Space exploration company SpaceX has applied to the US Federal Communications Commission for permission to create a telecommunications network in the sky.
The ambitious plan would include launching 4,425 satellites into non-geostationary orbit approximately 700 miles above Earth’s surface.
The SpaceX satellite network would provide internet speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second, per user. Each satellite would cover an area of around 1,300 miles and the entire project would cost $10 billion.
SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk says the network would be faster than internet providers on the ground.
As the Washington Post reports, SpaceX says in its technical explanation: “The system is designed to provide a wide range of broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide.
“Once fully deployed, the SpaceX System will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service.”
Satellite telecommunications have existed for some time, of course, but this is the first time such an extensive network will be launched by one single company.
One of the other well-known satellite internet providers is O3b, which refers to the “other 3 billion” people in the world who still do not have internet access because they live in less urbanised, more remote parts of the world.
O3b, which counts Google and Liberty Media among its investors, has 12 satellites in space, covering most of Earth’s surface – from about the Tropic of Cancer in the north to Tropic of Capricorn in the south.
However, O3b is not actually the largest satellite communications network operators.
According statistics on the world’s largest “fixed service satellite” operators include such companies as Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat, which have the largest numbers of satellites in orbit. Here is a list which includes some others, along with the number of satellites they had in orbit in 2014.
- Intelsat – 59
- SES – 52
- Eutelsat – 37
- Telesat Canada – 13
- Russian Satellite Communications – 11
- Indian Space Research Organisation / Antrix – 11
- Sky Perfect JSAT Group – 8
- EchoStar – 8
- Star One – 7
- Arabsat – 6
- SingTel / Optus – 5
- Hispasat – 3
If satellites can truly offer faster connections speeds, they would have obvious appeal to all sorts of companies from the communications and media industries, as well as the tech industry in general.
So it’s not surprising that one of the world’s largest chipmakers, Qualcomm, has become a leading investor in startup company OneWeb, which claims to be building the world’s largest satellite network – and says it is capable of building 15 satellites a week.
Another investor in OneWeb Satellites is Airbus, which has advanced manufacturing systems that could reduce the cost of making each satellite down to $500,000 or less.
The investment from Qualcomm – and from other companies including UK media and communications company Virgin – has resulted in OneWeb now preparing to launch almost 900 satellites into orbit next year. Most of these spacecraft are considered “micro-satellites”.
At the same time as making progress on the manufacturing side, OneWeb is setting up a business-to-business broadband sales unit.
Like SpaceX, OneWeb has applied for a telecommunications licence from the FCC, and will be going round the world applying for other licences in other countries.
The ultimate goal is to provide broadband access to isolated rural communities, says OneWeb.
“But we’re going to start by serving small and medium-size enterprises in the underserved markets because that’s the way you build up cash flow and revenue,” OneWeb CEO Matt O’Connell tells SpaceNews.
“Then at the same time you work to bring the terminal cost down so you can roll it out and serve the truly unserved. So we focus on a business-to-business strategy.
“A lot of the heavy lifting on the regulatory side will be done by our partners, and by the partners of those partners. That’s the way business-to-business works, and it will make it easier to roll out business faster.”