The billionaire race to beam the internet from space

Samantha Cossick
SC
Samantha Cossick
May 8, 2019

While the U.S. government debates the merits of a Space Force, tech billionaires are imagining a different kind of future for the final frontier, one that connects the world.

In the United States, less than 1% of the population doesn’t have access to internet service at all, according to the FCC. When it comes to broadband speeds (internet of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload), those without access range from 6.5% to 49.8% of the population depending on whose research you rely on.

Globally, though, nearly half the world — a whopping 48.8% of the population — doesn’t have access to any internet whatsoever, and tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk want to change that by beaming internet from space.

But as the space race to change the future of the internet — and potentially the world — heats up, who will come out on top? Here’s a look at the players and projects currently happening.

Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., arrives to an Economic Club of Washington discussion in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018.

Jeff Bezos: Amazon’s Project Kuiper would put 3,000+ satellites in orbit for high-speed internet

Amazon giant Jeff Bezos, who first changed the way we shop for books and then changed the way we shop online completely, is now setting his sights on changing the way we connect to the internet with Project Kuiper.

Named for late astronomer Gerard Kuiper, Amazon describes Project Kuiper on their jobs page as “a long-term initiative to launch a constellation of Low Earth Orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world.”

In a set of three filings with the International Telecommunication Union in March, it was revealed that they plan to launch a total of 3,236 satellites:

  • 784 at an altitude of 367 miles
  • 1,296 at an altitude of 379 miles
  • 1,156 at an altitude of 391 miles

The satellites would orbit Earth and provider coverage in areas ranging from 56 degrees north latitude to 56 degrees south latitude, which covers about 95% of the global population.

When can we expect Project Kuiper?

There’s no expected launch date set at the moment, and, honestly, it will take years to fully realize the project. That being said, Amazon has already hit the ground running and has more than 70 open positions for Project Kuiper at the current moment.

Sir Richard Branson introduces the Chainsmokers during the sold out inaugural KAABOO Cayman Festival at Seven Mile Beach on February 15, 2019 in Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands.

Richard Branson: OneWeb is focused on a constellation of 650 smaller satellites at a lower orbit

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic, and Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank, have partnered together to back OneWeb who’s mission is to “connect people in the most remote areas of the globe, including those on the move — on the road, in the air, or at sea.”

The global communications company is differentiating itself from competitors by focusing on smaller satellites at a lower orbit. Where traditional satellites are the size of a school bus and sit about 20,000+ miles above the Earth, OneWeb’s network of 650 satellites will be the size of a refrigerator and orbit at 750 miles in the atmosphere.

By reducing the size, OneWeb has been able to not only cut production time, but also costs. The company claims they’ll be able to build up to three satellites a day with automation at about $1 million each — much less than the traditional $150 million or more per satellite. Additionally, they secured $1.25 billion in new capital in March, bringing their total funds raised to $3.4 billion.

When can we expect OneWeb’s constellation?

Soon. The company already successfully launched three satellites in late February and has plans to launch more than 30 satellites per rocket on a monthly program. Their goal is to have all 650 satellites in orbit for demos by 2020 and full coverage by 2021.

Elon Musk, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., speaks during an unveiling event for the Tesla Model Y crossover electric vehicle in Hawthorne, California, U.S., on Friday, March 15, 2019.

Elon Musk: SpaceX’s network of 1,500 satellites, Starlink, was just approved by the FCC

On the ground, Elon Musk is probably most well-known for his Tesla vehicles, but with SpaceX, the rocket and spacecraft company he founded in 2002, he’s hoping to become known for space internet.

SpaceX’s plans for a network of internet-beaming satellites, known as Starlink, was recently approved by the Federal Communications Commission. This approval now allows them to launch 1,584 satellites to orbit Earth at 342 miles in the atmosphere.

Originally, Musk and SpaceX had planned to launch more than 4,425 satellites at between 670 and 823 miles above the Earth. After running two prototypes, the company pivoted and decided that fewer satellites at a lower orbit were a better strategy — and easier to deploy — to get started. In the long-term, they hope to send more than 12,000 satellites into space.

When can we expect Starlink?

SpaceX could be sending their first Starlink satellites into orbit as early as this month. The full project will take several years to complete, but Musk has been aggressively pursuing this goal for years now and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Who else is hoping to change internet connectivity?

Tech giants Facebook and Google may not be looking at space, but have both explored internet-beaming options closer to home.

Facebook’s Internet.org initiative has been testing several different methods of connectivity, such as Express Wifi that would let phone owners in India purchase data from local internet providers. Their discontinued Aquila project had hoped to use large solar-powered drones to beam internet service to the ground. Another secret project, codenamed “Catalina,” explored whether or not they could use a fleet of small bird-sized drones to boost smartphone data but that project was canceled last year.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc., created Project Loon in 2013 to launch a network of, yes, balloons, to beam internet down to Earth. The project spent several years in development until last summer when Loon announced that they believe the project has proven itself successful and they would begin turning it into a commercial business.

Why so much competition?

If necessity is the mother of all invention, then clearly there’s a need for a better-connected world and tech billionaires who have already made their mark revolutionizing other industries are hoping to be the ones to fill this need.

The highly competitive nature of people like Bezos, Branson and Musk — who are known as visionaries within their respective fields, but have never necessarily competed against each other — seems to be fueling some of the competition to the point of Twitter taunts even.

In 2018, Musk’s SpaceX became the “first U.S.-based company to be licensed by the FCC to operate a non-geostationary-satellite orbit constellation of more than 11,000 satellites,” according to the Orlando Business Journal.

Branson-backed OneWeb and Kepler Communications, a Canadian satellite startup, both filed petitions with the FCC stating the SpaceX’s request to modify parts of its Starlink license could cause interference; however, the request was thrown out.

While Project Kuiper, OneWeb and Starlink’s lofty goals are altruistic in nature, there are some bragging rights at stake as well. Being the first to truly connect the world be revolutionary.