If the resulting winner becomes an integral part of the cellular network, it’s easy to envision making that money back – but it’s just as easy to imagine the whole thing spiraling into bankruptcy before reaching the finish line.”


Image credit: SpaceX