April 15, 2016
Billionaire investor and founder of Paypal, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, Elon Musk, has a bold plan and an exciting vision for the future of the internet, connectivity, and…Mars. Using his commercial space travel business, Musk intends to launch upwards of 4,000 satellites into space to provide internet for the entire planet.
No matter where you are, what you’re doing, or what smart device you have, there will be a connection to the internet waiting for you if Musk succeeds.
Goals of the SpaceX Project
Elon Musk and SpaceX have outlined two clear goals for his project, and their second objective is not what you would expect.
- Provide the world with affordable internet connection.
As it stands, there are approximately three billion people on the planet without access to reliable internet. Musk’s project would change that. Though it would not be free, Musk replied that the internet connection would be “unfettered certainly and at very low cost.”
- Use the revenue to fund a city on Mars.
Providing the world with affordable internet has the potential for immense revenue streams, and Musk wants to use this money to fund a future endeavor to construct and populate a colony on Mars. Then, using his satellite system around Earth, establish internet connection between the two planets.
Succeeding Where Others Have Failed
Musk’s plan is a lot of things—ambitious, grand, difficult, expensive, important—but it is not original. Several attempts have been made to effectively do the same thing, and there are already numerous satellites in orbit today who relay information around the globe.
What makes Musk and SpaceX different?
- Lower Satellite Orbit: While we already use satellites for internet connectivity, they will differ greatly from Musk’s proposed technology. Current satellites orbit as high as 22,000 miles from the surface, but this can create a lag and high latency levels as the information needs to traverse such vast distances. In order to compete with the performance of fibre cables, Musk’s satellites would orbit at an altitude of 750 miles, a much more manageable height.
- Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg: In the 90s, Bill Gates, along with a cellular service entrepreneur, and a Saudi Prince, funded a company named Teledesic to design and launch an 840-satellite system around the globe. Ultimately, the project was suspended in 2003 after too many setbacks. In addition, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has also expressed interest in pursuing the idea with his non-profit Internet.org. However, this too has been suspended due to cost projections. Musk claims that the technology he is developing is far more sophisticated and far less expensive to construct than Teledesic or even less than contemporary competitors. He has been quoted as saying the project could cost upwards of $10 Billion.
The Modern Space Race
While the space race during the Cold War was a rush to leave the planet, Musk has competition today in his effort to connect the planet. Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb and backed by the Virgin Group, has plans to effectively pursue the same idea—low orbiting satellites to create a network to sell to countries lacking internet connectivity. The problem for Musk is that Wyler has the rights to build this network, and Musk does not. According to Virgin Groups founder, Sir Richard Branson, that alone is going to be a big challenge for Musk.
“Greg has the rights, and there isn’t space for another network—like there physically is not enough space. If Elon wants to get into this area, the logical thing for him would be to tie up with us, and if I were a betting man, I would say the chances of us working together rather than separately would be much higher.”
— Sir Richard Branson
Founder, Virgin Group
Projections and Current Progress
Musk conservatively projects at least five years of development before his network can be created, and last summer he filed paperwork to begin test launching eight of his prototypes into space. That all sounds encouraging, but more recent quotes from the SpaceX team and Musk are less so.
President of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell, said the project is “very speculative,” and there is “not a lot of effort going into” the plan. Musk himself described the project as proceeding with caution.
What does that all mean? It’s tough to say. With at least a five year development roadmap, it’s probably not yet time to be overjoyed with excitement. There are still a lot of hurdles to jump, but it is encouraging to have multiple organizations working towards this goal. Between Musk and Wyler, hopefully one will find success in this area.
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