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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”)

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