Skip to Content

SpaceX’s Plan to Provide Internet from Orbit Edges Closer to Launch

Using over 4,000 satellites to blanket the world in wireless broadband would be expensive compared to other approaches.
November 17, 2016

Elon Musk’s plan to beam Internet connections through the skies via satellites is a step closer to reality—but it faces stiffening competition from other technologies.

Reuters reports that SpaceX has now requested permission from the U.S. government to launch a series of small satellites into orbit that would blanket parts of the world with high-speed wireless broadband. According to the filing, the scheme would ultimately use 4,425  satellites. But SpaceX plans to start by launching 800 to provide coverage across the U.S., including Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

The satellites would each measure 4 by 1.8 by 1.2 meters and weigh around 390 kilograms. Their orbits would sit somewhere between 1,150 and 1,325 kilometers above the surface of the planet.

SpaceX's Dragon capsule is about to get a lot of company.

Musk first announced the idea in early 2015. It’s backed by a number investors, including Google and Fidelity Investments, who have together put $1 billion into the project. In total, though, Musk has estimated that the entire project will cost $10 billion. Despite the huge costs to set up such a program from scratch, it demonstrably works: a startup called Outernet has rented out satellites and shown that it can beam Wikipedia, news, and other Internet content to large swaths of the world.

But SpaceX is not alone in its plans to deliver Internet from above. OneWeb and Boeing are both developing similar satellite systems. Meanwhile Facebook and Google are both pursuing lower-altitude solutions, with their Aquila and Skybender projects, not to mention stratospheric balloons, which have been gathering greater pace recently. None of the systems are up and running yet, though.

The quest for wireless Internet delivered from the sky—be it by satellite, drone, or balloon—is driven in no small part by the need to provide Internet access to poor and remote corners of the world. The resulting solution, then, better be both robust and affordable. But we’ll have to wait and see which one rises to victory.

(Read more: Reuters, The Guardian, “Meet Facebook’s Stratospheric Internet Drone,” “Why the Time Seems Right for a Space-Based Internet Service,” “Startup Beams the Web’s Most Important Content from Space, Free”)

Keep Reading

Most Popular

This startup wants to copy you into an embryo for organ harvesting

With plans to create realistic synthetic embryos, grown in jars, Renewal Bio is on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.

This nanoparticle could be the key to a universal covid vaccine

Ending the covid pandemic might well require a vaccine that protects against any new strains. Researchers may have found a strategy that will work.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.