15 June 2015

The Washington Post: “SpaceX founder files with government to provide Internet service from space”

Elon Musk’s space company has asked the federal government for permission to begin testing on an ambitious project to beam Internet service from space, a significant step forward for an initiative that could create another major competitor to Comcast, AT&T and other telecom companies.

The plan calls for launching a constellation of 4,000 small and cheap satellites that would beam high-speed Internet signals to all parts of the globe, including its most remote regions. Musk has said the effort would be like rebuilding the Internet in space.

Cecilia Kang and Christian Davenport

Another ambitious project from Elon Musk, this time to introduce satellite Internet across the world. I do admire his vision, but I think he should keep a close advisor with the strength to say No! from time to time. While launching thousands of satellites into low-orbit could be technologically feasible for SpaceX (at some point), I doubt it will make sense economically. The costs are bound to be astronomically high, no matter how cheap SpaceX can produce and launch the satellites, while revenues are uncertain. There are other much larger competitors in the race to expand Internet coverage to the entire globe ( and with their drones and balloons programs should be able to keep costs manageable). And secondly, who will be the customers for this new Internet provider? The developed countries already have fast Internet, so will people from Africa and South America be able to afford the high price tag of Internet access by satellite?

SpaceX Crew Dragon tests
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft undergoing tests

These large constellations are very inefficient, says Roger Rusch, a satellite communications industry analyst. He acknowledges that the small satellites SpaceX and OneWeb hope to use are less expensive today than they were in the 1990s, but says they’re still too costly. They’re cheaper, but you need 4,000 of them, so they need to be 1,000 times cheaper, he says.

Klint Finley

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