Space-based Internet starts to get serious

Major space company Airbus says it will be building Internet-delivering satellites

oneweb lead image
Credit: C3 Creative Code and Content

We’ve been hearing about varying forms of space-based Internet for a while. Miscellaneous dot-comers, like Google, and tech celebrities, such as Tesla-automaker Elon Musk are promising to bring Internet to the world via satellites, balloons and what have you.

But now, for the first time, we might actually be hearing of some concrete evidence that the, thus far, vaporware projects are legitimate.

Airbus Defence and Space, who says it’s the world’s second largest space company, has announced that will be building an initial production-run of 900 satellites for one of the space Internet companies, OneWeb.

The satellites will “deliver affordable Internet access globally,” according to the statement.

OneWeb

OneWeb’s low-earth constellation will consist of 150-kilogram micro-satellites, with interlocking footprints to cover “the entire planet,” the company says.

Small user terminals, located on the ground, will communicate with the constellation, and transmit LTE, 3G and Wi-Fi to the surrounding areas, supplying “high-speed access for everyone,” they reckon.

Four satellites will be built per day, starting in Toulouse, France, and moving later to the U.S.

Launches

OneWeb investors include the Virgin Group, who will provide launches, it says, and Qualcomm.

OneWeb founder, Greg Wyler has been involved in O3B, a satellite-based telco backbone. O3B has launched 12 satellites with low-latency link speeds of more than 1 Gbps.

Wyler has said that the new project will cost between $1.5 billion and $2 billion, according to a Reuters article. Launches of the new satellites begin in 2018, Airbus says.

SpaceX

Incumbents like Iridium, Globalstar and Inmarsat aside, OneWeb isn’t the only player in this field.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX is another future-space Internet project. It’s less further-along than OneWeb now, with this new Airbus announcement.

Google and Fidelity have invested $1 billion in SpaceX according to the same Reuters article.

Mars colony

SpaceX’s existing business is launch services. In other words, developing re-usable payload-carrying rockets.

Most recently, in April, 2015, its Falcon 9 rocket carried a satellite for Thales Alenia Space which successfully transmitted a signal back to earth. The rocket was damaged returning, though.

As with OneWeb, SpaceX’s constellation is planned to be low-earth orbit, and will consist of 4,000 small satellites, founder Elon Musk said in a January, 2015 speech carried on YouTube.

Estimated Internet service launch for the first version is 2020. Full capability will be between 2027 and 2030.

We’re “rebuilding the Internet in space,” Musk says in the video. Space X founder Musk has expressed interest in establishing a human colony on Mars.

SpaceX’s market is a bit different to OneWeb’s in that, if ever built, it will be primarily aimed at providing long distance commercial Internet traffic—in part for its proposed colony on Mars.

Lots of birds

And why so many satellites in the two new Internet projects?

Primarily, you need lots of the birds because they’re low orbit—individual satellites can’t see their ground stations at all times.

And also, the more birds you have, the less of a problem it is if a few fail—one incumbent, Globalstar encountered business continuity issues when its limited satellites prematurely degraded, for example.

But also, don’t forget that OneWeb investor Virgin is a space transport provider with its Virgin Galactic business, and SpaceX is a reusable rocket maker. They need payload.

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